Monthly Archives: June 2017

New Mobile Education App with Mega Info

New Mobile Application Offers Detailed Information about California’s PK-12 and Adult Education Schools

Source: California Department of Education


A new mobile application that offers detailed information about California’s 10,000 public schools was announced last week by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

The free “CA Schools” mobile app, which is available for iOS and Android systems, lets users locate nearby schools based on their current location or search for schools (public or private) by location (e.g., city, district, or ZIP code). The app provides information such as the school’s phone number, address, demographics, and test scores (for public schools).

“Never before have we put so much school information literally in the hands of our students, parents, and community members and made the information so accessible and user-friendly,” Torlakson said.

Visit for more information about this useful new app. Also see for today’s announcement about DataQuest improvements.

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Real Estate, Mathematics, and Financial Literacy :

Life skills mathematics!  How often have I heard people ask me, “Why don’t schools teach math that students would really use in life?”  Well, now its here.  Thanks for taking time to check it out so you know what students are learning.  ~Sandy

Tips for Teachers Helping Students Plan for Success

Real estate – including renting, buying and investing – is an important concept for children to grasp, and yet it can feel like too much of an “adult” concept. Particularly for math and economics teachers, having a resource with lesson plans and information about these topics and how they relate to students age-appropriately is helpful. Here are some excellent resources and lesson plans you can use today in your classroom, as well as information about what topics will reach your children best.

Feel free to jump ahead to the sections that interest you most!

Understanding the National Standards Early Elementary School (Grades K-3) Late Elementary School (Grades 4-6)

Middle School (Grades 6-8) High School (Grades 9-12) Additional Information and Resources for Teachers


Understanding the National Standards

First, before you can get into the meat of what you need to be teaching children and when, you need to understand the basic standards and how they apply to the subjects of financial literacy and economics. Learning how to handle money and invest wisely is critical to success as an adult, and the Council for Economic Education has provided a list of National Standards for Financial Literacy. Keeping this list in mind will help you prepare lessons that are in line with what your students can and should be learning. In the resources discussed below, these standards will be discussed more deeply, but in general the standards require students to understand:

  •       Earning Income – Students need to understand how people earn income and what they can do to increase their income and job opportunities. In addition, older students need to learn about factors like interest, rent, capital gains, dividends, and profits, which can all affect the meaning of income in-hand.
  •        Buying Goods and Services – Students will need to understand how money is used to buy goods and services, and how people decide which goods and services to spend money on in the first place.
  •       Saving – Setting aside money for future use is an important concept for students to understand, and it relates to real estate in the fact that people need to save for deposits and down payments.
  •        Using Credit – Credit options and the use of credit is an important concept for students. Teaching students how to weigh the pros and cons of debt will make them more financially responsible.
  •       Financial Investing – Purchasing financial assets to create future income or wealth can involve real estate, and is an important concept for students to understand.
  •       Protecting and Insuring – Protecting one’s self and one’s financial investments helps reduce the risk of financial loss.

These standards apply to all students, regardless of socio-economic background. Throughout this guide, these resources serve as a basis for the lessons included. For more information about these standards, check out these resources:

  •        Jump$ – This site lists the competency levels for the national standards to help teachers determine if they are on track.
  •        Institute for Financial Literacy – Another checklist of benchmarks students need to attain in the quest for financial literacy.
  •        National Financial Educators Council – This resource breaks down the standards based on age and based on topic to help educators with their planning.
  •        Common Cents – This quarterly article from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City provides teachers and parents with lessons they can easily implement with their students. It covers all concepts and grade levels with a focus on money and economics specifically.

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Real Estate, Math, and Financial Literacy Concepts in Early Elementary School (Grades K-3)

In early elementary school, the concept of a major purchase like buying a home is almost impossible to understand. Students of this age have very little concept of money and its value. As such, much of the literacy and real estate teaching here simply sets the foundation for future study. You aren’t going to teach students about home buying and real estate investment in kindergarten, but you can teach them some basic economic concepts that will help them grow.

Key Concepts for Early Elementary Students

From grade K through grade 2, students are not yet ready to learn advanced economic concepts. Instead, they need a basic introduction to the ideas of buying, selling, and earning income. They also need to understand the fact that they have needs and wants, and they must grasp their power to make choices that affect those needs and wants.

