More Lessons from Finland

What Else Can SC Schools Learn from Finland?
Posted on 02/08/2019
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On February 12th at 6:30 p.m. at Easley High School, Dr. Danny Merck will be presenting "Finnish Strong," a discussion of lessons learned from a recent trip to Finland to study the country's education system. Parents, teachers, and community stakeholders are invited to attend.

This fall, I had the pleasure of joining a group of educators and leaders on a trip to Finland led by Public Education Partners, Furman University’s Department of Education, and the Riley Institute at Furman. Our goal was to learn about what makes Finland’s public school system one of the best in the world, and how we could put some of their strategies to work here in South Carolina. I have already shared some of the lessons I learned from the trip here.

In addition to “Build More, Feed All, Test Less, Play Ball,” I observed that Finland had a different philosophy toward how students enter and exit their education system. I would sum up the difference with: "Early childhood drives, and skills thrive."

At every level of education, the Finns put a heavy focus on the social and emotional well-being of their students. But as a society, the focus begins well before students enter public school. Public assistance for early childhood education begins as early as 9 months old, and is designed to identify special needs and offer early intervention. Low-income families receive financial assistance to allow their children to attend preschool. The point of these services is not to give students early academic instruction--most reading instruction in Finland does not begin until students are 7 years old--it is to ensure that students are socially, physically, and emotionally ready to begin school. The Finns investment in early childhood readiness may be the secret ingredient that drives their success. Not only is early childhood education more widely available, the education requirements for preschool teachers are as strict as the requirements for elementary teachers in the U.S. Research has shown that early childhood education yields an enormous return on investment of any education spending, and Finland has learned this lesson well.

In South Carolina, the profile of the graduate provides a clear pathway for success. However, the system must address the new demands of an evolving workplace to meet the opportunities created by economic development. In Finland, after completing their basic education (which ends at 9th grade), about half of students continue with general upper secondary school, which is preparation for college, and half attend vocational schooling, which prepares them for a trade or technical college. The choice is up to the student. General upper secondary school is rigorous; at least five percent of students will fail by design, and only the top five percent can earn the highest possible grade. Finnish vocational school focuses on the achievement of competencies in order to earn trade certifications. We may not be able to copy all aspects of Finland’s model for career & technical education, but our students and communities would benefit from a similar focus on skills.  Finnish society benefits in three ways from this form of education. First, employers get a clear picture of the skills possessed by a student with a vocational certification. Second, students are not frustrated with graduation requirements that don’t relate to their future. Third, adults who return to school seeking a new certification can do so more quickly; they do not have to waste valuable time in courses that cover skills they have already mastered. As different skills may be needed to survive in the ever-changing economy, this third benefit may be the most important of all.

Emulating Finland’s approach to early childhood and high school will be a tough task for any state or community. Expanding access to early childhood education is financially daunting, and the question of what curriculum is best for a young child’s social and emotional development would be a source of cultural tension. Improving our high school credential would mean taking our schedules and course catalogues back to the drawing board, and would require regulatory changes at the state and national level. As superintendent, my task is to work within our existing structures to create a system where “early childhood drives and skills thrive” as much as possible. I look forward to working with our school board, staff, and community to do just that!