Education Equity, Finland, and the CRDC

Education

Last week offered an enlightening display of education policy in the news. On Monday the Atlantic published an interview with the chief of Finland’s schools and on Friday the U.S. Department of Education released data from the latest Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), a bi-annual collection of data from every school in the nation that helps the Department enforce civil rights laws designed to ensure equal educational opportunities for students of different races, genders, disabilities, and English-speaking skills. These two pieces reveal that the American education system is largely failing to ensure educational equity and that this does not bode well for the U.S.

The interview with Krista Kiuru, Finland’s Minister of Education and Science, reveals how Finland went from an unequal education system in which higher education was out of reach for many students to one that ranks at the top of international exams like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It is, Kiuru says, due to a concerted effort by government to focus on equity in education in the 1960s. In her words, “We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist.” So the government decided to ensure that every child would have a great free public education, including free universities, and be given the chance to fulfill their potential.

Great public schools in Finland mean that children are taught by highly qualified and extensively trained teachers who are given a good deal of autonomy in the classroom. In addition to academics, child development is prioritized so children learn how to be good citizens and members of a community, develop healthy self-esteem, and are more prepared for the world after graduation. Students don’t use class time to take a standardized test every year. And when a school has a high proportion of children who need additional support, Finland invests more heavily in those schools while offering additional support for teachers and students. In other words, all of Finland’s public schools look a lot like America’s very best public schools.

And this is working for Finland. As noted above, they’re scoring at the top of international assessments of school-aged children. The adults that started school after this new focus on equity also score among the best of OECD countries in basic skills, such as literacy and problem solving. That skills gap that many pundits and policymakers in America are concerned about? They’re not worried about it in Finland.

In stark contrast to the equity-focused school system in Finland, the CRDC reveals disparities in U.S. public schools based on race, disability status, and level of English language understanding. It starts in pre-K, with about 40 percent of school districts not offering preschool. The result is that children from low-income families are enrolled in pre-K at much lower ratesthan their peers from high-income families, as are Hispanic and Latino children. Also alarming about the preschool years is that young children are being suspended from preschool, and that black students are being suspended at much higher rates than their peers in preschool and throughout grades K-12.

Other inequities continue throughout school as well, with a majority of students of color, students with disabilities, and English learner (EL) students attending schools that don’t offer a full range of math and science courses (Algebra I and II, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics). In a glaring divergence from the importance Finland puts on highly trained teachers, in America students of color are also much more likely to be taught by teachers who are not fully certified or licensed. Nearly 7 percent of black students attend schools where more than 20 percent of teachers did not meet all state certification requirements, compared to only 1.5 percent of white students who attend such schools. And one in five public schools does not have even a single school counselor. Underlying all of this is pervasive and persistent school funding inequities.

What does this all mean? Countries like Finland that focus on whole child development for every child will have a much more highly qualified workforce in the future. They’ll also give every child the chance to reach their full potential, a laudable goal even if it didn’t mean economic success for the country in the long term. Meanwhile, the U.S. seems to have forgotten that investing in education is essential for future economic success. The U.S. was the first country to offer universal high school education, but now we’re very clearly failing to provide an adequate education for all students.

To be clear, Finland is not the U.S. We have a larger, more diverse population with much higher child poverty than Finland. But these differences actually make focusing on equity even more important. There are highly successful public schools in the U.S. that rival schools in Finland for academic success and child development. But these schools are out of reach for too many students of color, students with disabilities, EL students, and children from low-income families. And instead of improving the schools where these students are, we’re closing them. To better compete with Finland and the rest of the world, our public school system should focus on ensuring that every child can attend a great public school.