Students in this age range need to be able to understand that:

  •         Numbers are a symbol for quantity
  •        People have different wants and need to choose between different things they may want
  •        People sometimes have to be able to tell the difference between “needs” and “wants.”
  •        We can choose the type of lifestyle we want
  •       We use goals to help us reach that lifestyle
  •       Our understanding of money affects the decisions we make
  •       Saving money require a plan
  •       Banks and financial institutions can help us grow our savings
  •       If we borrow, we have to pay it back
  •       We can choose a profession and use that to earn money
  •       Before we act, we need to think to help lower risk

Many of these concepts are not highly mathematical in nature, but they are still critical to a clear understanding of real estate investment, purchasing and profitability. They are also key to economic and financial literacy, so they are worth spending time on.

Lesson Plans for Early Elementary Students

Here are some lesson plans that you can use to cover these concepts in your lower elementary classroom.

  •         Learn to Earn When You Tend to Spend – Students in grades 2-3 will learn the meanings of spending and earning, which math function is associated with these actions, and how change is made up to a dollar.
  •        Financial Literacy Lesson Plan – This lesson plan set is for grades Pre K through 2 and covers making spending decisions, spending plans, earning money, and the definition of money.
  •        Fieldtrip to the Money Factory – This lesson plan and video shows young students where money is made.
  •        Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday – This lesson plan for grades K-2 uses a picture book to discuss the concepts of spending and saving money.
  •        Betty Bunny Wants Everything – This Q&A from another popular children’s book discusses the concept of want, choice and scarcity in a kid-friendly way.
  •        Bunny Money – Max and Ruby, two loveable storybook bunnies, explore the concepts of money, saving and spending in this picture book.
  •        My Money – An educational workbook for early elementary students about the basic concepts of income, money and saving.
  •        Money Activities for Kids – A collection of fun activities you can do in the elementary classroom to reinforce the idea of money and its uses.

As you can see, these lessons do not touch the topic of real estate and home buying specifically, but they cover the basic money concepts that students need to understand before they move on to an understanding of buying and selling real estate. Without this foundational understanding of earning money, spending money and saving money, students cannot move on to the more advanced concepts of home buying.

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Real Estate, Math, and Financial Literacy Concepts in Late Elementary (Grades 4-6)

In later elementary school from grade 4 on, students are able to grasp slightly more challenging concepts of money, spending and saving and can start to apply them to real world situations. This is a great time to introduce the idea of lending and interest, as well as some basics about investing. Students may be able to understand some slight concepts about home buying, but the focus is still on money management and income earning topics.

Key Concepts for Late Elementary Students

According to the financial literacy standards, late elementary students should be learning:

  •      That life involves making decisions, and those decisions require planning
  •        The habit of saving needs to start early
  •        Rainy Day (emergency) accounts are important to plan for
  •        The difference between saving, investing and sharing
  •        Different jobs and businesses have different lifestyles and require different preparation
  •        Understanding loans and contracts in real estate and sales decisions
  •        Credit has benefits and risks that need to be understood
  •        Credit has penalties if not repaid
  •        We can use insurance to protect our valuables from risks

Again, many of these concepts are not highly real estate specific, but the concepts of financial literacy are pointing students a bit more to the concepts of buying and selling real estate and investing in general. Teachers can set the foundation for better understanding of these concepts with strategic lesson plans on these topics.

Lesson Plans for Early Elementary Students

  •        Lemonade Stand Game – This online game allows upper elementary students to plan and run a virtual lemonade stand for 30 days with the goal of making money.
  •        Money Management Foundation – This lesson plan set for grades 3 through 6 covers allowances and spending plans, money responsibility, saving and investing and comparison shopping.
  •        Econ Explorers Curriculum – This free curriculum resource from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago explores economic concepts on a kid-friendly level.
  •        How Credit Works – A key concept in real estate is the mortgage, and in order to understand mortgages students must understand credit. This lesson will have students make a “loan application” with a family member.
  •        Think Before You Buy – In real estate and investing, you must think before you buy. This lesson plan for grades 5 and 6 will focus on teaching students to think before spending their money.
  •        Play CA Stock Market Game – Investing requires an understanding of the risks in the markets. The CA Stock Market Game gives students virtual money to invest in stock market in a computer-based environment. The money then grows or shrinks based on the student’s investment decisions and the real-world markets, helping students understand investment.
  •        Using Credit – Uses the book Not for a Billion Gazillion Dollars to introduce the concept of debt and credit. Designed for grade 5.

