The United States of America currently enjoys the #2 seat in the rank of nations by adjusted GDP, directly behind China. These rankings, however, are in eternal motion. Nothing ever stays the same. GDP, and other indicators of economic growth, change every single day. Logic follows that if America wants to grow their economy for the road ahead in the international playing field, the key would lie in educating the next generation to be very productive citizens.
It is common knowledge that American students routinely score very poorly on international tests in relation to America’s economic place in the world, and this is true. In 2012, the average American 15-year-old scored a 481 on the internationally-administered PISA test, a test administered every 4 years to students in over 60 nations. This is below the world average of 494. While America’s scores were very average in science and reading, America performed poorly on the math section. America was beaten by countries that spend significantly less educating the average student.
In fact, America spends the most money on the average student than any other country in the world. Of course, spending on education varies state-by-state and county-by-county. In 2012, Wake County spent $8,255 on each student. According to a Deseret News article, that same year, Washington DC spent $29,831 and the state of New York spent $22,238.
Data directly available from the OCED, the organization that administers the test, places America at #36 on the list of about 65 countries for the combined average of reading, mathematics, and science. But what makes education around the world evidently superior to America’s school system? To what extent are these standardized test scores reliable, and what do they not account for?
Shanghai, China, which participated as its own entity in the list, has the top spot in every category. In fact, nearly every country in places #1-5 are in Asia. The sole exception is Finland, which ranked #5 in reading. Shanghai goes so far as to hold a significant lead against #2 in every category. But what makes education in Shanghai so successful, to where countries like Singapore (China), Hong Kong (China), Japan, and South Korea can’t compete?
A common theme seems fairly consistent in the parts of Asia which do exceptionally well on the PISA–an intense pressure to attend university, much more than is present for U.S. students. In South Korea, stigma against those who do not go to university has led to an overabundance of university graduates, while vocational occupations (specific trades one learns not related to higher learning) sometimes go without workers, as these jobs are thought of as “demeaning.” Inversely, the United Kingdom must deal with a heavy skills shortage, stemming from a lack of engineers of every category. Importing workers from other countries or outsourcing high-skill tasks seems like a waste, considering the fact that the United Kingdom is a highly developed country. But because of the lack of interest in mathematics among UK students, the free market of the U.K. will take the hit.
An extensive report by the British on Telegraph helps shed some light on Shanghai’s high test scores. In Shanghai, one’s entire life revolves around doing well in exams –failing tests in elementary school has serious consequences for one’s future. If you were a wealthy parent, (as most are in Shanghai) and knew the consequences of failure, would you tolerate the idea of letting your child dirty his résumé? This intense competition requires the students of Shanghai, Japan, and South Korea to become figurative robots, whom must study for inhumane hours. And thus, their exceptional performance on the PISA.
A lot of little things in Shanghai seem to help it along. For example, teachers all the way down to the first years of schooling must complete 240 hours of training in what they teach. This is less extreme than tactics employed by the Finns, who require that all teachers hold a masters degree in the subject which they teach. Shanghai is also regarded as the education center of China, and one of the wealthiest places in the country according to China Daily, so it is doubtful that the general population that did not participate in the PISA would do as well.
Finland, which also did very well on the 2012 PISA, operates on a nearly completely opposite system. An extensive report by CNN details just why. As mentioned previously, they require a masters education for teachers. Additionally, there are very few exams in Finland. Teaching is a well-paid, highly respected, valued position. Even more admirable is the culture of Finnish parenting, in which children are valued for their innate curiousness and want to learn by their own desires. Education does not begin until age 7, so most kids want to learn when they enter school. Autonomy and self-motivation are encouraged in children. This system of making children want to learn rather than holding their future at gunpoint using exams is very unique in the global education machine.
It should be noted that test scores absolutely do not directly translate into financial or economic success, for neither an individual nor a nation. In Shanghai and many places in east Asia, scoring well in exams is regarded as the most important thing about primary school. The goal of these highly competitive schools is not to develop one’s interests and create rounded individuals–the goal of school is to beat out one’s peers so that you may attend a distinguished university and get a high paying job at a company or work for the government. There is a serious difference between creating an innovative, creative individual who can work with others to solve difficult problems in a given industry and study machines who can memorize and recite information, regardless of whether or not they can apply it effectively in the global economy or use it to create meaningful, happy lives for themselves.
This is the grand contrast that sets Finland apart from Asia. In Asia, a culture of hard studying that consumes one’s teen years is rivaled by a system that molds children to be naturally curious and motivated learners. This is why Finland’s system should ultimately be the model for the world–it creates creative, motivated, curious individuals who can learn and think for themselves. These are the true values that can be applied in the real world. While Finland is not #1 in the raw data of test scores, it can be confidently said that Finland produces the most capable students in the world. The Finnish Board of Education calls its efforts to secure the future for young people “The Youth Guarantee”, and, as they state on their website, “The intention of the youth guarantee is to ensure that young people have access to education, training and employment and prevent them from being excluded from the society.”