Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why the Finns are smarter than us

America is not the best country in the world, a fact that was forcefully brought home by actor Jeff Daniels on an episode of "The Newsroom":

the most honest 3 minutes on television

This fact would be hotly contested by some of our fellow citizens, who strongly believe in “American exceptionalism”. To be perfectly accurate, though, NO country is the best in the world at everything, since that’s virtually impossible.

America IS a pretty good place to live, and we ARE a world leader in a number of areas.

We have the largest economy in the world, we are the best place in the world for innovation, we have the best (and most expensive) defense department in the world, we are tied (with Myanmar!) for being the most generous country in the world, we have 18 of the world’s 25 top universities, and American culture (movies and music) is popular just about everywhere.

Ironically, even though we have some of the best universities in the world, it is our education system that lags far behind the rest of the world. In comparison to 40 other developed countries, we rank 17th, far below the number 1 country, which is Finland.

Surprisingly, our educational problems stem from the fact that we also lead the world in another area - teen pregnancies.

Our rate of 1792 births per million to women under 20 is significantly higher than the country that’s number 2, Slovakia, which has 1121 births per million. Finland’s rate of teen pregnancy is 288 per million.

Due to the fact that those young teens are more likely to be forced to live in poverty, we are #34 in the world in terms of child poverty, due to the fact that 23% of our children live in poverty. The best country in the world when it comes to child poverty?

Finland, with a child poverty rate of 3%

Reducing child poverty in our country not only would improve our school system, it would also improve our economy. The Children's Defense Fund has estimated that childhood poverty in our country costs the economy $500 billion a year. That's nearly twice as much as the GDP of Finland, which has the 41st largest economy in the world - but the world's best school system.

Due to the fact that an awful lot of those early pregnancies are unplanned events, the young girls about to enter motherhood don’t usually receive proper prenatal care, which results in an unusually high number of premature births.

12% of our births are premature, a far worst percentage than any other developed nation. The best country in the world (at 4%) is Belarus, but Finland isn’t far behind, at 5.5%.

Children that are born prematurely have a higher likelihood of physical and mental disabilities, and a higher propensity to behavioral problems, which makes them more difficult to educate. As a result, even if our school system were the best in the world, we’re already behind the eight ball when our kids enter kindergarten.

Our national K-12 school system is the best that it’s ever been, but you’d never know that by talking with the average American, which is why we have tried numerous “reforms” over the years, none of which have been very successful. Sadly, both political parties are to blames, since George Bush’s No Child Left Behind has essentially been duplicated by Barack Obama’s Race to the Top.

1) Vouchers and charter schools (ESPECIALLY for profit charter schools) are not the proper solution, since they divert funds from public schools that are already under funded by state legislators, who would rather give tax breaks to businesses than invest in its future leaders. Arizona is a prime example of misguided priorities, since the state has historically been one of the worst at funding its school system. In addition, it has the highest percentage in the nation (15%) of its children in charter schools, which means that the state’s non charter public schools receive 15% less in funding than they would otherwise receive.

2) Closing schools is not a proper solution, since schools can’t improve if they are closed. When new schools are opened to replace the old schools, they generally don’t perform better than their predecessors.

3) “Parent trigger” methods don’t work, since they transform what should be a cooperative experience to one that is confrontational.

4) Continuous testing of results in reading, math, and science isn’t the best solution either, since they divert resources from other vital courses that can‘t be tested, such as art, literature, world history, foreign language, civics, physical education, and economics. The country that has the best schools in the world, Finland, doesn’t give national tests in math, science, and reading until its students are about to enter college.

5) Attacking teachers unions and demonizing teachers (are you listening, Scott Walker?) is a truly bone headed idea, since it demoralizes professional teachers, leads to an increase in class sizes, and causes a higher turnover of seasoned veterans than would occur otherwise.

Why does Finland have the best schools in the world? There are a number of reasons, but here’s a few of them:

1) Like other Nordic countries (Norway and Sweden) Finland has a sustained, long term investment and prioritization of early childhood development, and universal pre-school is a societal norm.

2) In 1970, Finland overhauled its educational system. It raised the admission standards for its teacher education colleges, making them so selective that today only 10% of those who apply are accepted. In Finland, teachers are highly respected, and are as highly esteemed as those in the medical profession.

3) Finland does not use vouchers or a charter school system, and Finns boast that there are good public schools in every city, town, and village

4) Finland does not give its teachers merit pay, and does not utilize the system of rewards and punishment that we do.

5) Every child in the Finnish school system gets one meal a day in school, and each school has a medical professional on staff.

6) Finnish teachers are not allowed to carry guns on campus, but it’s a practice that is permissible in 18 of our states.

All of the Nordic countries excel in an area called the Social Progress Index. Finland comes in at #7 on the most recent list, and the United States comes in at #16.

Due to the fact that the Nordic countries have advanced social programs, it is widely assumed that their taxes are higher than ours. The reality, though, is that tax rates are LOWER in Finland than they are in America. The MAXIMUM personal income tax rate in Finland is 30%, and the maximum corporate income tax rate is 20%. In the United States, those figures are 39.6%.5 and 35%, respectively.

Our public education system isn’t without hope, and it can gradually be made better if we take some commonsense steps. For starters, we can follow Finland’s lead in at least some areas, and at least one idea (universal pre-school) has gotten some traction in recent years.

We can also demand that the people that lead our educational systems are qualified for their job. Arizona’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction does not have any degrees in education, and her only teaching experience comes from a stained glass class that she once taught. She was elected primarily due to her support from the Tea Party, and she narrowly defeated a professional educator who was far more qualified for the job.

Her immediate predecessor was elected primarily due to his support from an organization that operates charter schools. Like his successor, he does not have an education degree, and he’s never taught a class of any kind.

“Just Say No” was not a successful slogan during our war on drugs, and it’s equally ineffective when it comes to teen pregnancy. The state in our country that has the lowest rate of teen births is New Hampshire, which has an age of consent of 18, and mandatory birth control education, starting in elementary school. The state that has the highest teen pregnancy rate, Mississippi, has an age of consent of 16, and has no mandatory sex education or sexually transmitted disease education. When sex education IS taught, it places a high emphasis on abstinence. In Mississippi, teachers are not allowed to discuss the use of condoms, even though 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

Many of the references in the article above are drawn from a book titled “Reign of Error”, written by a woman named Diane Ravitch. She currently is a research professor of education at New York University, and she was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and 2001. “Reign of Error” is her 11th book about education, and it’s worth reading, even though its numerous facts and figures mean that it won’t be a quick read by most of us.

Like many cultures, the Finnish culture can provide us with many proverbs.

One that’s especially related to education is this one:

“The world is a good teacher, but it charges a huge fee.”

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