European trip reaffirms need to push early childhood education

Dr.Bette Hyde -
Dr.Bette Hyde
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Ben Franklin was right. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s one of the major conclusions drawn by Bremerton superintendent Dr. Bette Hyde after a recent tour of the United Kingdom and Finland studying early learning practices.

Hyde was one of 21 people selected for the Economic Opportunity Institute study tour, funded by the Gates Foundation looking at early childhood learning practices in those countries. The group made up of researchers, teachers, parents, governmental representatives and business leaders traveled to London and Helsinki from Sept. 29 to Oct. 7.

“I think the biggest difference is, in those countries, children really matter,” Hyde said. “It’s a mindset. They understand children are a valuable commodity.” With all of the complex issues surrounding early learning and young children, the European approach centers around the theme of “let’s love them,” Hyde said. “Their whole idea of education is based on prevention. I’m afraid ours is based on reaction.”

The No Child Left Behind act is a perfect example of that difference. If you wait to look at test scores of children already failing in school, you’re approaching the problem from the opposite end of the European model, she said. More significantly, the U.S. system is punitive in nature. If a school district is falling behind, funding is taken away. Programs that are still available to meet specific needs are usually taken away once a district starts showing signs of improvement.

Families are important for economic reasons, and major differences can be seen in the infrastructures of American, British and Finnish societies. From socialized health care to publicly funded college education to parental leave policies, the Finnish model is the most different from ours, and the educational results may be shocking. The United States doesn’t fare particularly well against the other industrialized nations in primary and secondary educational achievement. In test scores the US ranks 15th worldwide, 42nd in math and science. Finland ranks first overall, second in math and science behind Singapore. Much of the credit for Finland’s success is given to its comprehensive early learning system.

Early childhood educators have a much higher level of education in Finland, and are paid much better than in the United States. In the US the average early childhood educator is paid less than the average dental assistant.

Family leave policies also highlight the difference in philosophy between our cultures. In Finland the approximate value of family leave per birth is more than $29,000. In the United States it is zero. Nationally, the U.S. has no statutory system of paid leave or child benefits. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives up to 12 weeks of leave per year, but it is unpaid. In Washington state the average value of leave is $1,250. Of interest, Washington recently became only the second state in the union to offer comprehensive paid family leave. Beginning in October of 2009, five weeks of paid leave equalling $250 per week will be available to all employees who worked more than 680 hours in the previous year. But, it should be noted that as of data collected in 2002, Washington had the most regressive tax structure in the country, with low-income citizens paying a greater percentage of their income in state and local taxes than in any other state.

Hyde and the other study group members will meet later this month to discuss policy implications based on their recent experience. “Studies show a good pre-school program can overcome a poor primary school,” Hyde said. “So, while we’re trying to improve everywhere, I think there needs to be a movement to reach even younger.”

Hyde also believes in a movement to reach out to the parents. “One of the biggest effects can come through parent education,” Hyde said. “Knowing about a need is part of doing something about it.”

Hyde points to a 2004 quote from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an example of how important our educational system is to our country. “I think education is the most important national security issue that we have,” Rice said, “not because it’s key to our economic competitiveness, though, certainly it is, but because it is through education that we live and affirm what we stand for as a nation. The idea that our prosperity comes from the industry and creativity of individuals, and the idea that education is the great equalizer. Education wipes away the differences of circumstances of birth and the confines of class. It allows you to remake yourself anew. And it underscores the proposition that in America it really doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going. Education is the glue that holds our multi-ethnic democracy together.”

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