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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 09/06/2012

A new Finnish lesson: Why gender equality matters in school reform

Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?” He also write a provocative post for this blog on what the United States can’t learn from Finland when it comes to school reform.

Here’s a new post from Sahlberg, who takes a smart, different look at how to improve school reform in the United States. (There’s more about Sahlberg at the end of the post.)

By Pasi Sahlberg

Finland has come to be known as a nation where educational quality, equity, and productivity exist simultaneously. Those interested in understanding how the Finns have managed to achieve this level of educational performance often point to good teachers, rigorous curricula, and small class sizes. Indeed, some believe that there is a set of such factors that make education systems work well. Then there are those who claim that Finland is too different because of its size and demographics to be taken seriously as a model for large-scale education reforms in countries like the United States, Canada or England. Yet all of these attempts to explain good educational performance in Finland fail to see the big picture.

When trying to understand Finnish schools’ success it is good to keep in mind that Finland scores high in many other international comparisons besides education. Finland is one of the most competitive market economies in the world according to the World Economic Forum, which also rates Finland’s innovation system as a global leader. Corruption is likewise rare in Finland, reports Transparency International. Finally, people often forget that Finland is among the most equal countries in how wealth is distributed and in how women and men are empowered.

Gender equality is a particularly relevant variable to be included in the analysis of a country’s child welfare and education policies. Finnish women were the first in the world to have equal political rights. Since 1906, women in Finland have had the right to vote and stand for elections, 14 years before the United States issued these rights to women. Women and men don’t have equal political rights only in theory in Finland but women have exercised them actively since the beginning.

At the moment, 43% of the members of Parliament and 47% of the government ministers are female in Finland. In 2000, the Finns elected the first woman to be the president of the country. Three years later, the first female prime minister took office. Today Finnish women enjoy unquestioned public respect as political leaders. In local governments, however, women are less represented; currently only one-third of elected representatives are women.

Countries vary significantly in gender equality, especially in politics. In the U.S. Senate and House, the power of female representation, at the moment, is the same, 17%. This means that men have six times the political weight of women in making policy. In England 22% of the Parliament is represented by women, barely exceeding the world’s average. Given the intimate understanding most women have of children’s needs, it stands to reason that women legislators probably make better policy for children. This is evident in not only Finland but also in its Nordic neighbors, which are likewise home to considerable female empowerment in both political and corporate spheres.

In my work as an interpreter of educational reform in countries around the world, I have come to conclude that there are three essential features in Finnish society that have helped make Finnish education reforms successful. Many ‘educational tourists’ visiting Finland unfortunately overlook these features because they are considered welfare rather than education measures.

The first important feature is the support parents receive from the health care system prior to and right after the birth of the child. Welfare policies in Finland guarantee free health care for the mother and her infant. Parents are also issued a fully paid 12-month parental leave that parents must share between one another. Fathers normally take a share of that leave during the first few months following the child’s birth. Mothers in Finland stay home until the baby is one year old; furthermore, mothers (or fathers) have the right to extended parental leave without losing their job until the baby is three years old.

The second critical element in Finland is the country’s early childhood development and care system that is accessible to all families. This system guarantees all children the right to free health care and government-subsidized day care until they go to school at the age of seven. Most Finnish families exercise this right. Three- quarters of 3- to 5-year-old children in Finland are in daycare. In addition, over 96% of children attend tuition-free preschool at the age of six.

The third fundamental factor is a strong, systematic focus on child wellbeing once formal schooling begins. For example, every school must have a Pupil Welfare Team that deals with all possible issues related to children’s learning, development, behavior or health in school and at home. A Pupil Welfare Team often consists of a medical doctor or nurse, and social worker who are normally employed by the district, and a school psychologist, counselor, special education teacher, and principal who are part of the faculty of the school. Moreover, a free hot and healthful school lunch for all children has been a norm in all Finnish schools for 70 years.

Finally, nearly half of Finnish students receive at some point from first to ninth grade remedial assistance to make up for learning deficits and other special educational needs. No stigma is attached to this form of intervention. And special education is provided as early as possible to get students on track before learning problems grow and self-esteem sinks. It is for this reason that many visitors note that well-being and happiness, not standardization and measured academic achievement, define Finnish schools.

Similar social and early education policies exist also in other countries. What distinguishes Finland from the United States and many other nations in child well-being policies is accessibility and affordability. In Finland, all children and families have the same right to childcare, health and educational services regardless of socioeconomic status. Another difference is that the primary purpose of early childhood education in Finland is not to enhance children’s readiness for school. It is to support families in raising healthy and happy children. School readiness in Finland means that the school is ready to take children as they are and to be ready to serve different children as they are.

I was stopped to think about this issue during a recent visit to Finland of an American delegation of policy-makers and educators. In their conversation with the Finnish parliamentarians, one of the delegates asked what political powers were behind Finnish early childhood policies and the central place that wellbeing has in schools. The answer was short and simple: “Women.” They were told how gender quotas — at least 40% of each gender — in public boards, committees and councils have been in force in Finland since the 1980s. The Finnish parliamentarians argued that unless there had been an equal representation of women in the Finnish legislature and every political and professional taskforce, today’s advanced maternity and childcare laws, and strong focus on wellbeing in school would never have come into being. By extension, if child wellbeing had not been regarded as so basic, the Finnish education system would never have evolved into today’s success story.

Education historian Diane Ravitch is one of the most outspoken opponents of the corporate reform movement that injects business ideas and huge amounts of money into fixing American schools. She calls those behind this movement the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Tougher competition between schools, more choice for consumers, confrontation with the teacher unions, and punitive accountability have been typical features of this corporate reform movement. I assume Ravitch has a reason for using word ‘boys’ in that. It suggests that women are not equally represented in the boardrooms and philanthropic community that is a significant funder of public schools in the U.S. today.

How would education reforms funded by “Millionaire Moms” look like if women would have equal power in executive boardrooms deciding where the private money should go to improve school and how education policies should be altered? Would they follow the models from too often male-dominated business world? Or would they instead focus on care, learning and wellbeing of both children and their teachers in school? My guess is that early childhood development programs, better pay for all teachers (who are predominantly women), and more time for children to play in school would probably be more visible in American education reforms.

If there is a lesson from Finland to others it is: Better gender equality helps in building consensus and thereby adopting education and social policies that invest more heavily on wellbeing and holistic development of children at home and in school.

If Anne-Marie Slaughter is correct in her Atlantic cover story “Why women still can’t have it all?” — and she is not alone in thinking what she does — the logical conclusion is that education reforms will continue to struggle and fail until women are equally represented in making policy. The current global educational reform movement is a masculine construction of market rationale and power that is advocated by institutions where the women’s voice is normally subordinated. Protecting schools from this movement will be easier if people vote to close the gender gap in future elections. Ultimately, men also have much to lose. Without greater female empowerment, the next generation can‘t flourish as it should.

--Sahlberg is director general of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation. He has served the Finnish government in various positions, worked for the World Bank in Washington D.C. and for the European Training Foundation in Italy as senior education specialist. Sahlberg has been an advisor for numerous governments internationally about education policies and reforms. He is a member of the board of directors of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), on the governing board member of the Center for Continuing Learning at the University of Helsinki, and a member of the Advisor Board for the Centre for International Benchmarking in Education (of the National Center on Education and the Economy). He is also an adjunct professor of education at the University of Helsinki and University of Oulu. He can be reached at pasi.sahlberg@cimo.fi.

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