Tuesday, November 03, 2015

If We Really Care About Children And Families

Maybe it's because I just returned from Iceland where we got to study what I consider to be excellent examples of early childhood education, but it seems like every time I turn around I'm seeing more evidence that the Scandinavian nations are doing things right when it comes to children, families, and democracy.

Anyone who's not been living under a rock is aware of the Finnish educational system, the nation that leads the world academically while focusing on equity rather than academics; minimizes standardized testing; waits until children are the developmentally appropriate age of seven to begin formal literacy education; trusts and supports professional teachers; provides, regular ample recess and minimal homework; and focuses on cooperation over competition. Finland is the media darling, of course, because of their ability to do well on international standardized tests (a measure of success the Finns themselves seem to care little about), but education, and especially early childhood education is highly regarded right across the Scandinavian world.

But it's not just education. It's clear that children and families are a genuinely high priority in these nations. Sweden, for instance, is moving toward a 30 hour work week throughout much of it's economy, with only one percent of it's workforce working more than 50 hour weeks. Not only that but every worker gets 25 annual vacation days, and parents get 480 days of paid maternity/paternity leave. Not only does this mean that families get more time together, but the Swedes have found that workers are happier, healthier, and are more productive with the shortened work week.

I can hear my naysaying neo-liberal friends grumbling about "business climate this" and "economic collapse that," but the truth is that the Scandinavian economies are stable and thriving. Take Denmark, for instance, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently did:

Denmark maintains a welfare state -- a set of government programs designed to provide economic security -- that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. Denmark provides universal health care; college education for free, and students receive a stipend; day care is heavily subsidized. Overall, working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of GDP, as their US counterparts.

And yes, taxes are high, but the disaster American economic conservatives would predict, just doesn't appear in the offing:

On the contrary, it's a prosperous nation that does quite well on job creation. In fact, adults in their prime working years are substantially more likely to be employed in Denmark than they are in America. Labor productivity in Denmark is roughly the same as it is here, although GDP per capita is lower, mainly because the Danes take a lot more vacation . . . Nor are the Danes melancholy: Denmark ranks at or near the top on international comparisons of "life satisfaction."

I put a lot of stock in those "life satisfaction" rankings because, after all, shouldn't that be the goal of any human institution, including the economy: to serve the people rather than the other way around?

Our nation claims to value children and families, but Scandinavian nations are much more inclined to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to policies that actually demonstrate it. I would even consider Iceland's response to the economic crisis of 2007, in which they let the banks fail, nationalized them, and put criminal bankers in jail, to be evidence of a focus on what's best for average people. Today, their economy is booming, one that everyone shares in, including children and families, as opposed to here in the US where almost all the economic growth goes to the top one percent while the big banks have grown even bigger and the criminal bankers got off without even a slap on the wrist. These are the actions of a people who have their priorities straight.

If we really care about children and families, it's time we took a longer look at what the Scandinavian nations are doing right.

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