Stop Comparing the U.S. School System to Other Countries

In recent years it has become popular to draw comparisons between public schools in the United States and public school across the world. Our students take more international standardized tests and the scores are compared in math, science, language, and reading. We compare attendance rates, graduation rates, teacher education, money spent per pupil, and many other data points. It has become a habit for the media to pick out the top performing countries on these international exams and compare their systems with the public schools of the United States. However, their “comparisons” are often overstated, oversimplified, and cherry pick convenient facts that fit the narrative. In reality there are very real reasons that these countries perform as they do and the United States has fundamentally rejected those reasons on a matter of philosophy and principle. Let’s look at a few of these comparisons along with the current trend in the U.S.

Finland

Behind the Asian countries, Finland is a very popular comparison to the U.S. in the media and also public policy debates. In the latest rankings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finland is ranked 6th in math and science scores. The latest PISA data shows Finland 6th, 12th, and 5th in reading, math, and science respectively. So, why can’t we just do what Finland does?

First, this country has a population of just over 5 million (about the size of Colorado) with 93% of the population being the same ethnicity. Those stats alone eliminate a multitude of obstacles that face schools in the U.S. Diversity of culture and languages alone is something not plaguing Finnish schools. Their low population allows for a comprehensive education program that begins at birth and includes free school materials, free meals to all, and free transportation.

Second, their teacher salaries are well above the OECD average which leads to competitive teacher education programs and and overall respect for the teaching professions that we do not see in the U.S. Each school has local control when it comes to grading and testing with limited to no high stakes exams. They also spend less time in the classroom (about 600 hours/year compared to 900 hours/year for the U.S.)

Comparing those facets of the Finnish school system to the trends in the U.S., we see a large disconnect. We already discussed the monetary limitations due to the population differences. More and more schools are trending toward longer school days and longer school years which is the opposite of Finland. We have more and more testing and centralized standards which is opposite of Finland’s model of local control and less testing. So I say, stop comparing our scores until we can reconcile the fundamental differences between our philosophies on education.

Singapore

This is also a popular comparison, especially in math, because of the improvement they’ve shown in the last century and their standings at the top of the world rankings year and year. However, this is possibly the worst comparison we can make because the United States flatly rejects most of the mechanisms that seem to work well in Singapore. This includes tracking (or streaming), high societal and parental pressure, and compulsory co-curricular activities.

After elementary school, students in Singapore are tracked into one of four programs designed for higher education to technical/career training and everything in between. This is based on one high stakes exam at the end of primary school. The best secondary schools ares highly competitive. During secondary (and primary) school, each student must participate in a core activity outside of the classroom. I am a huge believer in the benefits of co-curricular activities  and would be in favor of this requirement in the U.S., but it will never happen. One of the biggest criticisms of this system is their focus on rote preparation for high stakes and international exams and a lack of focus of creativity and personal development.

Compared to the Singapore, the U.S. fundamental believes in a comprehensive education for all students without the tracking and elitist system of many Asian countries. We provide extra activities as an option but are far from required. We do not attract the best and brightest of foreign countries because of our diverse school systems. Our “high stakes” testing is on a much lower level than Singapore and is used for post-secondary entrance rather than secondary entrance. If we want to compare ourselves to these Asian countries, are we prepared to turn up the heat and pressure at a younger and younger age just to perform well on these exams? I think not!

The United States’ leaders and media would be better off focusing on the goals we have for our own system and how we reach them rather than cherry picking parts of other systems and ignoring the inconvenient statistics of tracking, local control, lack of diversity, or shorter school days. The U.S. is unique in almost every way and we should treat our education system as such. We cannot focus solely on STEM subjects yet maintain our creativity, artists, and innovators. We cannot rail against the job that teachers do yet demand our top students enter the education field. It’s time to change the discussion of education in America toward one of trust, high expectations (with the matching resources), and accountability to our local districts and states.

– Lance

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