Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Finland seems to be performing an academic miracle: educating children who get top scores on reading, math and science tests even though these children don’t start school until they are 7 years old.

Often, however, news of the Finnish miracle overlooks an important fact: The country has strong preschool and day care programs that the government is making even stronger.

Finland is “working to expand early education, through a heavily subsidized, academically oriented day-care system that’s already widely used,” Michael Alison Chandler writes in a Washington Post article. “And that starting time? It’s about to get younger, with compulsory preschool for all 6-year-olds.”

Chandler interviewed Krista Kiuru, the Finnish minister of education and science, who was in Washington touring schools and meeting with education officials.

Kiuru explained that Finland’s preschool programs enroll 98 percent of the country’s 6-year-olds, and younger children attend day care programs.

“We recently moved day care from the responsibility of the Social Affairs and Health Ministry to the Ministry of Education, because we saw that day care and preschool are very important for doing better in elementary school. If we can see kids’ advantages and disadvantages early on and make sure that they have help in those very early years, then they can get better results. Early possibilities to react are very important.

“We are also developing a new national curriculum for day care and preschool that we will start in 2016. We want to make sure all youngsters are in the same position wherever they live in Finland.” Well-trained teachers are also a key part of Finland’s day care programs. Lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees.

Explaining how important strong day care programs are for attracting more mothers into the workplace, Kiuru said: “We want to raise the employment level. We could benefit as a nation if all the young professional mothers, who have the skills that we need, bring their skills to the job market and create more growth, and at the same time, we will guarantee equal and universal day care for the kids. That is one of the targets of the government. I believe that it is also the way to educate our kids better.”

Earlier this month, NPR also reported on Kiuru’s visit and on Finnish day care, noting, “Then there’s the money issue. In Finland, of course, preschool and day care are basically free, because people pay a lot more taxes to fund these programs. Another glaring difference is the child poverty rate, which is almost 25 percent in the U.S. — five times more than in Finland.”

Additionally, “In Finland, children from poor families have access to high-quality preschool. In the U.S., most poor children get poor quality preschool, if they get any at all.”

W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) told NPR, “It’s very clear from the research in the U.S. that our problems with inequality [and] school failure are set when children walk in the school door.” That’s in part because the majority of the United States’ poorest 4-year-olds do not enroll in preschool programs.

“Those kids are going to be in a spiral of failure, and we set that up by not adequately investing before they get to kindergarten,” Barnett says. “We certainly can learn from countries like Finland.”

Kiuru told NPR that she is “in no position to say why the U.S. is struggling so much with this issue, but if her country has a lesson to offer, it’s this: ‘If you invest in early childhood education, in preschool and day care, that will lead [to] better results.’”

Kiuru calls that the “Finnish way,” but creating more innovative and meaningful preschool opportunities for children should also be as American as baseball and apple pie.