I am really tired of reading about school reform. Not because schools don’t need reforming, but because the conversation never, EVER changes. And neither do the schools. As John Gatto says, schools are not failing – they are doing exactly what they were designed to do. So get over it. (He doesn’t say ‘get over it’. That was me.) I am also tired of the way people will do things like point to the length of the school year and say, “but in [fill in your chosen country here] they go to school for 30 more days each year. And they score higher on tests than kids in our country, so obviously a longer school year is the answer!” Recently Finland has been topping the list of countries our so-called reformers point to as an example of how to get compulsory education right. They often mention the better training offered to teachers, along with higher pay, and that all kids receive free meals and free health care at school. And all of those things are true. And hey, if you’re going to have compulsory schooling, then train your teachers well, pay them well and feed and take care of the kids while they are in your care.
But that is only half of the truth. Maybe not even half. Some people have also mentioned that in Finland, they have no standardized testing whatsoever, which frees the teachers to actually teach, instead of just doing test prep all the time. Which is also great. But none of the recent news reports mention what I believe is the key feature to Finland’s ‘school’ success. Kids in Finland do not go to school until the age of 7. Yes, SEVEN. Which means if we lived in Finland and weren’t life learners, Ben would not even be thinking about starting school until next fall. Why? Because the Finns believe that before the age of 7, children learn best through play. Imagine that!
The other thing you never, ever hear about is that in Finland the school day is over sometime between 12 and 2. Finnish children spend about 600 hours a year in school, as opposed to U.S. kids who spend up to 1100 hours in school each year. (In New York the requirement is 900 hours, which I know because I have to state attendance in hours on our quarterly reports. Yes, I roll my eyes at that as well. Guess what? My kids are always present in their lives.) And for their first two or three years in school, there are no grades; just verbal assessments of their progress.
So let’s recap. The Finnish compulsory school system doesn’t require children to start until the age of 7. Before that they are home with their families, happily playing. Once they are in school, only about 4-5 hours of their day is spent at school. The rest of the time they are with who? Oh yeah! Their friends and family. They don’t receive grades for the first few years, they never take standardized tests, have hardly any homework (forgot to mention that one), get free meals and free health care while in school, and their teachers are highly paid.
So basically the Finns have figured out that when it comes to school, less really is more. Family is mentioned repeatedly in any assessment (outside of the U.S. media or reformists, of course) of the Finnish system. And not in the way they talk about ‘parental involvement’ here – which is to say that parents are encouraged to monitor their kids, make them do their homework and things like that. In Finland they talk about it in more of a ‘family is just as important as school’ kind of way.
The Finns know that spending the bulk of the day with family and in the community is the key to happy, intelligent kids. That’s the part our ‘experts’ like to gloss over. They’ll talk about higher pay for teachers, smaller class sizes and maybe even less testing, but no one would dream of suggesting that kids stay home until the age of 7 and just ‘play’! Or that school end at noon. Or that we do away with grades for the first three years. That way lies the path of people who might encourage independent thought, and make no mistake, our schools are not in the business of turning out independent thinkers.
So instead we are bombarded with half-truths from the government and the experts and the reformers. And nothing changes. Which is the main reason our family chose life-learning.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there is a Lego battle raging in Ben’s room (I believe Lego Yoda is dueling a Lego Indian Chief and a Lego Mummy armed with a scorpion), and I’d like to see how it ends.