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Early education in Nordic countries: Can we learn anything?

The comprehensive preschool education plan backed by all Nordic countries is called the New Nordic School.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on states to “make high-quality preschool [education] available to every single child in America.”

Nordic countries, built around the welfare-state model, and which score high on international education benchmarking tests, have provided successful preschool education programs for decades—success that has prompted U.S. education leaders to wonder what policies are scalable in the United States.

On Feb. 28, education leaders from Denmark, Sweden, and one of PISA’s top-scoring countries, Finland, met at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to discuss how their preschool education system works and why they believe that high-quality preschool education keeps their economy going.

The idea that high-quality preschool education will directly influence the economy is partly based on an equation developed by Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman.

The Heckman Equation shows that programs targeted toward the earliest years of child development return dollars to the economy later in life.

The Heckman Equation:

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“Nordic countries also believe in equality,” said keynote speaker Christine Antorini, minister for children and education in Denmark. “It doesn’t matter whether you have a high income or low income. High-quality education, including preschool, is available to everyone.”

(Next page: A closer look at the Nordic preschool education system)

In Denmark, explained Antorini, the mindset is focused not only on income equality, but gender equality. A flexible market allows families to make time to have children. Parents can share up to one year of paid leave to take care of their newborn children. Unemployment is lower than in other parts of the world, with 76 percent of men and 71 percent of women employed.

Almost all children are in day care from the age of one.

“In the welfare state, we have equal opportunities for all—and this includes education,” said Antorini. “We believe strongly in lifelong learning, which is free for all—college included. We also have generous student grants and loan plans, as well as universal day care. Of course, an average of 50 percent of your income goes to the state.”

Antorini said that most Nordic countries make good on the promise to provide successful day care and preschool systems by ensuring four characteristics: high quality, a focus on public engagement, universal availability, and a focus on supporting gender equality.

Since 2004, all day care centers have been obligated to prepare a written pedagogical curriculum for children up to two years old, and another for children ages 3 to school age. Curriculum focuses on personal development, social competences, language development, body and motion, knowledge of nature and natural phenomena, and cultural values and artistic expressions.

Funding is imperative to operate day care centers, stressed Antorini. For example, a municipality covers a minimum of 75 percent of the operating costs, and parents pay a maximum of 25 percent (approximately $400 per month) of the budgeted gross operating expenditure for day care services for children from 26 weeks to age six. Local councils also grant financial aid based on parent income.

The total public spending on day care in Denmark was approximately 5.65 billion U.S. dollars in 2011. Parents’ payments totaled approximately $1.42 billion.

The total age-integrated care expenditure per child  ages 0-2 averaged more than $24,000, and averaged more than $13,000 for children 3-5.

In Finland, each municipality spends roughly $656 per child to more than $1,000 per child.

To put these expenditures in perspective, the U.S. Head Start program spends $8,000 per child, and states pay roughly $5,000 per child. Denmark spends approximately 8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on kids under 8 years old, and the U.S. spends roughly 0.1 percent of its GDP on the same age range.

“All of Finland’s teachers must have a research-based master’s degree that’s based on a five-year degree,” said Tuula Irmeli Peltonen, a member of the Finnish Parliament. “We also set high wages for teachers, and teaching is considered a very respected profession in our country. This includes preschool teachers—every preschool teacher must have a college degree.”

Peltonen said Finland is reforming its education legislation to include more wireless and technology programs to boost student engagement.

Follow Associate Editor Meris Stansbury on Twitter at @eSN_Meris.

See also:

Obama puches preschool programs as sequestration looms

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