Early Childhood Education in Finland

Earlier this year, the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell cited Finland as evidence for their view that universal preschool is a bad idea:

Early education in general is not so crucial to the long-term intellectual growth of children. Finland offers strong evidence for this view. Its kids consistently outperform their global peers in reading, math and science on international assessments even though they don’t begin formal education until they are 7.

For one thing, Dalmia and Snell are just wrong about this — Finland starts voluntary preschool at 6 and over ninety percent of children enroll. Compulsory education begins at 7. But more to the point, this is a situation where actually visiting Finland is informative. Children under 6 in Finland have an “unconditional right” to places in heavily subsidized centers. When speaking English, Finns call these centers “day care” centers and not “preschool.” But I went to three of them and spoke to teachers who teach there and administrators who run them, and they looked like preschool to me. Of course I’m not an expert. But Sara Mead is an expert and she says it “meets most of the standards for what we in the United States would call preschool.” In particular, you have college educated teachers, you have national curriculum guidelines, and while you don’t have much formal instruction you do see an enormous amount of emphasis placed on children’s intellectual development.

Beyond what Sara says, I would also observe that there are quite deliberate efforts to use early childhood education to help narrow achievement gaps. Finland has a relatively low poverty rate and relatively few immigrants compared to the United States, but the people we spoke to there talked about deliberate efforts to do outreach to immigrant families — even ones with unemployed parents — to help them learn Finnish. They also have a lot of special ed preschool teachers to specifically target kids with problems. Far from being an example of a country achieving educational success without early childhood preparation, I would say that excellent preschooling is one of the three main pillars (along with low levels of child poverty and high levels of competition to become a teacher) of Finland’s educational success.