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Kadner: A nation that places children first

Ralph Martire

Ralph Martire

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Updated: May 18, 2013 6:39AM



Imagine a school system where every child receives the same quality of public education and where standardized testing is disdained.

Conceive of a country where every student gets free tuition through the university level and provides each child with free meals, free health care and free dental care.

And also place strict limits on the number of students who can become teachers each year and require that they be the best and brightest, sort of like America does with its doctors and lawyers.

What would you have?

Finland, the country that has been recognized by several international studies as having the best system of public education in the world.

Pasi Sahlberg, a leading Finnish educator and author, was in Chicago this week to speak at a conference titled, “Reframing Reform: Achieving Equity and Excellence in Public Education.” The organizers of the forum said the goal is to eventually create a civil right for every child in America to “meaningful educational opportunities.”

The Chicago conference was an outgrowth of a presidential commission that filed a report with the U.S. education secretary, recommending a “strategy for educational equity and excellence in America.”

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, was a member of the commission. He told me the group’s ideas run counter to the prevailing notions of charter schools, vouchers and greater educational choice that seem to dominate the debate over education reform in America.

Martire believes that the goal should be to invest in and improve public schools in the U.S. so every child, whether from a wealthy background or a poor community, gets a top-notch education.

U.S. Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), who was a keynote speaker at Monday’s conference and a member of the commission, said the federal government must accept a much larger role in pubic education, which has been the domain of states and local school boards.

Martire and Honda believe that Finland’s success in eliminating achievement gaps and producing students who score well on standardized tests upon graduation is at least worth serious study.

Sahlberg noted that while the U.S. focuses a lot of attention on competition in education, between schools and students, and places a heavy emphasis on testing, Finland focuses on just one thing:

The well-being of children academically, emotionally, mentally and physically.

And while Finland’s national government sets education standards and mandates the curriculum for training teachers (to the point that only a limited number of colleges are authorized to train teachers), everything else surrounding education is focused on cooperation among teachers, schools and students.

Sahlberg acknowledged early in his speech that Finland’s accomplishments are often dismissed because it has only 6 million people and its population is homogeneous. It lacks the racial, ethnic and religious diversity of the U.S.

But 40 years ago, despite its small size and rather uniform social structure, Finland ranked in the middle or near the bottom of the world in almost every major category of public education. That’s when the Finns decided to make public education the nation’s top priority.

“Finland never tried to be the best in education,” Sahlberg said. “The goal was a great school for each and every child.”

In the 1960s, he said, the idea was equivalent to John F. Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon.

In 1972, Finland did away with all private schools to accomplish the goal of education equality, Sahlberg said. It made public school tuition free from age 7 through college.

It provided professional day care for every child, early childhood development services and invested heavily in special education as well.

Sahlberg noted that while the number of special-education children trends upward from age 5 to eighth grade in most countries in the world, it trends downward in Finland.

The result after 40 years is that Finland not only has students who rank in the top five in almost every academic category against the rest of the world, but when Finns are asked to rate the most trusted branches of government, 89 percent say public education.

Instead of emphasizing achievement on tests, Finnish teachers focus on their students’ individual abilities and achievements. “Collaboration” is the key word in the public schools, where everyone is encouraged to work together.

Strategic testing is viewed negatively, resulting in a strangulation of student creativity, Sahlberg said, to loud applause at the Hilton Hotel ballroom in Chicago.

The Finnish system emphasis personalization, he continued, because “every person is different.” To enhance educational quality, “insert the word equality up front, equity will follow,” Sahlberg said.

Critics will note with disdain that Finland is a socialist country. Even if you accept that argument, you can’t argue that its system puts children first and the results are fact.

I believe the U.S. is moving away from a system of public education to a two-tiered system of schools, one for the poor and one for the wealthy. That will inevitably create a class system that is as un-American as socialism.

Every child in this nation, no matter where he is born or his social status, ought to have an equal shot at success in the land of opportunity.

To paraphrase a line from a U.S. magazine article, to live the American dream, millions of American children now would have to go to Finland.



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