What makes a good education system?
The words “American education system” probably conjures one word: failing. The phrase has iterated and reiterated so many times it’s become an idiom of sorts among politicians and citizens alike. It seems as if everyone is aware of America’s tragic educational status on the global stage. But how much of this information is true and why does it even matter?
Every three years, the United States, along with 72 other countries, participates in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). As the name suggests, PISA evaluates students’ abilities in math, science, and literacy. It is one of the largest cross-national tests on the planet and holds weight within the global sphere. As of 2015, the United States ranked 38th out of 70 countries in science (according to Pew Research Center’s article, “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries”). According to The Washington Post’s article, “On the world stage, U.S. students fall behind,” among students that took the math test, 29% of students did not meet baseline proficiency. In comparison to other years, American students’ math results have declined steadily from 2002.
Outside of international tests that may provide misleading comparative results, the United States ranks fifth in the amount of money spent per student and consistently trails behind other developing countries in access to early education (according to an op-ed article in The Observer). What’s more, other studies show that American teachers are often not equipped to teach our students properly. A study performed by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that two-thirds of American teachers are not properly trained to teach their pupils. In fact, they posit that fewer than one in five elementary and special education programs are effective in preparing students to become effective future educators.
The emphasis on education on the global-scale is more than just an ego contest. The education system in any given country can be predictive of its success or failure in many other areas. According to a study performed by Wolfgang et al., “Education rather than age structure brings demographic dividend,” confirms that “improvements in the educational attainment structures of populations are a key driver of economic growth.” Another study performed by OECD found that providing students with necessary education would boost GDP in developing countries by 28% and 16% in high-income countries.
The Global Partnership for Education states that “ [education] increases a person’s chances of having a healthy life, reduces maternal deaths, and combats diseases such as HIV and AIDS.
Education can promote gender equality, reduce child marriage, and promote peace.” Instilling education, especially amongst young women, is an important catalyst that pushes a country into a new stage of the demographic transition. The higher the level a country is on the demographic transition, the closer they are to become a ‘developed’ country.
So, what are other countries with highly ranked education systems doing right? And what can we learn from those countries?
There are many lists that contain countries with the best education systems in the world. These countries show up the most often on across a number of lists.
According to Knoema, Finland’s literacy rate has hovered around 99% from 2008. According to Smithsonian Magazine’s article, “Why are Finland’s Schools So Successful?”, Finnish teachers are required to have a Masters degree in education and are selected from the top ten percent of classes. There is an almost palpable culture among teachers to identify struggling students and do “whatever it takes” to help them succeed. In fact, nearly 30% of students receive some form of special assistance within their first few years. In addition, students only take one standardized test, which occurs at the end of students’ senior year. The country also does not maintain a culture of comparison, meaning students do not have class or school ranking systems.
These practices have proven to be very fruitful. In the 2000 PISA, Finnish students finished first in reading. Then a few years later, they finished first in math. Most recently, Finland’s students performed better than average in science, math, and reading.
In the most recent PISA exam, which took place in 2015, Singapore outperformed every competing country in science. According to the OECD, Singapore trumped traditionally top performing countries on the PISA exam, including Canada, Finland, Estonia, and Japan.
InterNations’ article, “The Education System in Singapore” states that all Singaporean students attend preschool in preparation for their primary school education. Preschools often teach not one but two languages. Following preschool and primary school, secondary education systems are largely based on the student’s desired pathways. Students may choose normal secondary school, express, or technical courses depending on their interests. According to the Singapore’s Ministry of Education, “Each course offers a suite of subjects catering to students’ strengths and interests.”
Classrooms in Singapore are highly centralized. Discussion-based classes are almost non-existent and schools follow a national curriculum. Teachers are the main, sole source of knowledge and students are expected to learn by listening (according to an article in The Conversation).
Unlike Finland, Japan’s education system is of national pride. Because of this, education and grades are looked upon with high regard. At the foundation of Japan’s education system is order and discipline (according to the National Center on Education). According to Novak Djokovic Foundation’s article, “Interesting Facts about Japanese School System,” an average school day in Japan is about 6 hours, one of the longest school days in the world. After school, most students have some form of private one-on-one tutoring called “juku,” to prepare them for the end of school exams that will determine “their progression from lower to upper secondary school” (according to the National Center on Education).
On the 2015 PISA, Japan ranked second in science and fifth in math. The country also consistently outperforms the PISA average in all subjects (according to OCED).
According to Study Canada, the Canadian education system is governed by each individual province. Therefore, the federal government’s role in schools is largely nonexistent. Depending on the province, parents can place their children in kindergarten for one to two years on a voluntary basis. However, all students must begin their first year of school at age six. Canada is also lauded for a more accessible and less expensive post-secondary institutions.
However, none of the above facts are what intrigued people about Canada’s education system. Canada was lauded for its equitable approach to education, proven by its PISA scores. Canada has one of the highest immigrant populations of the participating countries in the PISA exams, which usually results in lower overall scores; immigrant students often do not perform as well as native students. However, in spite of this fact, Canada’s PISA results contained high scores across the board.
According to Sean Coughlan’s article in the BBC, “How Canada became an education superpower,” every province in Canada has a similar commitment to equal access to education. Schools– regardless of their pupils’ socioeconomic status– are consistent and effective. Teachers are well-trained and the profession is highly selective. Like Finland, educators are encouraged to pinpoint weaker students and provide additional resources and examinations.
Despite high scores, there are not many parallels between these schools. Teachers have varying levels of autonomy. The weight and frequency of assessments are different. Students may or may not make life-altering decisions at a young age. Education, from country to country and student to student will always be a tremendously conditional. Culture, government, educator training, immigration and many other factors are large contingencies that determine the success of any given public education system. So, maybe, America’s education system isn’t failing, per se, but rather, learning all of its contingencies.