Guest Column

Applying Finland’s Paradigm to NYC Kids


When the subject of the United States’ comparatively poor international standing on student achievement and dropout rates has been raised of late, one nation seems to have emerged as the global pacesetter: Finland.

The media has spotlighted the Scandinavian nation, with its 5.3 million residents, for its model education practices from early childhood through postsecondary schooling.

The international education rankings reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development place Finnish students first on the Programme for International Student Assessment, while the United States sits 15th in reading literacy, 18th in mathematical and scientific literacy and 96th in geography aptitude.

Disadvantaged Pupils
As the commentators in this country bemoan the poor standing of K-12 education, I began to imagine how Finland might better serve some of the typical students who attend our public schools in the New York City area. What follows are brief profiles of three actual students and their school circumstances.

  • Sean is a typical 5-year-old who attends school in a middle class neighborhood in Suffolk County on Long Island in New York. His kindergarten teacher consistently sends Sean home with writing papers marked in red and negative comments about his “robotic reading.” His formation of letters, she states, is unacceptable, and she urges Sean’s parents to work with him at home. This “failure” in kindergarten does little to motivate and much to discourage.
  • Zahir lives in a low socioeconomic section of the Bronx with few resources to support his time after school. Zahir’s mother, who works two jobs, has little time to supplement his learning at home. Although bright, articulate and energetic in his 2nd-grade classroom, Zahir’s lack of social-emotional development often gets him into trouble. With keen curiosity, he impulsively attempts to answer every question but is behind in reading fluency. His performance on prestandardized tests has labeled him in need of remedial help.
        Instead of being challenged and exposed to literature, Zahir will be assigned to remediation and subjected to materials below his interest level.
  • Cassandra is a 9-year-old with chronic asthma who, according to the chronological structure set for grade placement, should be in 4th grade. Yet her frequent absences because of poor health and her lack of health care have relegated her to a 2nd-grade class in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her lack of attendance is directly related to frequent emergency hospitalizations. Cassandra’s continuity in learning is so disrupted that her chances of success diminish each year.

Finnish Mantra
Finland’s high ranking is based on an education system that relies on a national core curriculum with high standards and expectations for all students. A 2011 documentary film, “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System,” reveals stark and alarming contrasts between education in the United States and Finland.

The mantra for schools in Finland is captured well in the preamble to the country’s 2004 National Core Curriculum for Basic Education. It reads: “The learning environment must support the pupil’s growth and learning. It must be physically, psychologically and socially safe and must support the student’s health. The objective is to increase pupils’ curiosity and motivation to learn and to promote their activeness, self-direction and creativity by offering interesting challenges and problems. The learning environment must guide pupils in setting their own objectives and evaluating their own actions. The pupils must be given the chance to participate in the creation and development of their own learning environment.”

Finland’s public schools, which enroll 99.2 percent of the country’s students, adhere to the mission by allowing students to pursue alternative ways to fulfill the desired goals. In addition, universal health care guarantees that all children receive preventive and intervening medical services, allowing optimum focus on the learning process.

Preschool and kindergarten are available for all Finnish children and highly affordable and subsidized, adjusting to family income and ability to pay. Curricula for the youngest children focus on “general principles set forth in the core curriculum but also emphasize the child’s individuality, the significance of active learning and functioning as a group member,” according to the Finnish National Board of Education.

Preschool education includes play and discovery incorporating “language and interaction, mathematics, ethics and philosophy, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development and art and culture,” according to the Finnish National Board of Education.

Children are not formally evaluated at these developmental ages but are monitored to ensure their cognitive, emotional and social growth continuum prepares them for compulsory education at age 7.

America’s Young
By comparison, American schools often place the rigors of formal education on the young before they are ready, despite research about the developmental milestones and cognitive growth of children that suggests otherwise. Studies in brain growth and early development debunk the myth of “the earlier the better.” Placing students into the formal education setting by age 5 and subjecting them to standardized tests, labeling them with numbers by age 7 and remanding them into remedial programs sends messages of incompetency at an early age.

How would Sean, Zahir and Cassandra fare in Finland? Sean would be in preschool, developmentally acquiring the skills necessary for formal education. Zahir would have the opportunity to develop language and social abilities through preschool and after-school child care. Cassandra’s asthma would be treated from the first onset so that her attendance and attention would create opportunities for success.

What are we waiting for?

Janet Mulvey is a clinical professor of education at Pace University in New York, N.Y. E-mail: