Sunday, March 11, 2012

Diane Ravitch, Education, Finland, and Poverty

Diane Ravitch has produced an article for the New York Review of Books, Schools We Can Envy, which is ostensibly a review of the book:
Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?
by Pasi Sahlberg, with a foreword by Andy Hargreaves
Teachers College Press, 167 pp., $34.95 (paper)

Ravitch currently is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was an Assistant secretary of Education during the first Bush administration and has written extensively on subjects related to education. She should be eminently qualified to provide a thorough review of education in Finland. Ravitch instead lets a bile-drenched assault on everyone and everything that she disagrees with in the education arena consume much of the text, and discusses the Finnish education mainly in terms of providing justification for her own biases. The Finns have a very successful system and it deserves better.

We have discussed education in Finland previously in Finland and Its Approach to Education. The Finns decision to start formal education of their children at the age of seven was discussed in Education in Finland: Are We Pushing Children Too Early?

Ravitch’s article referred several times to poverty, implying that it was a major source of our educational difficulties. This was a very good point, and it prompted a reconsideration of Finland and its methods within that context.

Jenny Anderson provided an interesting introduction to Finland’s education system in a New York Times article: From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model. Her story centers on the same Dr. Sahlberg. She provides some notable quotes.

"Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story."

"He emphasized that Finland’s success is one of basic education, from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. ‘The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,’ he said."

The emphasis is mine. The notion that the Finns designed their education system in order to provide equality of opportunity for all of its children is easily lost in all the discussion about methods and procedures. Now consider again Ravitch’s emphasis on the importance of poverty in educational outcomes, and expand the concept of poverty to include not only income, but also cultural and social deficiencies. We cannot eliminate poverty and we cannot control the social and cultural environment in which children are enmeshed, but we should be able to use our education system to try to eliminate the deficits some children experience relative to others more fortunate. That is what the Finns set out to do, and as a by-product they ended up with outstanding educational outcomes.

Let us take a quick survey of the Finnish system, but this time within the context of serving as an "equalizing instrument for society."

Finland provides free universal daycare to children between the ages of eight months and five years of age. This daycare is not mandatory but 98% of children participate. A year of kindergarten-like preschool is provided to all at age six. Formal schooling begins at age seven.

These preschool years are critical in the development of a child. Think what it would mean if every child in this country could begin school with this shared experience. Each child would have grown up well-nourished, would have been introduced to the same rich learning and social experiences, and would have had the same preparation required for learning to read. The educational disparities caused by poverty, as we have defined it, would have been greatly eliminated.

Children develop and mature at different rates. Studies in Europe indicate that, independent of language, it isn’t until about age six that the majority of children have advanced to the point where they are ready to begin learning to read. These same studies show that trying to teach reading before the age of seven can be counterproductive. This approach is another means by which equality of opportunity is sought. Waiting this extra year to begin diminishes the ill-effects felt by slow developers.

Finland’s schools also avoid binning students into high performers and low performers as another means of protecting slow developers from what can become a lifetime of educational bias in our system. The egalitarian Finns instead encourage the fast learners to spend time helping the slower learners.

At age 16 or 17 there is a transition to a higher level of education that is equivalent to the final two years of high school and two years at a community college. In a manner reminiscent of the vaunted German system, there is a bifurcation into a "vocational" path and a pre-university path. Students have a choice, but they must be able to demonstrate capability to follow the university path. The Finnish system appears a bit less rigid than the German, making it easier to switch paths if desired.

The Finns recognize that a college degree is not for everyone. Unlike in our country, where vocational training is rare, Finland tries to provide options to fit everyone’s needs. And higher education in Finland is tuition free.

It is not practical, nor is it necessary, to try to reproduce the system in Finland. However, we should have it within our means to produce a daycare system for preschool children that would be available to all who chose to use it. That would be a critical step in preparing all of our children to enter and develop in our existing school system. This does not require the elimination of poverty, but it would eliminate many of the effects of poverty on our children and on our educational system.

One assumes this would be an initiative that Ravitch could applaud. If only we could get her and the other education professionals to quit arguing with each other and direct their energies along a more productive path.


  1. You mentioned "We cannot eliminate poverty and we cannot control the social and cultural environment in which children are enmeshed, but we should be able to use our education system to try to eliminate the deficits some children experience relative to others more fortunate." In other words (speaking from both sides of our mouths), we cannot solve the poverty problem so let's use education as a scapegoat and have it try to solve it. You also ommit the fact that the Finns believe in what really transforms a classroom; the teacher. They value teachers and pay them accordingly.

  2. The Finns do not so much "solve the poverty problem" as use their school system to guarantee that all children, rich or poor, receive the same education. I suggested we could do the same. That is not scapegoating the education system. Your comment on Finland's teachers is absolutely correct. I did refer to that subject in an earlier article.


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