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Finland: the best schools in the world

Posted: March 25, 2014 9:29 a.m.
Updated: March 26, 2014 5:00 a.m.

We hear lots of talk, especially around election time, about improving schools in South Carolina. What we don’t hear much about is what a truly world class school would look like, or how we would go about creating such a thing.

The answer to both of these questions may be one word: Finland.

Yes, Finland. For most of us, about all we know of Finland is that they seem to do really well in the Winter Olympics. And they do. This country of only 5.4 million people (South Carolina has 4.7 mil) won 26 Olympic medals in Sochi, finishing just behind the U.S. with 28.

But what they have achieved in the field of education is just as impressive or even more so. Forty years ago their schools were fair at best. Today, by almost any standard, they are the best schools in the world -- far ahead of U.S. schools, which generally rank in the mid-to-high teens on most global measures.

What’s even more remarkable is how they have done it. Their methods and strategies are in many ways just the opposite of what we do in the U.S. in general and in South Carolina in particular.

The kids don’t start school until they are 7 years old; they are in school less (300 fewer hours in elementary school alone); and they get 75 minutes of recess a day as compared to 27 minutes in the U.S. They have less homework assigned than any industrialized county and they have only one mandatory standardized test, when students are 16. There are no programs for gifted students and students are almost never forced to repeat a grade.

Their single overall principal is equality. The phase you often hear is “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” Here in the U.S., we pay lip service to the idea that our children are the most important national resource for the future of our county, but in Finland, they act as though they really mean it. Every child gets basically the same education, at least in the early years. There is no difference in schooling based on where they live, their parents’ income, their ethnic origins or social standing.

All the schools are free, including university. And if a student is having trouble and needs special help -- and 30 percent of the students do -- they get it. A phrase you often hear the Finish educators use is “whatever it takes” -- and, again, they act as though they mean it.

In Finland, they don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. They invest in education such that all the schools are more or less of equal quality -- the best. The idea of school shopping is unheard of.

As in most every good school everywhere, teachers are the key. In Finland, teaching is a high-prestige profession, with the same status as medicine and the law. All teachers have at least a master’s degree, which is state subsidized, and becoming a teacher is highly competitive; only the top 10 percent of graduates are chosen.

Once selected, teachers are given both a lot of freedom in the classroom, and also a lot of help and guidance by teams of education specialists. Additional teacher training is ongoing and constant. Teachers only spend four hours a day in the classroom and two hours a week in professional development.

Their national curriculum is only a set of broad guidelines. Finland does not just focus on what we would call the “serious courses.” They believe that creating a well-rounded child is hugely valuable for society and they have classes in handicrafts, cooking, art and creative subjects, as well as sports -- especially skiing. These are precisely the kind of “soft courses” that too many educational ideologues over here want to get rid of.

This system runs so counter to ours in South Carolina that the more you know, the more bewildering it seems. The students rarely take exams or do homework until in their teens, and they are not “measured” at all for the first six years. All the children are taught in the same classroom, regardless of their intellectual ability.

And yet the difference in academic achievement between the weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world.

Two key facts summarize the difference:

• They spend about 30 percent less per pupil than in the U.S.

• Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from high school; in the U.S., it’s 78 percent and in South Carolina, it’s 68 percent.

Clearly, Finland is doing something right and we in the U.S. and South Carolina are doing something wrong.

South Carolina is not likely to be able to compete with Finland in ski jumping or bobsled racing, but we sure do have to compete with them in the global economy of the 21st century.

It’s time for us to radically re-think what we think we know about education and schools. There are no gold medals in the international bad-schools category.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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