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Local heroes
Nov. 18, 2013
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By Kristen Miller
News Editor

With Finland ranked as one of the top education systems in the world, Katie Raisanen Bonawitz, an associate professor at Bethel University and 1990 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate, recently spent a five-week sabbatical touring schools in the Scandinavian nation to see just what all the hype was about.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students, Finland is ranked number one in education. The US, according to the survey, is ranked 17th.

In addition to finding out what put Finland at the top, Bonawitz was also interested to learning more about the country from where her four grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s.

The journey

A senior in high school, Bonawitz first realized she was interested in helping students with special needs.

She remembers working with a second-grade student with special needs and seeing how even the littlest things could make a giant impact on that child’s day.

Now, instead of making a difference to students with special needs, Bonawitz is preparing the future teachers of special education.

Through her travels across Finland, she found that there were things both the American and Finnish education systems could learn from each other.

Bonawitz visited six different schools; all were language immersion schools, in which at age 7, students have all of their lessons conducted in either Swedish or English.

The schools in Rovaniemi, Kuusamo, and Taivalkoski had very little diversity, Bonawitz noted, and the population would have looked similar to Finnish communities in Minnesota.

The school in Oulu, a city of 141,000, was represented by 28 countries.

In Kokkola, a city of 47,000, there was also very little diversity with Finnish and Swedish spoken equally in this town, she noted.

The school she visited in Helsinki, a city of 604,000 people, was represented by 23 countries.

Basic education in Finland is for ages 7 to 16.

Bonawitz noted that at age 16, students decide whether they will take a vocational route, attending a specialized technical school, or begin preparing for a degree from a university.

Unique to Finland is that “no matter what route they choose, they have the option to have a four-year degree,” Bonawitz noted.

Education up to a master’s degree is free in Finland and most European nations, she noted.

Because Finland is a socialist country, a greater percentage of thier salaries are devoted to taxes, with health care and education being the major recipients, Bonawitz explained, adding that the wages are also considerably higher than in the US.

In Finland, teaching is also a very highly competitive profession in which there is no such thing as a bad teacher, Bonawitz said, adding that it’s partly due to the fact that tenure doesn’t exist in the Finnish education system.

Unique to Finland schools

When it comes to general education, Bonawitz can now see why the country ranks at the top, at least according to PISA (the US is ranked number 17th).

There is some discrepancy in the results, however, Bonawitz noted. Students with moderate to severe disabilities aren’t included in the test scores for Finland and many other countries, she said.

In the US, however, all but 1 percent of the students with disabilities are included in the PISA scores.

Bonawitz noted that, on average, 10 to 12 percent of the US school population are students with special education needs.

“Finland doesn’t have those percentages because [the country] doesn’t identify their children the same way we do,” she said.

The latest set of results from the 2012 data collection (PISA 2012), focusing on mathematics, will be released Tuesday, Dec. 3.

From her tours, Bonawitz was most surprised to learn that for every 45 minutes of lessons, Finnish students receive 15 minutes of recess.

Physical activity, Bonawitz noted “is critical for brain development.”

She was also impressed that whether it be sewing, painting, music, or woodworking, students spend one-third of their week devoted to some form of art or hands-on learning.

“They’re simply doing what we know is best for our kids,” Bonawitz commented.

Another unique piece to the Finnish school system is that all Finnish children receive one hour of religious lessons per week. Though Lutheranism is the most common, students have the right to have religious lessons in whatever religion they practice.

Contributing to the success of the Finnish education system, Bonawitz noted, was the lack of emphasis placed on standardized testing.

“They’re not forced to meet required standards like we [are] in the US,” she said.

Special education in Finland

She identified several clear indications as to why the Finnish are succeeding when it comes to general education, but found they were behind when it came to students with moderate to severe special needs.

“They are doing an amazing job with mild to moderate disabilities, but as far as a moderate to severe [students], they are mostly excluded at this point,” Bonawitz commented.

In Finland, all children receive any necessary help with reading, writing, and math if they need it, she said, adding that 30 percent of children receive extra help in their first nine years of school, compared to 10 percent of children receiving special education services in the US.

Finland does not “label” students in order for them to receive extra help; they simply get it, she said. “There isn’t a focus on doing multiple assessments in order to determine this, as it is in the US.”

In Finland, all students are educated, but not equally, Bonawitz added.

Students with more severe disabilities aren’t assimilated with their peers in the regular school systems, but rather attend schools outside their neighborhood with other special needs students.

The principals she spoke with all commented that they desire to do a better job with this, Bonawitz said. She added that since it’s not a mandate to include students with moderate to severe disabilities in every school, it is not always a priority for schools to spend money in that way on such things as proper facilities, specially licensed teachers, and necessary equipment.

Students considered to have moderate to severe disabilities generally struggle in two or more areas, such as cognitive and functional needs, Bonawitz explained. Whereas, a mild to moderate disability would be more of a learning disability, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

She observed that the discrepancy is partly due to the fact that parents of students with disabilities aren’t pushing the education system to advance as with parents in the US.

“In America, parents of children with disabilities have always been a major part of advocating for their rights,” she said. She referenced the 1975 legislation with the passage of the Education For All Handicapped Act (now called Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which was a result of parents lobbying for change.

Learning from Finland

Having finished her sabbatical and returned to Minnesota, Bonawitz now hopes to take the lessons she learned from the Finnish education system to teach others here.

She will begin by working with the Minnesota Department of Education to see what could practically be integrated into the state’s education systems. For example, she would like to see more intentional time for play integrated throughout each day.

She plans to present what she learned throughout the state and country at various educational forums, events, and seminars.

Bonawitz would also like to work with the University of Lapland on potential partnership opportunities.

“This was an incredibly rewarding experience, where I was able to combine my rich Finnish ancestry with my passion for education,” Bonawitz said. “I look forward to, hopefully, many future opportunities with the Finnish schools.”

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