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Real Estate and Financial Literacy Concepts in Middle School (Grades 6-8)

In middle school, typically grades 6 through 8 or 9, students have a bit more reasoning capabilities. These students are on the cusp of getting their first jobs and having their first real money to spend, so this is a critical time to teach about money, investing and real estate concepts.

Key Concepts for Middle School Students

According to the financial literacy standards, middle school students should be learning:

  •        How to create and use a budget
  •        How compound and simple interest work
  •        How retirement accounts help people plan for the future
  •        Why saving is critical for success in life
  •        Harder work leads to a greater reward
  •        Our decisions have a positive or negative effect on our credit history
  •        There is a difference between positive and negative debt
  •        The relationship between insurance premiums and insurance coverage
  •        Lack of insurance carries specific risk
  •        How investments can grow with compound interest

Lesson Plans for Middle School Students

The real state and finance concepts studied in middle school set the stage for in-depth study in high school. Here are some lesson plans from authoritative sites that can help you prepare your middle school students for what they will be learning in coming years.

  •           Financial Basics Lesson Plan Set – This comprehensive list of 14 lesson plans covers everything from making money and budgeting to buying a home and using credit wisely. For grades 7 through 8.
  •           Money Math: Lessons for Life – This set of four lesson plans from TreasuryDirect focuses on important economic and investment concepts.
  •           Investments: The Gift that Keeps on Giving – This lesson plan will help middle school students see the types of investments available to them as young people.
  •           Mortgage Calculation Lesson Plan – This lesson plan, available for grades 7 and up, focuses on teaching students how to calculate the cost of a mortgage using a variety of factors.
  •  Real Estate Tycoon – This math and economics project for grades 6 through 8 asks students to design, “build” and “sell” a house, following the investment profits of the stock market to determine their profitability.
  • Careers in Real Estate – Students will research the career potential for various real estate related positions. Designed for grade 8.
  •            Mortgages – This BrainPOP movie and related lessons will help middle school students understand what mortgages are and how they work. Teachers can also create a quiz from the video content.
  •            Life Is About Choices and Choices Have Consequences – This lesson plan focuses on a number of financial choices, including mortgage, home buying and foreclosure, that a student may face in his or her life, and the long-term consequences of those choices.
  •           Mortgage Loan Calculation – Introduce the concept of a mortgage with this loan calculator and math worksheet.
  •           Calculate Down Payments as a Fraction – Use the down payment and cost of a home to study fractions in a real-life scenario. This lesson is for grades 6-8.
  •           Money Math – A middle school math curriculum focusing on financial literacy topics.
  •           Home Buying: Terms of a Mortgage – A middles school math unit exploring the terms of a mortgage.

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Real Estate and Financial Literacy Concepts in High School (Grades 9-12)

High school is the time when you need to dig deeply into financial literacy and real estate concepts. These young adults can and should understand the concepts of buying and selling real estate, leveraging investments and using interest to their advantage. In the high school years, students can delve a little deeper into the idea of investing in real estate, planning for a home purchase, shopping for a mortgage, and other real-estate related topics that they will face in just a few short years as adults.

Key Concepts for High School Students

According to the national standards, high school students should understand important adult concepts of home buying, credit and lending. Some of these concepts include:

  •        The makeup and protection of your credit profile and history
  •        How mortgages work and what factors allow you to get a mortgage
  •        How to plan for a home purchase, including budgeting
  •        How to leverage investments to grow your income
  •        How to analyze housing options, including buying versus renting
  •        How to analyze different credit and lending options
  •        The benefits and drawbacks of interest on a credit account
  •        How income and employment are related

The concepts taught to high school students are quite similar to the concepts taught to adults, but the framework is different. With high school students, you are talking about the near future, whereas with adults you are talking about their current state.

