Late Start

For a few years now – ever since the release of the 2009 PISA scores – Finland has been heralded as the new model for Western education, except for the fact that our modeling has been more after South Korea (intense pressure on students) than Finland. What has come out of Finland recently is that Finnish students outperform US students while not starting any formal schooling until the age of seven. In most states in the US students have already been subjected to their first standardized test by the age of seven. Skill and Drill. Repetition. Again, a far more South Korean approach to education.

As I’ve mentioned before about these different methods, we are comparing apples and oranges: countries that rival the size of singular states within the US, and cultures that are overall far more homogenous than ours. But all of that is debatable, which is easy to see by the huge numbers of opinions that exist in the current US education reform debate.

Pasi Sahlberg released a new book this year, “Finnish Lessons,” that extrapolates what the world can learn from how Finland revamped its educational system over the past decades. Starting at the beginning – not of the book, but of a child’s life – the only pressure put on a Finnish child is to simply be a child. There is no formal schooling provided until children are seven years-old.

This, however, is a little bit of a misnomer. A Mr. Sahlberg noted on a BBC Worldservice broadcast on Thursday morning (9/12/13), 92 percent (approximately) of the Finnish school children under the age of seven take part in a publicly funded day-care program. And in Finland, in order to work in one of these publicly funded facilities, you have to have a college degree, and have studied early childhood behavior and development.

No knock on at-home day care providers in the US, but this sounds like there is a far greater level of professionalism and respect placed on early childhood caregivers in Finland than what we find in the US. And while these Finnish facilities may not fall under the category of formal education, anyone with this higher level of understanding of early childhood development will most likely be imparting some level of subtle education to these children, even though it is cloaked in the guise of playtime, and fun.

This sounds like what ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) educators in the US want to accomplish here, but cannot because they are so severely underfunded, and many parents don’t want to pay, because they simply don’t have the means to pay for these often-times private services.

What occurs in Finland transpires in many of the more affluent communities in the US; it’s just that the services are typically private companies, which can cost as much as a full-time private school. In Finland 92 percent of the school children are exposed to this ECFE environment, which helps to eliminate a skills gap. In the US the affluent can pay for the exposure to ECFE educators, while those struggling financially usually go without: and, therefore, the skills gap is born.

The interviewer on the BBC this morning asked Mr. Sahlberg, “What evidence is there showing that this delaying of education until the age of seven is more effective?” to which Mr. Sahlberg retorted, “What evidence is there…against it?” Essentially, the Western countries that impose formal education upon students at a younger age are lagging behind Finland. Anecdotally, one method seems to be working better than the other.

The conversation has to be about more than just all-day Kindergarten (which has been the recent policy fight with state and federal legislators). It appears the conversation has to be around universal access to highly skilled and respected ECFE educators.