What American parents can learn from Finnish educators

by Jessie K on February 19, 2013

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Now that June is in Montessori, I’ve been thinking a lot about her education, and about primary education in general. I realize she’s only 2, but apart from love, security and the occasional M&M (;-)), her education is the most important gift I can give her.

I came across this fascinating book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? It’s written by Pasi Salhberg, director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki and general rock star in the education world. He was recently awarded $100,000 for his work in education reform and for explaining why Finland consistently produces the top performing students in the world (followed closely by South Korea). The United States lags behind in 17th place, according to the latest global education ranking of student academic performance.

So how does Finland do it?

Continue reading here.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Carrie C. In VA February 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm

So I am curious what you will do with this info? My kids are 2.5 and 1.5 and the more I read about education in US public schools and pressure here from standardized tests and heave homework loads, the more I want to plan to homeschool them. (Tried to leave this comment on Babble but couldn’t)

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Jessie K February 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I’ve heard wonderful things about homeschool and a few horror stories as well. It all comes down to parental involvement and passion…taking an active role in a child’s learning. As for how I might apply this information into my own parenting/educational choices for June, I’m still not sure, but it is nice to see my assumptions about the pointlessness of heavy homework for a fourth grader validated.

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Carrie C. In VA February 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Less homework… More recess!

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Brad K. February 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

Um, less homework — more chores, more time working *with* the parents, under compassionate discipline and structure, more time interacting with nature — learning to learn from what you see, learning your parent’s culture and respecting their, and your own, role in family, community, and nature.

Less recess, more naps. Sleep, not recess, is critical to incorporating the information we take in, into “long term” storage for use later.

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Molly O February 19, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Sahlberg was recently on the UW campus giving a talk. I didn’t make it but wish I had! I read a few articles about his research in the news though. It’s fascinating and a little discouraging! I could be wrong, but I thought I remembered reading that teachers in Finnland don’t actually get paid very well – it’s just a well-respected and highly sought-after career.

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Jessie K February 19, 2013 at 3:23 pm

You might be right (though would it be as competitive?).

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Martha February 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm

My sister has taught in several schools overseas (currently Singapore). After several months in her first school in Germany, she said that she will never be able to teach in the US again. She enjoyed being able to structure her class in the way that she wanted and what was best for her students. Recently, she and I discussed homework since my 4th grader was coming home with 2 hours of homework – Way too much!!! She told me that the policy in her new school is no homework. Kids need to be outside and doing other activities. I wish we were more like that here. When is summer vacation???? I (and my daughter) am ready for a break from all the work and stress of school. I feel for my sweet little 4th grader trying to keep up. We just keep plugging away the best we can. It is simply too much pressure on these kids.

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Ellen February 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Hey Jessie,
Just the other day my friend who is involved in education reform posted this and I found it really interesting. Not sure what your thoughts might be but it’s worth a watch if you have a minute. It gave me a lot to think about in regards to eduction in our current society. (I hope you don’t mind me putting a youtube link in my comment)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY

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Jessica February 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm

When I started to read all of the Finnish education information, I was really inspired. As an educator (I teach first grade), I watched a documentary that either accompanies or parallels Finnish Lessons, and was so jealous of the way educators are viewed in Finland, and so eager to apply their “formula” to education.

And here’s why that wouldn’t work, and why it doesn’t necessarily need to: you’ve already mentioned that Finland doesn’t have nearly the racial or socio-economic diversity that we do in the US. And the PISA test, which is the test by which places like Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong are deemed to be educationally superior to the US, isn’t given to the same number of kiddos in each country. Here in the US, kids who are in Special Education programs, for example, take it, where that’s not true in other places. And we are also comparing the US to places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which aren’t even countries!

The truth is, when you control for poverty (meaning you remove the scores of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches), our PISA scores in the US rival those of both Finland and Hong Kong. The real issue in American schools, the issue that no one wants to talk about, is poverty. Poverty is the greatest influence in a student’s academic life, period. But no one in the government wants to touch that topic with a ten foot pole, if you notice.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that standardized tests are the devil and that we are teaching in kindergarten what used to be second-grade curriculum, but the issue that will continue to most negatively affect American education will be poverty, and it is a problem I’ve yet to hear any ed policy-maker address.

(Sorry for the rant.)

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Carrie C. In VA February 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm

This is interesting… Thx for the viewpoint!

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Jessie K February 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

So true. In a winner take all society like ours, there are going to be losers and the biggest losers are always children. There was an amazing charity event last month in town called The Souper Bowl of Caring in which area restaurants offered soup samples to the paying public. All the proceeds went to pay for food to send home with hungry schoolchildren in our community who aren’t getting enough to eat on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s such a great cause but it’s so disheartening to realize that level of deprivation and poverty is all around us. Thanks for your comment (and it wasn’t a rant!). http://www.souperbowl.org

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grace February 19, 2013 at 8:51 pm

um, Singapore most certainly is a country. And an island. And a city. And although it’s famed for being strict and fairly rich, I experienced some of the most diversity I have ever seen while working there. Poverty is most certainly there too. I agree, however, that poverty is a key factor here. But unless we seriously believe that rich or poor, everyone has the same opportunity (I don’t for a minute, although I perceive that some actually say they do), then isn’t educational reform just the thing to help with that? Just one of many things, yes, but somewhere to start.

