Sometimes it feels like we will never be able to be perfect, like the Finns. Ah, the Finns! In the U.S., our descriptions of the education system are so euphoric that it can be hard to relate.
But I have to say, I didn’t feel that same level of bliss when I was in Finland. I mean, I felt like it was an inspiring place—a lot more civilized in many ways, a place we can learn from. But in real life, it seemed like it was also a complicated place inhabited by…human beings.
It’s important to keep this in mind, so that we don’t dismiss the Finns as another Nordic fantasy land that has no connection to our lives and schools.
In that spirit, here is a quick reality check from the Finland media…
Some parents in Finland choose not to send their kids to the neighborhood school because of the high level of immigrant students there. Sound familiar?
Helsinki parents at pains to avoid schools with high proportion of immigrants
Pasi and Merja live in a neighbourhood of small houses in Metsälä in the north of Helsinki. More than a dozen children who start school next autumn live in the neighbourhood of about 1,000 residents, and nearly all of them applied for admission to a school outside their neighborhood. Many of the neighbours have pulled similar stunts….Some have even acquired a second home to make sure that their children attend school somewhere other than their nearest one in Maunula.
...An invisible wall exists along the border of Maunula and Metsälä.
The average income of Maunula residents is EUR 22,400 a year, while the Metsälä residents earn EUR 37,000.
Maunula has many low-income pensioners, and half of the homes in the area are built on the partially publicly-funded Arava subsidy scheme, compared with only ten per cent in Metsälä.
And then there is the sensitive issue: about a tenth of the residents in Maunula speak a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.
In Metsälä, with its 1,000 residents, just 43 speak a foreign language at home. The entire foreign language-speaking population there could nearly fit in a single city bus.
...“Undoubtedly we all want to live in a multicultural and tolerant atmosphere, but the fact is that if there are many children who do not speak Finnish, the teacher’s time is spent on them”, the mother of two says.
She does not know any children who have actually attended school in Maunula, but she has “heard stories”.—Helsingin Sanomat 2011
Violence and substance abuse affect the lives of Finnish kids, too…
Tens of thousands of children exposed to violence or substance abuse at home
Study shows that thousands of children in need of help remain unnoticed
Thousands of children living in conditions in which they are exposed to violence and substance abuse fail to get the help that they need, says Dr. Mirjam Kalland, a family research expert at the University of Helsinki.
A substance abuse problem of some kind affects one in six families, while violence afflicts one in five. “For instance, 20 to 30 percent of children in the Helsinki region live in fairly serious risky conditions. Only five to six percent are within the scope of child protection support measures. Quite a few of the children who would need help are never noticed”, Kalland says.—Helsingin Sanomat 2006
And Finnish teachers sometimes complain about Finnish parents…!
Nearly one in five Finnish schoolteachers and one in three principals are targeted with bullying and mental violence by students’ parents. The primary level comprehensive school headmasters, in particular, are harassed.
This was the finding of a survey conducted by the Opettaja (Teacher) magazine.
Teachers interviewed by the trade journal said the bullying manifests itself in various forms varying from the spreading of unfounded rumours to verbal abuse and phone calls that can last for hours.
Bullying parents have threatened they would contact the board of education, the provincial administrative board, or the press.
The root of the problem is often diverging views on education and upbringing.—Helsingin Sanomat 2005
Why do I bring this up? Must I ruin everything? Really? Well, it’s a bit perverse, I guess. But I find it encouraging to remind myself that while the US has its own extremes of dysfunction, we are all human. And excellent education outcomes are possible—-even in imperfect places occupied by humans.