Lesson Plans for High School Students

As you can see, these lesson plans focus on real-world experiences that students will need to be prepared for as adults. There is a stronger focus on home buying and investing in the 9 through 12 grade years as well.

  •        Financial Planning Unit Plan – This high school lesson plan unit has 22 lessons on money managing, home buying, investing and more.
  •        Can I Afford This House – This high school lesson plan helps students learn to evaluate whether or not they can afford a house that is actually for sale in their actual location using an Internet-based search and math concepts for budgeting.
  •        Buying a Home – A high school lesson plan that walks students through the process of buying a home.
  •        The Math of House Buying – This advanced math lesson plan looks at the math behind buying homes and getting mortgages.
  •        The Business of Interest – This lesson teaches students what interest is and how banks use it to make money.
  •        Credit Reports and Credit Scores – This lesson focuses on teaching high school students about their credit report and credit score and how it affects their ability to get credit.
  •        Pop Goes the Housing Bubble – The “Housing Bubble” was an interesting real estate concept in recent years, and this lesson plan looks at how it affects the real estate markets for today’s high school students. While not math specific, this lesson plan is important to understanding real estate investment.
  •        A Beginner’s Introduction to Real Estate Investing – For students with an interest in real estate investing, this series of video lessons could be helpful.
  •        Steps to Purchase a Home – This lesson plan puts students in groups and takes them through the steps of purchasing a home, including planning for a budget and the needs of a family.
  •        Renting Vs. Owning a Home – This lesson for 9-12 grade looks at whether renting or buying a home makes the most sense for people in various stages of life.
  •        Credit: Buy Now & Pay More Later – Introduces students in grades 9-12 to the cost of credit and what using a credit card means for their financial future.
  •        Buying vs. Renting – Another lesson teaching students to make the best choice between buying and renting a home.
  •        Mortgages and Interest – A lesson plan on mortgages, interest and the concept of compound interest for students in grades 9 through 12.

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Additional Information and Resources for Teachers

Sometimes, teachers need to improve their own understanding of specific concepts before teaching them to students. This is particularly true for finance related concepts, and for math teachers who are given the task of teaching personal finance or economics courses, but may not have training in these subjects. If you are finding your own ideas about mortgages and home buying or real estate investment are lacking, here are some resources for more information.

In addition, here are some resources where you may be able to find additional information on investment and real estate topics, as well as lesson plans that do not fit within the specific standards discussed above:


Autism is running prevalent today.  My question was, is it getting worse or is it easier to detect due to new brain spects and other technology.  I think it is a little of both.  I enjoyed learning the facts below.   I have great appreciation for all of you parenting and working with these precious children.  Enjoy the following from the Autism Society.  ~Sandy

What is Autism:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. Again, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, or many others besides. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report. The report concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States – nearly twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in 54 boys. The spotlight shining on autism as a result has opened opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve families facing a lifetime of supports for their children. In June 2014, researchers estimated the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism is as great as $2.4 million. The Autism Society estimates that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism. (This figure includes research, insurance costs and non-covered expenses, Medicaid waivers for autism, educational spending, housing, transportation, employment, related therapeutic services and caregiver costs.)

Know the signs: Early identification can change lives

Autism is treatable. Children do not “outgrow” autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. For more information on developmental milestones, visit the CDC’s “Know the Signs. Act Early” site.


  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects


The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but they usually become clearer during early childhood (24 months to 6 years).

As part of a well-baby or well-child visit, your child’s doctor should perform a “developmental screening,” asking specific questions about your baby’s progress. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five behaviors that warrant further evaluation:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age

Any of these five “red flags” does not mean your child has autism. But because the disorder’s symptoms vary so widely, a child showing these behaviors should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team. This team might include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant or other professionals who are knowledgeable about autism.

For more information, visit the Infants and Toddlers page or the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early” program.


When parents or support providers become concerned that their child is not following a typical developmental course, they turn to experts, including psychologists, educators and medical professionals, for a diagnosis.

At first glance, some people with autism may appear to have an intellectual disability, sensory processing issues, or problems with hearing or vision. To complicate matters further, these conditions can co-occur with autism. However, it is important to distinguish autism from other conditions, as an accurate and early autism diagnosis can provide the basis for an appropriate educational and treatment program.

