Lessons from Finland can help our children

How well prepared are our children to keep our nation secure and prosperous for another generation? I’m concerned. But don’t take my word. Just check what The Miami Herald has reported:

• Most high school graduates in Florida (54 percent statewide, compared with 40 percent nationally and fully 63 percent who enter Miami-Dade College) must take at least one remedial course before they can enroll in college credit-earning classes.

• A so-called “13th grade” is becoming necessary for too many students before they can enroll in college courses, even if they passed the FCAT and graduated from high school in Florida.

• Last year, more than 9,000 South Florida third-graders failed the Florida test for grade-level reading, putting them at risk for being held back in school.

• Last year, FCAT scores were so low among fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders that the state lowered the scores that qualified for passing.

Should we lower educational standards? That’s no way to safeguard American leadership. Instead, let’s find inspiration and guidance from someplace where children fulfill their society’s great expectations, graduate with advanced knowledge and problem-solving skills and thrive in a competitive western marketplace.

Finland, for example, has transformed its education system in the last 30 years from a mediocre performer (like us) to consistently producing among the world’s most accomplished students. In 1970, the national parliament of Finland boldly decided to reform its schools and the teaching profession in order to aim for the best results in the world for all its children (not just the ones from wealthy and educated families who historically performed well). And did they ever get results! Graduates of Finnish high schools (and almost all students in Finland graduate) score at the top of the international scale on tests of reading, writing, math and science.

How did they build an educational system that gets globe-topping results? Here are some ways:

The state took control of setting quality standards for all schools, teachers and curricula. Education is free to all students, from preschool through graduate school.

There are no honor classes or tracking of students by ability or performance. Every student in every grade is expected to master the subject matter. To ensure high results for all students, children who need extra support receive it through tutoring, personalized learning strategies and teacher-parent collaboration.

A third of elementary school students in Finland, and up to half of all students in higher grades, receive extra help. There is, in effect, no “special education” in Finland. Hence, no stigma is attached to receiving help to achieve.

The emphasis on high-quality education begins early. To be hired, preschool teachers must have a research-based master level degree. Teaching is a prestigious profession in Finland and is compensated accordingly. Graduate schools of education accept only the top quintile of all university graduates and are more competitive than medical, law or business schools. Once hired, teachers are given a high degree of autonomy to design teaching curricula that achieve national educational standards. They also are mentored regularly by senior colleagues.

No standardized tests at any grade until the one national exam at high school graduation — no “teaching to tests,” just learning how to think and to develop intellectual curiosity and knowledge.

International teams of education researchers and policymakers have concluded that Finland’s schools are distinguished for building trust, teacher professionalism and supporting the special needs of all students. Such an exemplary system could not produce its world-beating results were it not for additional support and resources offered to every child in Finland. In Finland, all children are guaranteed healthcare, healthy nutrition and the extended family leave they and their families deserve to ensure personal security, dignity and initiative.

Finland’s population is larger than 29 American states that exercise independent control of their education systems. Immigrants work and become citizens in this increasingly diverse nation. Finland has a fiercely capitalistic economy. Still, its citizens empower, entrust and fund their elected leaders to provide basic resources to all Finns — and in sufficient and equitable amounts to guarantee universal health, education and self-sufficiency.

Let us reclaim and develop the American values that the Finns have borrowed to perfection — equal opportunity and entrepreneurial independence for the common good.

Dr. Peter A. Gorski serves as the chief health and child development officer at the Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County, professor of pediatrics at Florida International University and professor of public health, pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.

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