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Finland, U.S. education systems differ


February 18, 2020 Letters to the Editor

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In response to the recent opinion piece on “Why American schoolchildren underperform,” the Tribune News Service had some valid points, but missed the main points elsewhere.

I taught 15 year olds for more than 40 years in a local school district in classes from the most advanced to the least.

There were many changes over the decades. In comparing U.S. schools to Finnish schools, some points were overlooked in the article, especially the ones concerned with demographics.

Finland has 5 million plus people, the US is 63 times larger with 328 million. Finland is less racially diverse, with 96 percent of one cultural/racial background, while the US comes in at 62 percent.

I had to tailor my lessons to every student. It was not uncommon to have ESL (English as second language) students from different countries in the same class. One class I remember was very difficult with a Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Mexican, and two Spanish 20 year olds who spoke very little English.

Little effort is made in US schools to make the students learn English, while in Finland students have to take English and Swedish (in addition to their native language.)

In short, Finland presses students to be proficient in three languages. In the U.S. we want to be “accommodating” to all students. We cannot push them to use English. We don’t push students to perform like we used to in the 70s. The teaching is often to the lowest common denominator in the language the student knows.

Teacher autonomy in Finland is very high, in the US it is almost nonexistent. Teachers in the U.S. work longer hours for less pay. Class size in Finland is typically less than 20. It was common for my class size to be over 30.

Drug use is much higher among US teens. 38 percent of U.S. teens use marijuana compared to 13.5 percent in Finland. (So, will legalizing it for recreational use over much of the USA help the PISA score ?) 89 percent of the Finns have a two- parent family compared with 34 percent in the U.S. according to the American Community Survey.

As a teacher trying to communicate with a parent and as a parent trying to be involved in their children’s education, that number is huge!

Finally, in my experience, at least, the “poverty” level of the students I had showed little correlation to the grade they received from me. I suspect the number of two-parent families is closely tied to poverty and is the real reason for lower performance.

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