Other medical conditions or syndromes, such as sensory processing disorder, can present symptoms that are confusingly similar to autism’s. This is known as differential diagnosis.

There are many differences between a medical diagnosis and an educational determination, or school evaluation, of a disability. A medical diagnosis is made by a physician based on an assessment of symptoms and diagnostic tests. A medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, for instance, is most frequently made by a physician according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5, released 2013) of the American Psychological Association. This manual guides physicians in diagnosing autism spectrum disorder according to a specific number of symptoms.

A brief observation in a single setting cannot present a true picture of someone’s abilities and behaviors. The person’s developmental history and input from parents, caregivers and/or teachers are important components of an accurate diagnosis.

An educational determination is made by a multidisciplinary evaluation team of various school professionals. The evaluation results are reviewed by a team of qualified professionals and the parents to determine whether a student qualifies for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Hawkins, 2009).


There is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism compared to in neurotypical children. Researchers do not know the exact cause of autism but are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics and medical problems.

In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting the theory that the disorder has a genetic basis. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single “trigger” that causes autism to develop.

Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances and exposure to chemicals.

Genetic Vulnerability

Autism tends to occur more frequently than expected among individuals who have certain medical conditions, including fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, congenital rubella syndrome and untreated phenylketonuria (PKU). Some harmful substances ingested during pregnancy also have been associated with an increased risk of autism.


About 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder. (CDC, 2014)

Prevalence in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 births. (CDC, 2014)

More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. (Buescher et al., 2014)

Prevalence of autism in U.S. children increased by 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68). (CDC, 2014) Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. (CDC, 2008)

Prevalence has increased by 6-15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010. (Based on biennial numbers from the CDC)

Autism services cost U.S. citizens $236-262 billion annually. (Buescher et al., 2014)

A majority of costs in the U.S. are in adult services – $175-196 billion, compared to $61-66 billion for children. (Buescher et al., 2014)

Cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention. (Autism. 2007 Sep;11(5):453-63; The economic consequences of autistic spectrum disorder among children in a Swedish municipality. Järbrink K1.)

1 percent of the adult population of the United Kingdom has autism spectrum disorder. (Brugha T.S. et al., 2011)

The U.S. cost of autism over the lifespan is about $2.4 million for a person with an intellectual disability, or $1.4 million for a person without intellectual disability. (Buescher et al., 2014)

35 percent of young adults (ages 19-23) with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school. (Shattuck et al., 2012)

It costs more than $8,600 extra per year to educate a student with autism. (Lavelle et al., 2014) (The average cost of educating a student is about $12,000 – NCES, 2014)

In June 2014, only 19.3 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. were participating in the labor force – working or seeking work. Of those, 12.9 percent were unemployed, meaning only 16.8 percent of the population with disabilities was employed. (By contrast, 69.3 percent of people without disabilities were in the labor force, and 65 percent of the population without disabilities was employed.) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014)


Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

The country’s achievements in education have other nations, especially the United States, doing their homework.

Kirkkojarvi School
“This is what we do every day,” says Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School principal Kari Louhivuori, “prepare kids for life.” (Stuart Conway)
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It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators—including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist—convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Still, there is a distinct absence of chest-thumping among the famously reticent Finns. They are eager to celebrate their recent world hockey championship, but PISA scores, not so much. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

Maija Rintola stood before her chattering class of twenty-three 7- and 8-year-olds one late April day in Kirkkojarven Koulu. A tangle of multicolored threads topped her copper hair like a painted wig. The 20-year teacher was trying out her look for Vappu, the day teachers and children come to school in riotous costumes to celebrate May Day. The morning sun poured through the slate and lemon linen shades onto containers of Easter grass growing on the wooden sills. Rintola smiled and held up her open hand at a slant—her time-tested “silent giraffe,” which signaled the kids to be quiet. Little hats, coats, shoes stowed in their cubbies, the children wiggled next to their desks in their stocking feet, waiting for a turn to tell their tale from the playground. They had just returned from their regular 15 minutes of playtime outdoors between lessons. “Play is important at this age,” Rintola would later say. “We value play.”

With their wiggles unwound, the students took from their desks little bags of buttons, beans and laminated cards numbered 1 through 20. A teacher’s aide passed around yellow strips representing units of ten. At a smart board at the front of the room, Rintola ushered the class through the principles of base ten. One girl wore cat ears on her head, for no apparent reason. Another kept a stuffed mouse on her desk to remind her of home. Rintola roamed the room helping each child grasp the concepts. Those who finished early played an advanced “nut puzzle” game. After 40 minutes it was time for a hot lunch in the cathedral-like cafeteria.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

Even so, Rintola said her children arrived last August miles apart in reading and language levels. By April, nearly every child in the class was reading, and most were writing. Boys had been coaxed into literature with books like Kapteeni Kalsarin (“Captain Underpants”). The school’s special education teacher teamed up with Rintola to teach five children with a variety of behavioral and learning problems. The national goal for the past five years has been to mainstream all children. The only time Rintola’s children are pulled out is for Finnish as a Second Language classes, taught by a teacher with 30 years’ experience and graduate school training.

There are exceptions, though, however rare. One first-grade girl was not in Rintola’s class. The wispy 7-year-old had recently arrived from Thailand speaking not a word of Finnish. She was studying math down the hall in a special “preparing class” taught by an expert in multicultural learning. It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in “positive discrimination” funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes.

Author Lynnell Hancock says that an attitude of doing “whatever it takes” drives not only Kirkkojarvi principal Kari Louhivuori, shown here, but also Finland’s 62,000 other professional educators in 3,500 public schools from Lapland to Turku. (Stuart Conway)

Rintola will teach the same children next year and possibly the next five years, depending on the needs of the school. “It’s a good system. I can make strong connections with the children,” said Rintola, who was handpicked by Louhivuori 20 years ago. “I understand who they are.” Besides Finnish, math and science, the first graders take music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. English begins in third grade, Swedish in fourth. By fifth grade the children have added biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry.

Not until sixth grade will kids have the option to sit for a district-wide exam, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate. Most do, out of curiosity. Results are not publicized. Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

I had come to Kirkkojarvi to see how the Finnish approach works with students who are not stereotypically blond, blue-eyed and Lutheran. But I wondered if Kirkkojarvi’s success against the odds might be a fluke. Some of the more vocal conservative reformers in America have grown weary of the “We-Love-Finland crowd” or so-called Finnish Envy. They argue that the United States has little to learn from a country of only 5.4 million people—4 percent of them foreign born. Yet the Finns seem to be onto something. Neighboring Norway, a country of similar size, embraces education policies similar to those in the United States. It employs standardized exams and teachers without master’s degrees. And like America, Norway’s PISA scores have been stalled in the middle ranges for the better part of a decade.

To get a second sampling, I headed east from Espoo to Helsinki and a rough neighborhood called Siilitie, Finnish for “Hedgehog Road” and known for having the oldest low-income housing project in Finland. The 50-year-old boxy school building sat in a wooded area, around the corner from a subway stop flanked by gas stations and convenience stores. Half of its 200 first- through ninth-grade students have learning disabilities. All but the most severely impaired are mixed with the general education children, in keeping with Finnish policies.

A class of first graders scampered among nearby pine and birch trees, each holding a stack of the teacher’s homemade laminated “outdoor math” cards. “Find a stick as big as your foot,” one read. “Gather 50 rocks and acorns and lay them out in groups of ten,” read another. Working in teams, the 7- and 8-year-olds raced to see how quickly they could carry out their tasks. Aleksi Gustafsson, whose master’s degree is from Helsinki University, developed the exercise after attending one of the many workshops available free to teachers. “I did research on how useful this is for kids,” he said. “It’s fun for the children to work outside. They really learn with it.”

Gustafsson’s sister, Nana Germeroth, teaches a class of mostly learning-impaired children; Gustafsson’s students have no learning or behavioral issues. The two combined most of their classes this year to mix their ideas and abilities along with the children’s varying levels. “We know each other really well,” said Germeroth, who is ten years older. “I know what Aleksi is thinking.”

The school receives 47,000 euros a year in positive discrimination money to hire aides and special education teachers, who are paid slightly higher salaries than classroom teachers because of their required sixth year of university training and the demands of their jobs. There is one teacher (or assistant) in Siilitie for every seven students.

In another classroom, two special education teachers had come up with a different kind of team teaching. Last year, Kaisa Summa, a teacher with five years’ experience, was having trouble keeping a gaggle of first-grade boys under control. She had looked longingly into Paivi Kangasvieri’s quiet second-grade room next door, wondering what secrets the 25-year-veteran colleague could share. Each had students of wide-ranging abilities and special needs. Summa asked Kangasvieri if they might combine gymnastics classes in hopes good behavior might be contagious. It worked. This year, the two decided to merge for 16 hours a week. “We complement each other,” said Kangasvieri, who describes herself as a calm and firm “father” to Summa’s warm mothering. “It is cooperative teaching at its best,” she says.

Every so often, principal Arjariita Heikkinen told me, the Helsinki district tries to close the school because the surrounding area has fewer and fewer children, only to have people in the community rise up to save it. After all, nearly 100 percent of the school’s ninth graders go on to high schools. Even many of the most severely disabled will find a place in Finland’s expanded system of vocational high schools, which are attended by 43 percent of Finnish high-school students, who prepare to work in restaurants, hospitals, construction sites and offices. “We help situate them in the right high school,” said then deputy principal Anne Roselius. “We are interested in what will become of them in life.”

Finland’s schools were not always a wonder. Until the late 1960s, Finns were still emerging from the cocoon of Soviet influence. Most children left public school after six years. (The rest went to private schools, academic grammar schools or folk schools, which tended to be less rigorous.) Only the privileged or lucky got a quality education.

The landscape changed when Finland began trying to remold its bloody, fractured past into a unified future. For hundreds of years, these fiercely independent people had been wedged between two rival powers—the Swedish monarchy to the west and the Russian czar to the east. Neither Scandinavian nor Baltic, Finns were proud of their Nordic roots and a unique language only they could love (or pronounce). In 1809, Finland was ceded to Russia by the Swedes, who had ruled its people some 600 years. The czar created the Grand Duchy of Finland, a quasi-state with constitutional ties to the empire. He moved the capital from Turku, near Stockholm, to Helsinki, closer to St. Petersburg. After the czar fell to the Bolsheviks in 1917, Finland declared its independence, pitching the country into civil war. Three more wars between 1939 and 1945—two with the Soviets, one with Germany—left the country scarred by bitter divisions and a punishing debt owed to the Russians. “Still we managed to keep our freedom,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a director general in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Practically speaking—and Finns are nothing if not practical—the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”

To be sure, it was only in the past decade that Finland’s international science scores rose. In fact, the country’s earliest efforts could be called somewhat Stalinistic. The first national curriculum, developed in the early ’70s, weighed in at 700 stultifying pages. Timo Heikkinen, who began teaching in Finland’s public schools in 1980 and is now principal of Kallahti Comprehensive School in eastern Helsinki, remembers when most of his high-school teachers sat at their desks dictating to the open notebooks of compliant children.

And there are still challenges. Finland’s crippling financial collapse in the early ’90s brought fresh economic challenges to this “confident and assertive Eurostate,” as David Kirby calls it in A Concise History of Finland. At the same time, immigrants poured into the country, clustering in low-income housing projects and placing added strain on schools. A recent report by the Academy of Finland warned that some schools in the country’s large cities were becoming more skewed by race and class as affluent, white Finns choose schools with fewer poor, immigrant populations.

A few years ago, Kallahti principal Timo Heikkinen began noticing that, increasingly, affluent Finnish parents, perhaps worried about the rising number of Somali children at Kallahti, began sending their children to one of two other schools nearby. In response, Heikkinen and his teachers designed new environmental science courses that take advantage of the school’s proximity to the forest. And a new biology lab with 3-D technology allows older students to observe blood flowing inside the human body.

It has yet to catch on, Heikkinen admits. Then he added: “But we are always looking for ways to improve.”

In other words, whatever it takes.

Lynnell Hancock writes about education and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Photographer Stuart Conway lives in East Sussex, near the south coast of England.

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