Can Education Be a Driver of Equality?

Feb 1, 2012Bryce Covert

Finland's educational success proves that a focus on social justice produces solid outcomes.

Education was rightly big on Obama's agenda in his State of the Union address last week. As he noted, "[T]o prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earl[y]." He proposed solutions to getting better outcomes from kindergarten to higher ed. But his eyes were mostly on containing the system we have.

Yet on a more general level, we're still having a conversation as a country about what we mean when we say that we owe every child a decent education. We're currently trying to fix an issue fundamentally about social justice by focusing on accountability, competition, and choice. A conversation about values -- the purpose of education and what it should bring each child -- is lacking. Why do we educate children? Is the end goal a higher salary? High test scores? Or something else?

Education isn't just about creating better widgets for a smooth running economic machine; it's also about ensuring equality of opportunity to all of our citizens. We used to view education this way, but somehow that framing has gotten away from us. But the example set by Finland's success shows that by keeping a focus on equality, the other desired outcomes will follow.

Finland has been making news recently for topping the PISA survey of 15-year-old achievement in reading, math, and science in OECD countries. And rightly so: its students rank second in math, second in science, and third in reading. Where do you think the U.S. stands? At a pitiful 24th place for reading, 30th for science, and 32nd for math. Yet, as Anu Partanen writes in an article for The Atlantic, Finland has no standardized tests. There are no lists of best schools or teachers. Finnish doesn't even have a word for accountability. Instead, the emphasis is on equality of opportunity across all of its schools. They all rise and fall together.

On top of this, no Finnish child pays a cent for education during his or her lifetime. None of the schools are allowed to charge tuition fees, and even its small number of independent schools are publicly financed. This goes for grade school and grad school alike.

Finland's education policy focus, in stark contrast to the U.S., is not about competition and choice. It's about equality. As Partanen writes, "Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality." And that focus has fostered success for all.

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Many will get to this point in the post and scoff that the United States is nothing like Finland. Therefore it can't possibly stand as a comparable example of what we might be doing. And it's true that Finland is much smaller and more homogenous. But its immigrant population has been rising without changing its educational outcomes. Going further, Finland's percentage of foreign-born residents is identical to a full 18 states here at home -- and education is almost entirely doled out at the state level in our country. And even if we continue to refuse the comparison, we can compare it to Norway, which has taken an approach to education very similar to ours. Yet Norway has produced mediocre PISA results.

As part of a mission to establish education as a driver of social equality, the issue of tuition has to be front and center. As I said, Fins don't pay a single cent for education, even if they go as far as getting a PhD. Could we do something similar here? Higher education offers one possibility. The skyrocketing cost of college is no secret. Yet most reforms focus on controlling high tuition and subsidizing the loans used to pay for it. What would it mean if instead we made college free? Mike Konczal added up all the money spent on subsidizing higher education through loans and found out that it's not far from what it would take to simply pay for each student's degree.

Meanwhile, the cost of a private elementary school education is getting closer to the price of a private college education at the same time that "failing" public schools are being shut down. A recent data analysis by the New York Times showed that the median price of a private first grade education has risen 35 percent nationally over the last decade, while the price of an Ivy League college education has only risen 24 percent. This trend is far starker in New York City, and while the city is notorious for inflated prices, it offers a glimpse into rising private tuitions alongside closing public schools. About 35 public schools have been scheduled to close this year. Meanwhile, the price of a first grade education has risen by 48 percent in the past ten years. Tuition at two schools, in fact, is higher than Harvard's. We're pricing many families out of a decent education. We can do better to extend accessible and quality education to every student.

Finland's approach to education puts equality squarely at the center of the conversation. And the U.S. is in desperate need of solutions for our yawning inequality. Obama said himself, "No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important... [than] restor[ing] an economy where everyone gets a fair shot..." Because that's not the reality we live with. In our reality, the gap between the richest one percent and the rest of us more than tripled over the last three decades, leading to a level of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Education can be one piece of our arsenal in fighting this inequality. And it will probably lead to better outcomes.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.o.

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