Equity for All
Along with the value of “trust,” there is the foundational value of “equity” in the education of children in Finland.
This is a key feature of Pasi Sahlberg’s message to the world. He is Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (CIMO) and an international advocate for education reforms. He is traveling to Louisville In April to accept the University of Louisville’s 2013 Grawemeyer Award in education. These are prizes given each year in the areas of music, education, psychology, political science, and religion.
Reading his book, Finnish Lessons, What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, was a prerequisite for our trip. He was generous to spend a couple of hours with our group at the upper primary school we visited, where he spent time as a teacher.
He explained the culture of the Finnish way, but said he and colleagues learned a lot from the U.S. over the years and traveled to countries with “empty suitcases,” to get ideas. He said that Finland has not always been high achieving, but put in place some reforms beginning in the 1970s, stuck to its plan and has experienced continuous improvement. A key feature of the plan was teacher preparation.
“Finland has never aimed to be Number 1,” said Sahlberg. “We don’t think like that.”
What they do focus on is described clearly in his book. “Equity in education is a principle that aims at guaranteeing high quality education for all in different places and circumstances. The Finnish context equity is about having a socially fair and inclusive education system that is based on equality of educational opportunities.”
When reform began, the knowledge gap correlated with socioeconomic patterns. They focused on ensuring all kids learned together and were not divided into low and high achievers. Their performance began to improve.
That’s not to say they do not focus on helping those who have special needs. They do have programs for students with learning difficulties and even separate them out for extra help as a last resort.
“We want to have a school system where pupils’ success does not depend on their home background.”
He says, also, (with what we learned was typical Finnish modesty) that Finland’s success is not a miracle. He showed that Finland scores highly also on many OECD’s indexes like child health and well being, poverty and even economic competitiveness and innovation. What is surprising is that the U.S. does as well as it does, according to Sahlberg, given the inequities of its system.
Even with nationalized healthcare and social supports, Finland has its problems. Everywhere we went speakers noted the issue of “unemployment.” This term described people who are on long- term support. Many children who do not do well are generational unemployed – perhaps lacking some motivation to work, it was explained.
And there is a dropout problem. Between compulsory education and upper secondary or vocational education, 5-10 percent leave the system in Helsinki alone. These young people might take menial jobs, or they may well end up as the unemployed and supported by the government. Finnish people see this as a national disgrace. One high school principal said Finland should make the upper grades compulsory like in the U.S.
To deal with this issue, Finland is among some European countries to assist youths up to age 30 in finding work and/or training. It is putting resources into identifying these individuals and offering services quickly. They have hired youth workers to seek out young unemployed individuals and offer services before they become more difficult to reach.
Over the trip, I watched our team take in this knowledge from our hosts, and share their knowledge with their peers. I recognized that these seasoned educators were learning no new “secret” to success. Instead, a light was shone on what Finland emphasizes that experts attribute to their success.
Besides teacher preparation and language development, what the Kentucky educators commented on mostly during this learning journey was the ability in Finland to be more autonomous, to feel the reduced stress that our current system imparts and to be trusted for their knowledge and professionalism.
That part takes some inward reflection for all of us, and a pledge to work together to solve our problems, not only that exist in our school system, but in our society, as well.
What can we do now? My opinion is that our focus on preschool is on target, but we need to be bolder. Teacher preparation, support and respect need attention. Avoid letting the pressure of accountability get in the way of seeing every child and his or her value and learning. Value vocational education as a choice for many and provide clear pathways and quality programs.
Finally, don’t give up on our public education system. Embrace it.