Oregon is at a critical moment when it comes to education. As such, the opportunity to share learnings from Oregon at an international summit in Helsinki, Finland, was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. As public education leaders and advocates, we rarely get the opportunity to reflect on our work in the context of the global stage. Finland’s school system is widely recognized as one of the best in the world, so we immersed ourselves in the region -- touring multiple schools, meeting with teachers, faculty and policy leaders and listening to students and community. We came home inspired, curious and with a renewed commitment to improving education for Oregon’s kids. Here’s what we learned:
Children are at the center. In the 1970s, Finland declared children to be a natural resource critical of investment. Students earned the legal right to learn and thrive, driving an overall culture of shared responsibility, care and success. Students -- from preschool through university -- own their learning and contribute meaningfully to decisions about everything from school design, to curriculum, to meals. In some municipalities, students even serve as voting members of the school board. The country widely celebrates multiple languages, providing each child instruction in the national languages of Finnish and Swedish as well as his or her home language (or “mother tongue”). And play – inside and outside, through projects and games -- is widely accepted as critical to learning. Imagine what our schools could look like if we put children at the center.
Teachers are trusted and respected. Teachers in Finland receive rigorous training and high levels of responsibility. In turn, they earn significant autonomy, respect and professional freedom. While the government has adopted a national curriculum, teachers have freedom to teach the content how, when and where they think it will be most effective for their students. They recognize a “one size fits all” approach is not tenable or successful. In fact, when asked about oversight, Helsinki’s deputy mayor of education noted, “Why would I get involved in what teachers do? I’m a politician, not an educator.” Perhaps it is this mindset that sets the foundation for the collegiality and “anything is possible” attitude in each school we observed.
Health and well-being are tied to academic success. Finland understands that supporting children to learn means attending to their whole selves. The country benefits from a well-funded social safety net and progressive tax structure that translates into significantly less poverty, homelessness or hunger than in the U.S. Yet even with these national assets, all Finnish schools have a social welfare committee that meets regularly to address issues faced by students and their families. The committees, which include school psychologists, social workers and support specialists, ensure children have what they need to thrive.
Through this experience, we served as teachers as well as students. As a largely homogenous country, Finland admits challenges in meeting the needs of its rapidly growing immigrant population. We proudly shared stories about Oregon’s rich diversity, our focus on data to identify and understand disparities, and the deep collaborations between public, private and civic sectors. We highlighted “bright spots,” such as KairosPDX’s model for culturally responsive teaching for African-American children, Chalkboard Project’s work to support and elevate teachers, and the Meyer Memorial Trust’s transformation to more equitable and strategic grant-making.
We celebrated U.S election night in Finland, and returned to hear our state policy leaders rallying behind the goal of investing in improving education outcomes for all Oregon’s students. As representatives from the nonprofit, philanthropy and business worlds -- our message is “we are with you!” Only with courage, shared responsibility and sacrifice can we transform our state into a place where all can meaningfully contribute and thrive, where disparities are eliminated and where children take their rightful place at the center.