Critical ThinkingEducationGovernmentPrimary Education

OMG Finland!

You’ve been there. Either as a sibling, parent of siblings, or teacher of siblings, you’ve been part of the very different experience a younger sibling has going through school. Inevitably, at some point, maybe at every point, the younger is compared to the older: Why can’t you be more like your older sister? The US education system has a sibling: Finland, and we’re not the favorite.
Finland, why do we care? If you haven’t heard before, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez is here to remind us

“Finland … beats the U.S. in math, reading and science….”

And now it’s even more impressive because

“Finnish children don’t start school until Age 7.”(!)

C’mon America, why can’t you be more like Finland? The logical follow-up question is “What is Finland doing right?” We ask this, hoping the answer can be a prescription for the lethargic US education system.
The three main conclusions from the article are:

  1. Finland has strong political values on early childhood education.  Evidence: By law, Finnish children have a right to child care and preschool from ages 3 – 6, and 97% of children are enrolled in a program.
  2.  Early Childhood Education is taught by highly qualified personnel.  Evidence:  Day Care teachers have a Bachelor’s Degree.
  3. There are national standards for what preschoolers should be able to do, which are vertically aligned with what children will learn when they enter school at Age 7.

At first review, 1 and 3 seem reasonable and worth exploring, but 2 is dubious.

By contrast, in the US, there are no vertically aligned national standards for early childhood education, and pre-school is not a right and is not paid for by taxes. So, let’s just be more like Finland, right?! Well…

The premise is broken from the start. Prescriptively applying what Finland does to the US system is problematic, and the reasons why are even mentioned in the original article.

First is the problem of scale.  As the article states, Finland is about the size of Minnesota. So, having “national” standards in Finland is not really analogous to having “national” standards in the US; it’s more like having state standards in Minnesota (which they already do).

Second, is the economy gap. The article quotes the US child poverty level at “almost 25 percent — five times more than in Finland.” So, providing child care and preschool for those who cannot afford it in Finland is a much smaller burden on Finland’s economy than it would be in the states. So, just fix the US economy and income inequality, that should be easy, right?

Conclusion

I agree with the “Finnish way” as described by Finland’s Minister of Education and Science:

“If you invest in early childhood education, in preschool and day care, that will lead [to] better results.”

Her ideas are even backed by evidence here in the US. That’s great for Finland, but it is naive to think that we can simply do things here in the US like they do in Finland, just like it’s naive to ask a younger sibling to be their older sibling.

The US is much larger and political inertia is much greater. There has been an attempt to create vertically aligned national standards in the common core implementation; see how well that’s going. And universal preschool seems a political nonstarter. In Oklahoma they had to sneak it past the state legislature. I think what Finland has going for it is not standards, or preschool, or highly qualified the teachers, it’s political will and dexterity.

Now, how to find that here…

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keith

keith

Keith is a high school Chemistry and Biology teacher for an urban public school district in an area of the country where pants are called “britches.” Though he has a degree in Percussion Performance, he teaches science because he thinks that a well honed skeptical toolbox is necessary for a more informed citizenry and a more just and prosperous society. When he’s not in the classroom, he spends all his time with his wife and two children, attempting to become the first person in the world to be both a perfect husband and father.

2 Comments

  1. April 3, 2014 at 9:36 am —

    I have heard (but can’t remember where) that when you compare Finland to demographically similar sub-populations in the US that the US kids actually do better by most metrics.

    Mo’ people, mo’ problems is definitely part of the difference, although I’m not really sure that, say, splitting up America into smaller and nimbler political units (which is basically what the “states’ rights”-type people want) would result in significant gains across the board. For every resulting Finland I get the sense that there would also be a Jesusstan using the Bible as a science textbook…

  2. April 3, 2014 at 10:34 am —

    Certainly Income Inequality correlates highly with academic performance gaps. And I agree that splitting up the subgroups will just widen that gap.
    There has to be a balance between central control and local control. For instance, how much autonomy should a state have within the national DoE or a district within a state, or a school within a district, or a teacher within a school?

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