The Article: Finnish Education Safety Net Is Wide, Strong by Erin Richards in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.
The Text: If it weren’t tucked into a forest more than 4,000 miles from Wisconsin, Vesala Comprehensive School could stand in for a public school in Milwaukee.
The industrial-looking building from the 1960s serves 365 students, most of whom live in nearby public housing projects. More than half come from single-parent households, and 70% are low-income. Twenty-two percent qualify for special-education services.
About 30% are immigrants or students who speak a first language other than the official languages of Finnish and Swedish.
But unlike in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, where the achievement level of a school can generally be predicted by its ZIP code and student poverty rate, Vesala is part of a national system where the performance gap between the lowest and highest achieving students is one of the narrowest among developed countries, according to a respected international exam.
Contrast that with Wisconsin, where the achievement gap between the lowest performing schools in Milwaukee and the average school in the state – or the average school in the suburbs – is dramatic.
Finland’s homogenous population and generous welfare system help contribute to its high overall student achievement. But some schools around Helsinki do serve a more diverse population of students in economically depressed communities. When faced with some of the same challenges as low-income schools in America, the Finnish system seems to redouble its efforts to make sure resources are shared and teachers and staff have the ability to work with small groups of students.
The Finnish government increases aid to low-income schools, and school leaders are free to use the money to decrease class sizes and take other steps to help each student understand the curriculum. The average class at Vesala has 16 students.
When asked why they don’t try to transfer to schools in wealthier neighborhoods, most teachers at Vesala said they think the work they’re doing is important and they enjoy the time spent with colleagues and students.
“All of us are very close to the children,” said Niina Halonen-Malliarakis, one of three special education teachers at the school.
Halonen-Malliarakis, 44, knows the systems of traditional education and special education well, both in Finland and other countries. She lived abroad for 20 years and taught in Greece and England before returning to Finland. She also has a son with autism.
One big difference in Finland, she said, is that being poor here is generally better than being poor in other countries. Though taxes are higher than in the United States, people living in Finland may receive free health care and free day care for their children. The government also provides monthly child-support money to parents.
“You get a check for this and a check for that – there are more benefits out there I could apply for if I really wanted to,” Halonen-Malliarakis said.Vesala uses the same national curriculum as just about every other middle school in the country, which reduces the likelihood that a student would have only basic classes in one school while his or her peers had opportunities to take advanced classes in another.
Halonen-Malliarakis spends most of her day helping individual students in small groups. This isn’t unlike a lot of special-education instruction that might take place in a Wisconsin school. Though at Vesala, there seems to be more time built in for independent study where teachers can wander the room and offer support to students working through math problems or writing exercises.
For example, on one afternoon in September, a period for math review was organized so that different classrooms were moving at different speeds. Children could decide if they wanted to go work in the fast-paced, medium-paced or slower-paced room. In the room where students needed more attention, Halonen-Malliarakis and another teacher paced the room to offer assistance.
For students who come to the school far behind their educational level, the Finnish system allows them to spend a year working one-on-one on in very small groups with teachers such as Halonen-Malliarakis.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re moving at a slower pace than some other schools,” said Halonen-Malliarakis. “But students’ social skills are more developed here. We teach them how to think.”