MEEKS: We could learn from Finland

March 12, 2014 

A few days ago I heard a wonderful National Public Radio story on education in Finland. It was amazing and it caused me to ponder how we might change some of our educational ways if we could allow ourselves to learn from others. In this regard, perhaps former Bibb County school Superintendent Romaine Dallemand was on a good path with his interest in exploring school systems in Belgium and Finland.

Finland is a small country about the size of Minnesota and yet its students are able to outperform students in most countries in international assessments by the time they are 15 years old. Their students don’t begin first grade until age 7, but they come to that grade already well prepared to read and to do math. Ninety-seven percent of Finland’s children attend preschool between the ages of 3 and 6. They are taught in day care by teachers with bachelor degrees as well as being taught a uniform curriculum which is designed to prepare them for success when starting school and to support their overall educational journeys.

All of the early childhood education is free to everyone, and there is a special effort made to make sure poor children have access to this service. Of course their childhood poverty rate is 5 percent compared to our 25 percent rate.

Though we provide early childhood education, 60 percent of our poorest children do not receive that opportunity and many of them begin school at least 18 months behind children who have experienced early childhood education. Also, early childhood education is not uniformly focused upon preparing young children in the subjects that are going to be facing them as they move into the next stages of their education. Day care workers seldom are trained as teachers because of the ways in which that system has been structured and the low wages that are being paid to day care workers.

Investigation into the education system in Finland reveals that at some point a clear decision was made to make educating their children a priority. The needed political will which was exerted resulted in education being placed before other concerns, because there was clear agreement that educating the children was of utmost importance.

One can only hope that we will arrive at that conclusion one of these days before it is too late to turn the horrible tide that is currently headed our way. We can hardly afford to continue to have failing schools and low graduation rates as a standard if we have any expectation of having a stable nation. All of the indicators that are being used today to make predictions about our future wellbeing point the light toward the need to have an educated population and jobs for them to fill in order to be the nation we imagine ourselves to be.

We cannot afford to put astounding numbers of young people of color in jails and prisons and continue the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline while allowing large percentages of our children to languish in poverty-laden conditions which impact their entire lives and expect to be a thriving country. No nation can sustain itself while focusing most of its resources upon the wellbeing of a small group of its people as the majority goes further and further down on all levels.

More and more folks in our country are joining the ranks of the poor or the almost poor, which means the overall productivity and health of this nation is impacted. The general welfare of the nation is everybody’s business, and all of us need to turn our attention to it. The first and most fundamental place where the general welfare is affected is in the educational arena. We need to put educating all of our children at the top of our list of priorities, and that should not be negotiable for any of us.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at

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