A surprising powerhouse
In 2012 while working with Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) Center of Excellence in Astana, Kazakhstan, as an educational consultant, I started to do reports and work on research, specifically, “Best Practices” methodologies. NIS wanted Kazakhstan to become a leader in education in Asia and the world. My colleagues and I started to look at educational powerhouses. Singapore, Korea, Japan, and China surfaced as top education countries. Moreover, to my surprise, so did Finland. As I reviewed the research, I started to ask questions and could not fathom Finland, a country of roughly 5.3 million, surpassing the depth and breadth of the United States with 318 million people. I just did not believe the education systems in Finland and the United States were comparable, and here’s what I found.
To begin with, Finnish teacher training programs only take the top 10 percent of applicants, are lengthier, and are more stringent with Finnish teachers required to have a master’s degree (Shumer, 2014). In the United States, anyone with a bachelor’s degree who has a desire to become a teacher can apply to a program, and can be a candidate for a teacher education program.
According to Sanchez (2015), Finnish children, no matter the economic level, are provided with access to high-quality free preschool. I attended a Head Start program before I started kindergarten. I remember finger-painting, reading circle, the playground (sand box), and our daily snack of graham crackers and milk being pulled in a wagon to the classroom.
This Head Start location shared a room adjacent to a local elementary school in my neighborhood. I feel that because of President Johnson and his “War on Poverty” legislation that I was afforded a great start to my educational experience. I still have faith in this program today, but fully understand that in some parts of the country, these programs may be underfunded and underserved. There are definite issues and inequalities with how we fund education in America compared to what the Finns are able to provide in their small country.
Shumer (2014) also points out that Finland is more homogeneous, with only three main languages spoken, while the United States has a more diverse population. Forty percent of the population in the United States is other than white, and there are over 300 languages spoken with an estimated 17 million people speaking another language in the home besides English. In the largest public school district in Fresno County, according to a survey by Cedar Lake Ventures, Inc., there are 58 identifiable languages spoken at home.
Furthermore, the research points out significant differences between Finland and the United States in the percentage of child poverty in each nation. According to Shumer (2014), Finland has 4 percent compared to 21 percent in the United States. So in the case of Finland versus the United States, it is not a comparison of apples and apples, but apples and oranges. This being said, I know American educators have what it takes to create one of the best educational systems in the world. Americans are sensible, creative, passionate, and persistent. It can be done.
As a way of encouraging American educators, Shumer (2014) makes one last observation that is insightful. The results from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) pointed to the fact, “…that when only U.S. schools with poverty rates of 10 percent or less were counted, U.S. scores were the best in the world. It’s time to perhaps acknowledge these facts and stop suggesting that U.S. schools and educational training programs are not doing well” (Shumer, 2014).
The last thing that research points out is that Finns are free of high stakes standardized testing. According to Faridi, “Finnish schools believe more test preparation means less time for free thinking and inquiry. Accountability is measured at the classroom level by expert teachers.” As a child in school I can remember a few tests we were given throughout the years usually in grade 3, grade 8, and grade 10. However, when I became a teacher, about six years into my career the high standards test game began. Some districts in my region even developed benchmark tests that took place for students every six to 10 weeks during the year along with the standardized tests that were given. Anxiety levels for students and teachers began to rise during this era, and some of the backlash has been aimed at the Common Core State Standards as full implementation is just a few short years away.
Quality in our hands
As Americans we know what needs to be done. The purpose and vision is clear, it is just that, with extreme economic and social diversity, and limited resources devoted to public education, there will always be challenges. Remember that we live in the United States, the land of opportunity and possibility. We are not like Finland, but we can accomplish great things right where we are. Finally, many educators are familiar with district comparisons when it comes to population, economics, and diversity. To see how you match up to other districts of similar demographics, the research does suggest it would be more realistic to compare ourselves with countries of similar size and diversity. What can we do to further improve education in our neighborhoods/cities? Here is a short list of things we can all consider in order to be part of the solution.
- Support Teacher Education Programs at your local universities through mentoring programs for younger teachers; become a Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) provider at your school.
- Support the Head Start programs in your neighborhood/city; find out how you can help.
- Support your school; get involved in the machinery of change, and do not become complacent and apathetic.
- Support your child’s teacher and schools; get involved in the PTA and other parent groups that help the school in the community.
At DataWORKS we provide materials and research to assist schools in providing quality education to all students. Take a few minutes and listen to what USC’s Dr. Richard Clark says about explicit instruction which DataWORKS promotes.
Cedar Lake Ventures, Inc., “Languages in Fresno Unified School District”, updates 22 April 2015, statisticalatlas.com/school-district/California/Fresno-Unified-School-District/Languages
Farindi, Sophia, “Happy Teaching, Happy Learning: 13 Secrets to Findland’s Success”, Education Week – Teacher, 24 June 2014, www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/06/24/ctq_faridi_finland.html
Sanchez, Claudio, “What The U.S. Can Learn From Finland, Where School Starts At Age 7”, NPR updated 9 March 2014, www.npr.org/2014/03/08/287255411/what-the-u-s-can-learn-from-finland-where-school-starts-at-age-7
Shumer, Robert, “Finland not an apt educational model for U.S. schools”, Star Tribune, 11 July 2014, www.startribune.com/finland-not-apt–educational-model-for-u-s-schools/266823501/