Finland is doing something right.
At least, that's the basic premise behind a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, "All Eyes on Education." Finnish students excel on international measures of academic achievement; they consistently receive high scores in reading, math and science. Finland also has one of the world's smallest achievement gaps between its lowest- and highest-performing school. And they do it all on a per-kid education budget that's less than the United States'.
But as the article makes clear, Finns' educational success isn't completely due to high standards for teachers and an emphasis on creativity and independent thought. The country also places a high value on the family -- and, unlike the United States, which pays lip service to the importance of family but actually does very little support families, Finland puts its money where its priorities lie.
While the United States leaves parents alone to figure out how to juggle work, family, childcare and education, the Finnish government allows parents (of both sexes!) to take up to 17 weeks of paid vacation of the birth of a child. If they wish, parents can add on another three years of unpaid leave. Free daycare is available for all children from infancy to kindergarten-age, but if parents choose to care for their children at home, they receive a monthly home-care allowance from the government. That's on top of the monthly child support money every single family receives until the kids are grown, the one the article says parents get because Finns believe "that raising children shouldn't be an undue financial burden for families."
Oh, and they get healthcare as well.
Think about it: How different would life be if all parents were able to take time off of work to bond with their babies? If parents who wanted to nurture their children at home were given the resources to do so, instead of being financially forced to place their children into often sub-standard childcare arrangements so that they can pay the bills and have health insurance?
What would it be like if we gave families the tools they needed to raise and nurture the next generation?
Yes, such government support comes at a cost. According to the Journal Sentinel article, income taxes in Finland range from 6.5% to 30%; municipal taxes are 16 to 21%, depending on income. But I wonder: How much would that really affect my daily budget? I mean, if I got healthcare and childcare and some child support from the government back, would I really be paying any more per month? Or would I merely be participating in a system that does its best to ensure that all kids get a good start in life?
Because I believe that what happens at home is always more important than what happens at school. Whether you're in Finland or inner city L.A., what happens at home has far more bearing on your education and character development than anything that happens in the classroom.
I'm in no position to emigrate to Finland, so for now, I will do everything I can to support families and education here in the U.S. For me, that has meant sacrificing years of income and retirement security to be with my kids in their younger years. It means continuing to support my kids' interests and outside activities, even now that most of them are in school. It also means supporting moms and dads by the dissemination of information. That's why I write articles; that's why I blog.
It's also why I try to provide support and encouragement to every parent I meet. Parenting is hard work, and even if I can't help with the specifics of your situation, I can assure you that challenges are normal and that the struggle is worth the effort. I can smile at mom with two crying kids in a stroller; perhaps my smile will signal to her that I think her efforts are worthwhile.
I can also work in community to meet the needs of the families around me. I can donate food to my local food pantry, buy gifts for families in need over the holidays and support legislation that supports families and education.
What are you doing to support families and education? Do you think government should play a larger role in the support of families, ala Finland? Or do you think there's something to be said for the U.S. approach?