Moving America Forward

Why the U.S. Should Adopt the “Finnish Way” of Education

March 16, 2014
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Why the U.S. Should Adopt the “Finnish Way” of Education
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A cohesive preschool program could go a long way in improving academic achievement.

In life, quality almost always trumps quantity. (Just think: You’d probably rather have one bite of Green and Black’s chocolate instead of an entire Hershey’s bar.) And interestingly, the same appears to hold true in education.

Some of the smartest students in the world don’t start school until they’re 7 years old — a full year later (or more) than we do here in the United States. This is the “Finnish Way” of education, and the American school system could learn a lot from it.

Recently Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, visited Washington, D.C. to talk to U.S. education officials about how to bring some of this coveted “Finnish Way” here to America. Despite the country’s small size — it’s roughly the size of Minnesota — and the fact that students start school later, Finnish students greatly outperform Americans in math, reading and science. In fact, Finland’s students are some of the smartest in the world, outperforming all but a few countries. Kiuru owes most of this to a high-quality, universal and free preschool system — something that U.S. President Barack Obama has pushed for but seems unlikely to catch on, due to resistance from legislators and lobbyists.

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In Finland, every child has a legal right to childcare and preschool, regardless of income. Because of this, more than 97 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds attend some variety of preschool program, which makes them better prepared to start school when they’re 7 years old. “First of all, it’s about having high-quality teachers,” Kiuru told NPR about the preschool program. “Day care teachers are having Bachelor degrees. So we trust our teachers, and that’s very, very important. And the third factor: we have strong values in the political level.” That’s something we’re not finding here in America.

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, visited Finland and other countries with top-performing students — Singapore, South Korea and Japan, to name a few — to determine what these countries do right in terms of education. Finland’s preschool and childcare programs, both of which meet the country’s stringent National Curriculum Guidelines, stood out to her in terms of their approach and effectiveness. “Kids are almost all in some kind of day care, all of whom are working in the same curriculum that’s aligned with what they’re going to learn in school,” Ripley told NPR. “That’s a level of coherence that most U.S. kids will never experience because we don’t have a coherent system with highly trained people in almost every classroom.”

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Why don’t we have a coherent system? First, we can’t seem to agree on one. There’s no national consensus about what such a program would look like here in the U.S. Second, we don’t invest in early childhood education. (In Finland, the taxes are much higher to provide free preschool and day care.) And lastly, our child poverty rate — which is five times higher than Finland’s — is holding us back. “It’s very clear from the research in the U.S. that our problems with inequality [and] school failure are set when children walk in the school door,” Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, told NPR, noting that in the U.S., 60 percent of 4-year-olds from low-income families don’t attend preschool.

“If you invest in early childhood education, in preschool and day care, that will lead [to] better results,” Kiuru says. Sounds like common sense. So why can’t the U.S. adopt at least some of the “Finnish Way” and make it “American Way”?

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