By Jubilee Cheung
Relatively speaking, the education system employed in the United States is uninspired at best. In 2012, students from around the world took the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a universal exam of sorts designed to give comparative insight on the current standing of global education systems. Results from the 2012 PISA indicated that the United States continues to lag behind other countries such as Finland on all fronts – math, reading, and science. China, Singapore, and South Korea, among others, are also superior in regards to their PISA scores, but Finland’s outperformance of the United States draws the most attention due to the country’s unorthodox education system.
The United States education system is famous, perhaps even infamous, for being among the most expensive per student in the world. Where Finland spends only roughly $7500 per student, the United States is estimated to spend at least $8700. Yet the United States averages a PISA score of only 481 against Finland’s score of 519. What, if anything, elevates Finland’s education practices above those of the United States?
Though perhaps not as strict as those utilized in countries such as China, the United States education system is one oriented around order and precision. American children typically begin their formal schooling at about the age of six, and often even earlier should they opt to engage in some form of preparatory nursery school. The schools children attend often have very little allowance for recess and other such recreational time – nationally, the recommended amount only totals to about 20 minutes a day. In Finnish schools, students are allowed at least an hour of recess daily.
That being said, Finland takes a much more relaxed approach to its schooling, obvious at the get-go to the American student. Finnish students are not required to take standardized tests until the equivalent of their senior year of high school, on top of not being forced to attend school at all until they are at least seven years of age. When students do begin attending school, teachers are not required to assign them numerical grades until they are in the equivalent of the eighth grade. It would be difficult to say what materials would even be available for teachers to grade – students are not given homework, as learning is expected to be relatively restricted to the classroom.
Finland also takes a very different approach in how it views its teachers. The teaching profession is viewed with substantially more respect in Finland than it is in the United States. Potential teachers are required to be college graduates, and then of all applicants only around 15 percent are selected to attend a rigorous graduate teaching program. Teachers are also encouraged to continuously adapt their teaching styles. They simply receive more training should their current style prove ineffective.
Unlike in the United States, students in Finland are not pitted against each other in a competitive manner. Equality – more specifically, equal opportunity – is championed in Finland; education is necessarily all-inclusive. One need only look as far as the fact that there are no private schools. Finland values the availability of education to all students, over the quality of that education. Ironically, it is that strange alignment of priorities that contributes directly to the country’s academic excellence. As all students are given access to education and schooling, the country can make real progress by moving forward as a whole unit.
While the United States does not have to adopt all of Finland’s less than conventional educational practices, it would certainly do well to evaluate its current stand on schooling in comparison to that of its successful rival. Recent years have seen the rise of college preparatory programs in the education system, catering to students as young as in the seventh or eighth grade. Such programs are designed to help students cultivate their taste for academia. The United States has also fully embraced the increasing influence of technology as an asset, teaching students from as early as kindergarten how to use the computer as a tool for heightened learning. One can only hope that these reforms, among others, can lead the education system in the United States in the right direction.
Image by Nick Amoscato