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sarina February 20, 2013 at 10:26 am

Grace,

I think that part of the problem is that we over stress that “every child can succeed” in the same way. We all have the same “opportunity”.. but we are all born with different abilities and aptitudes and even physical and mental limitation. That is why I am not a supermodel, astronaut, NASCAR driver. To expect all children to achieve the “same level of educational success” is wrong. Even in Finland, you see children leaving the educational system potentially sooner and shuttling off to vocational training instead of going on to get the standard HS diploma equivalent and beyond. Dealing with Poverty is a sticky issue too. In many cases, people are poor because they make poor decisions in spite of all government attempts to the contrary (just say no to drugs, planned parenthood etc). It is also extremely difficult for a teacher or a teaching program to override in the 8 or so hours a day the negative impact of parents that don’t work, are uneducated and abusing substances, each other and the children. In order to “prove” that all children are meeting minimum levels.. they rely on standardized testing. Since there are a lot of kids that for one reason or another (maybe just not smart enough..or lazy… or being abused at home) have a hard time passing those tests so the teachers have no choice but to spend most of their time preparing for them. It seems to me that if you are a child in the top 5-10% of the performance scale…you get attention and special treatment.. if you are at the bottom 15-20% of the performance scale.. you get attention and special treatment. That leaves the majority of students getting minimal attention and they often perform marginally if they don’t have a strong support system (parents) at home. I don’t necessarily blame the teachers.. they are dealing with kids with pretty bad issues… it isn’t just a matter of throwing more money at those families.. in many cases, despite the family getting food, housing and heating assistance etc.. the parents still aren’t feeding their children.. but trading their snap benefits for drugs and alcohol. If you gave those families more.. it still wouldn’t reach the kids. I know I haven’t really provided a solution.. but wanted to point out how complex the problem really is. A “war on poverty” is a nice sentiment.. but how do you fix all the underlying societal and cultural ills that cause it? I mean, I hazzard a guess that if you took all the collective wealth in this country and reallocated it equally to every person.. that within a fairly short period of time a very similar distribution would most likely come to pass. The people that currently make good decisions would in short order end up with the wealth of those who in general make the bad decisions.

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Cassie February 20, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I think the parents that you talk about that dont feed their children & give their snap benefits over for drugs, are quite marginal. I’m sure it happens, and its unfortunate, but the reality is that most people are on government welfare temporarily. For example, to obtain most of these benefits you must already be working, but at a low wage or low hours to support your household. I know from experience in working with the homeless & those with addictions, that most people with a drug problem, are on the streets, they are NOT getting any sort of government help, they are at the Salvation Army & churches when it gets cold and for lunch time and thats all they get. Most of these people have mental health issues and they dont have possession of their children, if they have any.

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sarina February 21, 2013 at 8:44 am

It may just be a regional thing.. but I have seen an awful lot of it.. and people in government housing often are lifetime residents of those areas.. My stepkids also report on the problems their classmates experience.. and I have relatives who are teachers that can tell you stories that would make your hair curl. So, while it may not be rolling in the gutter addiction that short changes the kids, even casual use of drugs and alcohol when benefits are traded for cash to get it end up hurting the children because they aren’t getting benefits that their parents get on their behalf. I mean why would we need a weekend “backpack” program for kids during the school year to send them home with food for the weekend when their parents are getting food stamp (snap) benefits for them already. These kids are already getting free breakfast, lunch and sometimes even after school snack/meals… so the benefit the parents get should more than cover their weekend food and a dinner during the week, but they don’t.

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Brad K. February 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Actually, the US military has been an enormously successful leveler of social disparities. Rich, poor, disciplined, not — young people entering service as enlisted people get to know folk from “the other side of the tracks” in ways that very few outside the services ever experience. Veterans of service are enormously empowered, when they return to their home community, to challenge and question prejudices and practices that keep people apart. America is a *much* stronger nation, culturally and socially, because of the shared experiences of our service people.

When we say “poverty”, that means a lot of different things to various people living in poverty. For one thing, cash flow and substandard quality of housing, food, clothes, tools, and jobs and other opportunities available are ever-present and often contentious in the home. This teaches children in poverty a very different lesson than children in a secure home learn. Homework with payoffs later in life, even 5 weeks down the road at the next “test” have a very different priority when the family lives month-to-month, when other priorities shove meal times aside, all too often.

