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Here is Why Finland and Estonia Have the Best Public School Systems in the World

As students head back to school this week, it's a good time to consider what we can do to improve America's schools for future generations. its not that our schools are bad, as some argue, but they do lag behind some of our global competition, especially in math and science.

Pew Research: "Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations."
"One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science."

America should not be satisfied with mediocre schools. If we are to maintain our competitive advantage globally, we must upgrade public education. To do that, some argue, we should emulate Singapore and Japan with their long days and year-round schooling, but there might be better examples for the United States. Right now the best places to look for ideas that would work for us are Finland and Estonia, both of which have become education powerhouses over the last few decades.

The LA Times: "The Harvard education professor Howard Gardner once advised Americans, "Learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States."

Smithsonian: "The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science." ...
"Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States."

The Finns have continued to outperform America and most other developed nations ever since. How do they do it? The Finns have been asked this a lot so they published a nutshell version of their education plan here. It boils down to respect and support for teachers, equal opportunities for all students to thrive, no standardized testing, shorter days with more recess/exercise, and consistent instruction from the same teachers through multiple grades.

The Big Think: "There are fewer teachers and students in Finnish schools. You can’t expect to teach an auditorium of invisible faces and breakthrough to them on an individual level. Students in Finland often have the same teacher for up to six years of their education. During this time, the teacher can take on the role of a mentor or even a family member. During those years, mutual trust and bonding are built so that both parties know and respect each other."
"Different needs and learning styles vary on an individual basis. Finnish teachers can account for this because they’ve figured out the student’s own idiosyncratic needs. They can accurately chart and care for their progress and help them reach their goals. There is no passing along to the next teacher because there isn’t one."

And this last point seems to to be important in Estonia which has joined Finland at the top of the global education rankings. In the most recent assessment, Estonia was 3rd in science [just behind Singapore and Japan], 8th in math and 6th in reading.

The Atlantic: There are many factors that may contribute to Estonia’s success on PISA beyond their focus on equality. Education continues to be highly valued. Teacher autonomy is relatively high, which has been shown to be related to better test scores. Teachers stay with the same students in grades one to three – or sometimes even up to sixth grade - allowing deep relationships to develop. Many officials and educators say teachers here are good at supporting students and preventing them from getting off track, in contrast to the U.S., where teachers spend a lot of time intervening to help students who have fallen behind.

And, Estonia, like Finland, prides itself on the equality of opportunity each student has within its educational system.

The Atlantic: "But many educators said that an emphasis on giving everyone a similar educational experience is a crucial piece of the puzzle. “We really follow the straight line that everyone is equal,” said Karin Lukk, principal of Tartu Kivilinna Kool, a grade 1-9 school in Estonia’s second largest city. “It doesn’t matter what kind of family you come from, you can still achieve a lot.”
"That approach starts at the very beginning. Early childhood education is free beginning at 18 months (when paid maternity or paternity leave ends). Everyone gets free lunch, meaning teachers might not know exactly what a child’s background is. College is free. Private schools, although an increasing threat to public education, are still a relatively small slice of the educational system. Estonian schools are often economically integrated, so poor and rich students are frequently in the same classrooms."
"By comparison, in the United States, students do not get the same educational experience. Quality of childcare and schools vary widely depending on income. Families with the most money often have access to the best child-care centers and most elite colleges. Schools are often segregated both by race and income, with poor students often having fewer resources and less experienced teachers."

The last point that stands out in both Estonia and Finland is that the teaching profession is respected far more than in America where public school teachers, especially in urban and rural school districts, are often underpaid while teaching in overcrowded classrooms without adequate resources. But, higher pay alone, without the other systemic changes, might not change the situation very much.

Back to school!

By: Don Lam & Curated Content

#education #research

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