What Minnesota can learn from Finland’s schools

/ 11 December 2012 / eunice

Hector Garcia, Star Tribune Commentary, December 11, 2012 – Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing that Minnesota placed last among all states in the four-year high school graduation rate of Hispanic students and in the graduation-rate gaps between white students and both Hispanic and Native American students. The gap between black and white students was the second-worst in the nation. The state’s ranking in overall quality of education was 29th.

This news is ominous. Minority population growth is much greater than that of the majority community. Low levels of education among minorities will increasingly affect the state’s overall rankings in education and the quality of its aging workforce.

Since 2010, the Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC) has consulted with education experts in Minnesota and other states and nations, researching programs that have improved graduation rates of Latinos and reduced disparities. One such program — TORCH, in Northfield — raised the high school graduation rate of Latino students to 100 percent, from 35 percent, in six years.

CLAC also has researched education reform in Finland, which has achieved not only overall excellence but, more pertinently, equity.

There are little-known parallels between Minnesota and Finland. The latter’s Scandinavian population numbers approximately 5 million, but 4.7 percent are immigrants, compared with 7.3 percent in Minnesota. Some of its schools have up to 40 percent minority students.

Finland’s education reform led to dramatic economic progress. The country has climbed to the top of the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index. Four decades ago, it had a mediocre education system and an agrarian economy.

Minnesota’s education system is good in many ways, but has been unable to integrate minority communities. Programs that improve the performance of minority students have existed for a long time, but they have not been replicated sufficiently. Minnesota’s challenge is one of equity in access to opportunity — in which Finland has demonstrated unquestionable success, partially due to what it learned from the American experiment.

Minnesota’s education is highly competitive and market-based. Children of immigrants who have grown up in poverty, with minimal education and no English, are placed in competition with the children of educators, doctors and engineers who have lived here for generations; so are the children of the multiplying Minnesota poor.

Minnesota’s immigrant situation today cannot be compared, as is often done, with that of the early 20th century: European immigrants were then equally or better educated than native-born Americans. Furthermore, the U.S. government, at the time more interested in equality of opportunity than in income, invested heavily in public high schools. Competition is today more highly valued than equity, but so are fairness and a level playing field.

Minnesota could incorporate, as part of a larger reform, a phase-in period from preschool to sixth grade, during which children of marginalized communities are empowered with the resources needed to compete successfully in subsequent stages of education. This period would be modeled on the examples of Finland and American history; its benefits would include overall educational excellence, culture and language synergism to address globalization, economic strength and innovation.

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Hector Garcia is executive director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council.