RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Finland, a country the size of the state of Minnesota beats the U.S. in math, reading and science - not to mention hockey. But let's stick with education. In Finland, children don't start formal schooling until age 7 and yet, the vast majority arrive with solid reading and math skills. By age 15, Finnish students outperform all but a few countries on international assessments. So, is preschool the key to Finland's success? NPR's Claudio Sanchez put that question to Finland's minister of education and science during her visit to Washington.
KRISTA KIURU: (Foreign language spoken)
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Krista Kiuru sits at the end of a long table at the Finnish embassy's sleek, modern offices, giving her staff last minute instructions. She's about the make a PowerPoint presentation in front of U.S. educators and researchers who've come to hear more about the Finnish way.
KIURU: We are one of the superpowers in education in the world.
After all, says Kiuru every child in Finland under the age of 7 has a right to child care and preschool, by law, regardless of family income. Over 97 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds attend a program of one type or another. But, says Kiuru, the key to Finland's universal preschool system is quality.
First of all, it's about having high quality teachers. Day care teachers are having a bachelor degree. So, we trust our teachers and that is very, very important. And the third factor, we have strong values in the political level.
SANCHEZ: Political consensus and support help, says Kiuru.
AMANDA RIPLEY: I didn't really believe it. You know, I wanted to see it for myself.
SANCHEZ: Author Amanda Ripley traveled to Finland and several top-performing countries and wrote "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way." She says compared to Singapore, South Korea or Japan, Finland's approach is pretty laid back, even though its standards - like what a preschooler should know and be able to do - are set by Finland's national curriculum guidelines for early childhood care.
RIPLEY: Kids are almost all in some kind of day care, all of whom are working in the same curriculum aligned with what they're going to learn in school. That's a level of coherence that most of our kids will never experience, because we don't have a coherent system with highly trained people in almost every classroom.
SANCHEZ: It's a level coherence that President Obama has repeatedly called for. But until there's a national consensus on standards and what quality preschool should look like, Ripley says early childhood education in the U.S. will remain fragmented. Then there's the money issue. In Finland, of course, preschool and day care are basically free because people pay a lot more taxes to fund these programs. Another glaring difference is the child poverty rate. In the U.S., it's almost 25 percent - five times more than in Finland. Again, Amanda Ripley.
RIPLEY: And in most countries that I've traveled to, they see poverty and education as linked. You cannot separate them.
SANCHEZ: In Finland, children from poor families have access to high quality preschool. In the U.S., most poor children get poor quality preschool, if they get any at all.
STEVE BARNETT: It's very clear from the research in the United States that our problems with inequality, our problems with school failure, are set when children walk in the school door.
SANCHEZ: Steve Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Sixty percent of the poorest 4-year-olds in the U.S. get no preschool. Most, says Barnett, start school 18 months behind.
BARNETT: Those kids are going to be in a spiral of failure, and we set that up by not adequately investing before they get to kindergarten. We certainly can learn from countries like Finland.
SANCHEZ: Finland's minister of education, Krista Kiuru, says she's in no position to say why the U.S. is struggling so much with this issue. But if her country has a lesson to offer, it's this:
KIURU: If you invest in early at childhood education in the preschools and in the day care, that will lead in the better results.
SANCHEZ: Kiuru says that's been the Finnish way. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.