Thursday, April 12, 2007

Finland: Small Wealth Gap Equals Better Schools

US News & World Report in its March 26-April 2 issue focused on what we can learn from the rest of the world. One short article talked about how Finland has some of the best schools on the planet. Finnish 15-year-olds score at the top in reading and math and science in international rankings. They’re also top in literacy. The US, on the other hand, is way down the list about 18th, 22nd, and 28th, respectively. Finland also has the smallest gap between the best and weakest students, and is number two in gaps between between schools.

The article talks about what Finnish schools have done to bring this about. For one, teaching has high prestige, up there with doctors and lawyers. Classes are small. And one of the most interesting facts is that there are no “honors” classes or “college prep” classes. Finland got rid of the class system differentiating vocational and college-bound schools and created comprehensive schools where even the learning-disabled are in the same classes as all the rest.

What this article fails to note is that it isn’t just what the schools are doing, but what the society as a whole is doing. Finland has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any nation, and its social safety net is one of the most generous. Finns have an average of 30 days of paid vacation, and of course national health care. Finland has also been ranked by the World Economic Forum as the most competitive nation in terms of economics. In other words, they’re doing well.

The performance of the schools shows that equality works best. The schools aren’t just doing well because there are small classes, but because of the small wealth gap. Teaching has prestige because it isn’t at the bottom of the pay scale in the professions.

As I say in my book, the gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest predictor of the health of a nation, and now we can see it is also one of the biggest predictors of educational achievement.

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