The Finnish miracle
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How can you work some Finnish magic at home?
(1) DIY university: Teach self-reliance. You may see school as children’s primary job, but don’t downplay the learning they receive from taking care of themselves and contributing to the family. Give kids meaningful responsibilities, and avoid doing for them what they can do for themselves.
(2) Don’t dis the teach: Respect your child’s teacher. Not necessarily because he or she deserves it, but because it’s good for your child’s education. Honoring teachers sends a message about the value of education as a whole.
(3) Compare and you will despair: Set high expectations for your child but refrain from making discouraging comparisons to other students and schools. Focus on their learning, not how it measures up to others'.
(4) Study smart, not for eternity: If hours upon hours of homework is getting in the way of your child’s love of learning, talk to the teacher about the problem.
By Hank Pellissier
More cred than doctors
The level of respect accorded to Finnish teachers tends to grab attention, especially in America where teaching is viewed as a "fallback" profession occupied primarily by the lower third of college graduates. That equation is flipped in Finland, where teachers boast the highest vocational status (followed by physicians.) A full 25% of Finnish youngsters select teaching as their career goal, but only a fraction succeed. Only 10% to 13% of applicants gain acceptance into the masters' degree in education program.
After all this hard work, the rewards are generous, but not necessarily financially so. Teachers earn a generous $45 to $50 per hour for elementary school, $75 to $80 for secondary school. Yet some far lower-performing nations such as Spain and Germany pay teachers more. Instead, Finnish teachers enjoy immense independence. Allowed to design their own lesson plans and choose their own textbooks (following loose national guidelines), Finnish teachers regard their work as creative and self-expressive.
Free preschool, free college
Finnish toddlers have access to free preschools supervised by certified college graduates. Ah, you wonder — are the little innocents getting a jump-start there, reading and writing all day? Wrong! Truth is, Finland's preschools offer no academics but plenty of focus on social skills, emotional awareness, and learning to play. Remarkably, Finnish children don't approach reading until age seven (Waldorf nation?). They learn other concepts first, primarily self-reliance. One American observer noted that first-graders were expected to walk unescorted through the woods to school and lace up their own ice skates.
Twenty colleges exist in Finland, and they're all free. Imagine the financial relaxation this provides for both parents and children. Universities are not widely stratified either; the disparity between the "best" and "worst" is not terribly large.
Curbing the dog-eat-dog competition
Americans give lip service to the notion that "all men are created equal,” but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they're schools or students.
Finland downplays educational competition in a number of ways. Schools aren't ranked against each other, and teachers aren't threatened with formal reviews. At many schools, teachers don’t grade students until the fifth grade, and they aren’t forced to organize curriculum around standardized testing. Gifted students aren’t tracked into special programs, invited into honor societies, or chosen to be valedictorians. Instead, struggling students receive free extra tutoring. After ninth grade, students attend either an academic program (53%) or vocational one (47%) — this flexibility results in a 96% graduation rate, dwarfing the United States' measly 75%. Finally, since there are no private schools to speak of, there’s no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top.
Overall, such attitudes go hand in hand with Finland’s socialist-style egalitarian society, which focuses on meting out fees and services according to need rather than merit. Even parking ticket penalties are determined according to income: A wealthy sausage factory heir was fined $204,000 for going 50 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone!