Social Welfare and Minding the Achievement Gap: A View from Denmark

By Ringsmose, Charlotte | Childhood Education, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Social Welfare and Minding the Achievement Gap: A View from Denmark


Ringsmose, Charlotte, Childhood Education


I am from Denmark, often described as one of the "happiest countries in the world" (Helman, 2011). One factor that contributes to Denmark's high rating in terms of citizen life satisfaction is a state welfare system in which taxes balance out income. Thus, in Denmark, there are fewer discrepancies between rich and poor in terms of access to education, health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc.

Thanks to the welfare state, I completed my master's and doctorate degrees in psychology without owing anything. In fact, when I was a student, I even received a monthly stipend from the state, which allowed me to move away from home and live in an apartment on my own. I now work as an educational researcher at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

In 2006, I took part in an educational research conference in the United States. The president of the conference, which was attended by 15,000 participants, gave a speech in which she talked about the "achievement gap," referencing the well-known achievement gap between black and white American students. She asked the audience, "What if we gave the best teachers to the black schools? What if we provided the same financial resources to the black schools as we do to the white schools? The best materials?" She speculated that such actions would solve the problems and eventually reduce the achievement gap.

This proposition puzzled me. In Denmark, the welfare system has evened out the gaps between rich and poor. Schools and child care settings all over the country have an equal level of resources provided by the state, and are financed through taxes. Schools and child care settings in areas with families of lower socioeconomic status (SES) get extra money and resources.

All teachers in Denmark are educated to the bachelor degree level, as are all the professionals in child care. Parents receive one year of maternity/paternity leave to secure children a good start in life. Ninety-seven percent of children are in professional child care before they start school (ages 3-5) (Statistics Denmark, 2011). All children go to school for nine years, and have access to further education without any payment. Illiteracy has been virtually eradicated in Denmark (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2012). Schools and child care settings must adhere to high standards for buildings and materials. Consequently, we have the most expensive school system in the world.

Given these factors, you would think that we would have achieved much in terms of mending any achievement gaps in Denmark. Yet, we do have such gaps and inequalities in our education system.

Family background, in terms of such socioeconomic parameters as parents' education, income, and home area, still plays the most important role in deciding who gets the best jobs, the best education, the best homes, etc. Financial resources, good materials, and well-educated teachers do not solve the problems of inequality in education.

It is difficult to compare poverty levels between Denmark and the United States, since each country's definitions are different. In Denmark, we have a relative definition, whereby poverty is classified in comparison to the level of income in the country; in United States, however, the poverty line is absolute.

The United States has widely known achievement gaps between black and white students and between white and Hispanic students (see Figures 1 & 2). In the United States:

* 34.5% of African American children grow up in poverty

* 28.6% of Hispanic children grow up in poverty

* 10.1% of white children grow up in poverty. (Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, Mbwana, & Collins, 2009)

In Denmark, poverty does not mean that children live in inadequate housing, nor that they ever go hungry. Danish children--even those living in poverty--eat healthy food and see doctors and dentists on a regular basis. They are all taught by well-educated teachers, and have access to good materials: computers, smartboards, etc. …

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