Alexa Doiron

Superintendent Mark Miear (middle) was selected to go to Finland with New Kent and Radford superintendents. Finland was recently named by PISA as the number one educational system in the world

Montgomery County Superintendent, Mark Miear, was sent to Finland this past month by EF Tours in order to learn more about Finnish school systems.

Finland was recently named the number one country in the world for education and the government offers a grant to send superintendents from all over the country to learn what Finland does to make education so successful.

The Finnish education system is comprised of a six-year primary school education, and then three years in middle school Education holds no tuition fees and has a fully subsidized meal program available to all students. In early education, students in Finland don’t start school until the age of seven and then at the age of 16 must decide if their secondary education will be either on the academic or vocational track.

Finland’s school systems are known for being innovative and breaking from traditional education practices in order to improve student learning and preparation for the future. Miear noticed a lot of similarities between the school systems in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, and Montgomery County.

One of the positive education aspects that Miear noticed was the maternity package that the government offers to families with newborns. In each package the child is given necessary survival tools, such as diapers or blankets, as well as three books. This is critical to educational development because 90 percent of brain growth occurs during the first five years of life, says one Finnish neurological study.

Miear also appreciated that students are given more responsibility at a younger age. Students aren’t forced to walk in lines to every location and they are able to walk to and from school on their own.

“Kids are given sort of more freedom,” Miear said. “What that does is it teaches kids how to interact with each other in an unstructured environment.”

Finnish schools have a very strong focus in early education and care, and the government offers quality daycare for all families with young children as well as nursery and kindergarten programs. Finland’s government sees these accommodations as critical for developing early communication and educational skills that are necessary for life-long success.

The value of teachers is also something Miear noticed to be a successful aspect of the schools. In Finland, one of the top three careers is teaching. Only nine percent of teachers who apply to programs in the field are accepted, which allows the country to pick from the best of the best.

“They’re teachers are treated truly as professionals, and that’s a different mindset from here,” Miear said. “We treat teachers as professionals, but the view of what a teacher is, it’s valued differently.”

Teachers in Finland are ranked in the top three most important jobs in the country, alongside doctors and police officers.

“I think that if I had an issue with something in our country that really effects education, it would be the morale of teachers,” he said.

Miear was able to participate in a number of activities to learn about education in Finland, such as taking part in the daily routine of a Finnish person and listen to the two systems that run education. One of the biggest differences in the structure of the Finnish lifestyle and education is the approach to cultural competency, Miear said, which is the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.

“In the United States, it seems that we seem to do it this isolation. You go and do this professional developmental cultural competency, or you have a day and time where you teach kids about each other,” Miear said. “One thing they do is attribute a lot of their success to how they do academically and how well their society functions together in the work place, is they teach cultural competencies in their curriculum. It’s imbedded in their class, it’s what they do regardless of what the subject area is, it all sort of works together.

Miear also was able to attend the global education summit in Milan, Italy. The theme of this year’s summit was food and how school systems can use food to help make the world and schools a better place. Miear participated in activities with the 2,000 students in attendance at the conference and was able to learn about nutrition in education as well as see live demonstrations from popular Food Network host, Anthony Bourdain.

This unique conference brings together schools from around the world that have already implemented substantial systemic change to one or more area of the traditional educational model. Miear said that this trip made him confident in the direction Montgomery County schools are headed, however he recognizes the challenges school systems in the US face compared to Finland.

Finland is a socialist country, which Miear said makes a huge difference in the way education in handled.

“We have a different mindset on education, and that’s what makes the difference. They truly believe education is a priority; they spend more money on education per capita than we do. It’s valued,” Miear said. “Our mindset is very competitive, its who can get the most who can make the most money. They have more of a community mindset, how can we be better citizens, how can we support each other?”

Miear made clear he is not advocating for socialism, but he said he found the way the schools functioned as an innovative look at education.

“I think a priority in a society is where they put their resources,” Miear said. “Unfortunately we are at a time where that’s not always the case in terms of public education but it impacts the future lives of everyone.”

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