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What's Finland got to do with it?

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Dr. Tom Kimbrell and a group of 12 other educators and writers spent a week looking at the highly successful Finnish educational system. It has been tradition that we in America look at the education system in other nations to see what they have done to become so "successful" and then try to glean ideas or strategies that can help what the political pundits are labeling as our "failing" educational system. Several years ago it was the Japanese system that we looked to for excellence. Then, Singapore was touted as the best in the world. Now it is Finland and in a couple of years we'll probably being going to Shanghai or some other emerging nation.

As a life-long educator I've taught in a variety of settings from the urban poor schools of inner-city Los Angeles to the moderately wealthy and white suburbs and my experience has been that schools reflect the culture of their society. But, not only do school districts reflect the local community, they reflect society as a whole. You can't take public education and call it a failure without looking at the social context in which the system exists. Let's take a look at the Finnish societal context and see how it is similar and different from the context of the United States.

In Finland, according to the Child Poverty League, 4.3 percent of the children live in poverty. In the United States, 22.4 percent of our children live in poverty. Finland has a government-sponsored healthcare system in which the government pays 76.6 percent of all medical costs. Finland has, according to the United Nations, an infant mortality rate of only 3.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, which ranks them seventh in the world. Contrast this to the United States, which ranks 33rd in the world with an infant mortality rate of 6.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, or almost twice that of Finland. The Finnish medical system has 21 percent more doctors per capita than the United States.

Homelessness is one of the greatest social challenges we face in the United States. Finland faced similar issues but reports that is has reduced its number of homeless people by 50 percent in the past 10 years. In the United States the number of homeless people is on the increase with the greatest increasing group being families with children.

On educational effort, Finland ranks 36th in the world on the percent per capita of the GDP going to education: 25.5 percent. The United States ranks 51st in the world at 22.4 percent with a per capita GDP of about $47,400. If the United States increased its spending to equal the effort given education in Finland, it would result in approximately a $360 billion increase in spending on education. I said "approximately" because I know my economist friends will argue that number. Regardless of the actual number, it would be a huge, unprecedented increase, which is not likely to happen in today's political environment.

Once our educational experts have reported on their observations of the Finnish educational system we'll find that only 15 percent of applicants for teacher education programs are admitted because teaching is one of the three most prestigious professions in Finland. Those selected to be teachers undergo a three-year training program that is free and includes a living stipend. The Finnish system is almost the complete opposite of the United States'. It has decentralized and moved away from a system that stresses external testing. The system is one in which local creativity is the norm and external imposition of curriculum is minimized. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, noted educational leader from Stanford University: "The process of change [in Finland] has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States."

The bottom line is, Finland is not the United States and vice versa. You can't take a system from one nation and pull it out of context and put those practices into place in another culture. Instead of having educators look at the Finnish educational system, shouldn't we be sending our elected representatives over there to learn how to provide high quality medical care, reduce poverty, reduce homelessness, and other social problems that we have ignored for decades? To use the Finnish educational system and get the same results, we need to be like Finland and that is not likely to happen.

Paul M. Hewitt, assistant professor of educational leadership, University of Arkansas.

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