As for US schools, when every school district lets the US Deparment of Education decide which text books achieve which special interest and affirmative action agendas, this year, and are “blessed” for use, that puts education as a means of learning into second or third place, behind enabling political power structures, varied and competing social agendas, and textbook publishing industries invested in everyone using their same text. Last I saw, we are pretty much still using the same 26 letter alphabet in (mostly!) the same ways, and adding 2+3=5 about the same way. The Mississippi still runs from Minnesota’s Twin Cities down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Stream still warms Ireland and parts of Europe. Etc. The chickens still need fed, the barn cat looks for fresh food fairly regularly, and my neighbor appreciates a smile and wave now and then.

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Liz February 19, 2013 at 10:41 pm

I wish I had the ambition and patience to home school… I know my daughter’s potential would be more fully met with an individualized curriculum and tons of hands on activities. But I know I’m not that super mom… She’s only 2 so we have time to think about it but it’s a stressor when you value these ‘alternative’ types of education but have little opportunity to have your child experience them.

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Karen February 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

It is interesting that you bring up this educational topic at this moment of my life. A couple in my town recently came to my husband and me and shared their desire to start a public charter school. Our schools are lacking in so many ways and we have an opportunity to start something big and better. I did homeschool my girls for a year and a half and one of my regrets in life was my inability to sustain that endeavor. I am working with this couple to pursue the idea of a charter school based on a classical approach and see where it takes us.

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Jessie K February 20, 2013 at 9:15 am

There was a big initiative recently to open a charter school here in Lexington but it was ultimately shot down. Apparently, critics thought it would take too many resources away from the public schools. It’s too bad because it would have been nice to have a choice about where to send June to primary school!

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sarina February 20, 2013 at 10:39 am

It seems to me that homeschooling has really evolved to the point that it isn’t just that “weird fundamentalist family down the block” that does it. There are a lot more resources out there for families interested in taking a bigger interest in their children’s education. I have known families that have done it because their children have sports interests that lend themselves to the flexibility in schedule that homeschooling offers. I have known others who do it because the public school options in their area are not accepatble to them. Of course, there are also those parents whose religious beliefs drive their decision.

I believe if the parent is educationally and financially able to homeschool it can result in a better foundation for the child. Obviously, when you teach one on one (or two/three).. you are going to make faster progress than when you are trying to work with a class of 30 children with different abilities. That means it should leave more time for free expression (play) and exploration.. and yikes.. chores which should make for a happier more well rounded child.

I would also advocate that the children have an outside activity or two that allow them to interract with groups of kids so that they have social needs met too.

As the children reach middle/high school and coursework can become more difficult and specialized, the decision should probably be revisited. It also might be somewhat of a factor in how a college might percieve your child as an applicant.

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Molly O February 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Charter schools were recently approved here in WA and I’m actually quite disappointed. I think it is clear in places that have them that they take resources away from the regular public schools. And, Nation-wide, only 17% (if I recall correctly) of charter schools perform better than public schools. What they propose here in WA is that charter schools be closed if they aren’t “performing.” That also brings a lot of complications though – moving kids around from school to school is rarely a good thing. It’s a complicated issue because I know people want options for education, but unfortunately I think charter schools do not actually provide the best of both worlds. Of course one of the huge differences between the education system in the US where education is largely funded by property taxes and places like Finnland is that in Finnland no one worries about where their child will go to school because they know they will have great opportunities at ANY school.

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Cassie February 20, 2013 at 7:50 pm

I think a big problem (where I live anyway) is that charter schools eventually become privatized, but are still getting money from the government to run the school (taking away from public schools). Tricky territory.

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Janelle February 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Oooh, such a hot button topic, as I see from the posts. As a high school teacher at one of the best schools in NJ, there are so many things I’d like to say here, but since this blog is a fun and lighthearted moment in my day, I’m not going to get myself riled up over this. Suffice it to say, I wish we could turn ourselves around and achieve like Finland.

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Jessie K February 21, 2013 at 10:02 am

I’d be interested in your point of view, Janelle. Feel free to take it “off the air” if you prefer. jessieknadler@mac.com

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mcp February 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I’ve traveled a little in Scandinavia, and I think it’s more than just their educational theories. I think that culturally there is more space for children in Scandinavian society, more thought given to how to incorporate children of all ages into the society, more patience and toleration for children’s needs. I think adults expect to spend more time with children than we adults do in America.

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dezreen February 22, 2013 at 9:05 pm

My parents raised me in a very impoverished part of upstate NY, in what I can now see was a very poor district. They never talked about this, but instead impressed upon me the love of curiosity, of knowledge, of looking outside our little community and of reading, reading and reading some more on a diverse range of topics. They taught me that anyone can rise out of their surroundings, travel the world and learn other ways of seeing and doing. So try not to let standardized testing and loads of homework bog your child down. If you aren’t able to homeschool, teach your children the love of reading and read with them. If your child has hours of homework, challenge the school, ask them what their homework policy is and why. (There is little evidence for greater academic success tied to homework until students are in high school). If you and your child really hate it, don’t do it. Bake some cookies together instead and be satisfied that your child has practiced reading, measuring, estimating, predicting and using more than one of their senses which having fun!

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