We could learn a lot from Finnish schools

August 22nd, 2013 by Lynn

    In a package full of life’s little necessities, every Finnish newborn receives a precious gift –– a set of three books, courtesy of the government.

    There’s a book for Baby, one for Mom and one for Dad, according to a research paper by Dr. Leo Sandy, a professor of counselor education and school psychology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. The three books symbolize Finland’s commitment to lifelong learning.

    Sandy studied the Finnish educational system, which many experts tout as the best in the world, for a paper titled “Education in Finland,” published in the New Hampshire Journal of Learning in April 2007. He was way ahead of the American mainstream media, which have only recently begun dissecting the tiny Baltic nation of 5 million, trying to discern its mind-numbing ability to outpace even traditional academic powerhouses like Japan and Germany on international standardized tests, even though Finland gives no such tests of its own.

    To my mind, the conversation about Finland’s education system couldn’t come at a better time. Through the new Common Core State Standards, the U.S. is pushing further into uncharted educational territory, where standardized tests rule and teachers, long derided by the public, become pawns of the state, charged with producing seemingly unattainable results with too few resources.

    What we need is a full-fledged discussion about what constitutes a proper education. Finland is an excellent place to start.

    This year, we watched in horror as children’s scores on New York’s grades-three-to-eight English Language Arts and mathematics exams plummeted. The tests were the first to measure kids’ abilities against the Common Core, a nationwide curriculum aimed at raising standards that many states adopted in 2010. Across New York, roughly 30 percent of students passed the new exams, which state Education Commissioner John King said are early measures of their readiness for college and careers.

    The Common Core makes you wonder about the millions of children who came before today’s students. Were none of us ready for life after high school?

    Anyway . . . the Finns do not believe their education system can be readily adopted by other nations because their schools are woven into the fabric of Finnish culture. Finns are decidedly egalitarian, particularly in providing for children, according to Sandy’s paper. That’s why the Finnish government provides every child with day care and pre-school when they’re young, meals at school and a college education for those who qualify. Finnish children eat well and wear nice clothes (to me, they all look like they belong in an L.L. Bean ad), and their parents needn’t worry about paying for college.

    “There is a near absence of poverty” in Finland, Julie Walker, a board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, said in a recent Scholastic Administrator magazine article on Finnish schools. “Finland is #1!”

    According to the United Nations, Finland is among the most “equal” countries on the planet. The U.S. and Great Britain, by contrast, are the least. In the U.S., wealthy children attend elite private schools, which are entry points to elite private colleges and universities. Finland, on the other hand, has no private schools, according to “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,” published in The Atlantic in December 2011.

    Scholastic Administrator cited two other key reasons that Finns succeed on international standardized tests. One, third-language acquisition is a cornerstone of Finnish education. Yes, third language. In Finland, all children must learn Finnish and Swedish –– plus English, French or German.

    Contrast that policy with the U.S.’s approach to second-language acquisition. Besides art and music, what’s the first program to go in a budget crunch? Foreign language.

    Acquisition of a second or third language, however, helps wire young brains in profound and marvelous ways. It gets children thinking differently and requires rigorous discipline and attention to detail –– all of which helps them become academicians.

    Finally, according to Scholastic Administrator, Finnish teachers are trusted to develop their own final exams each year to measure students’ success. The only time children take a standardized test is when they finish high school –– so they can be measured against international standards, which, as noted, they rock.

    Oddly, the Finnish educational system sounds much like the American system of the 1950s and ’60s, when middle-class families had greater purchasing power than today and the U.S. education system was counted among the best in the world. Back then, American schools, many of which were built shortly after World War II, were shiny and new. The federal government, worried about Soviet expansionism, poured money into science, math and foreign language studies. There were few standardized tests. And the public revered teachers.

    The Finnish educational system was nothing special in those days. Roughly 40 years ago, the country, recognizing that it was small and relatively powerless against the nearby Soviet Union, decided it had to put whatever resources it had into its last hope –– education.

    Perhaps the time has come to rethink our standardized approach to school and head back to where we came from.

    Scott Brinton is senior editor of the Bellmore and Merrick Heralds and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Graduate Journalism Program. Comments? SBrinton@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203. Brinton’s profile and posts can be found at facebook.com/scottabrinton.

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