In some circles, it’s become a commonly cited statistic that the United States of America, the supposed greatest country in the world, landed at a disappointing 24th in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment’s (PISA) ranking of best education systems by country. We are third biggest, eighth most developed and poorer only than China and the collective European Union--so why is our education system lagging so far behind?
As a child of two college-educated parents at a magnet school whose demographic is mostly middle to upper class white families, my personal experience does nothing to explain this phenomenon. My peers and I consistently test with high scores and enter prestigious colleges, graduating from a system that has prepared us to dominate in the world’s labor market. Surely the education we received deserves better than a measly 24th place.
If you shift your gaze just a few miles over, though, the landscape is that of a completely different world. At under enrolled, low-income schools theoretically designed to perform the exact same task, students are constantly hampered by the threat of their school closing, new teachers who leave soon after and sometimes mid-semester, and standardized test results that illustrate a failure to successfully learn the curricula year after year. The barely-funded PTAs are unable to provide updates to outdated technology that increases the inefficiency of the classroom even more because the big donor parents that provide new laptops and projectors at my school are absent. The luckier students flee to charter and private schools to save themselves (thanks, Betsy DeVos), while the others drop out without the resources to continue this semblance of an education.
The underperformance of our education system, then, isn’t fact for all of our students. Rather, it’s those of the latter description that pull our scores down, through no fault of their own. However, the dramatic inequality ingrained in our system is seen as a symptom, not the root of the issue. Instead, politicians turn towards accountability as the problem and solution by paying massive companies like Pearson to swamp students with dozens of standardized tests. In order to produce adequate scores, teachers are forced to eliminate their own directive from the classroom in favor of drilling students on test-taking strategies using ultra-standardized lesson plans. These curriculums are based upon a complete lack of trust of teachers to actually teach, instead making sure that they teach exactly to the test. While this may in theory improve performance on the designated test, what it doesn’t do is teach kids to understand and explore the concepts themselves. Over-standardization takes the learning right out of education.
Lately in the education world, one country has been getting a surprising amount of attention for its small size: Finland. Year after year, it ranks at the very top of the PISA study next to the Asian giants who are known for their scholastic rigor. However, Finland has no standardized testing, no school choice, and, as overworked students sometimes like to point out, little homework. Basically, Finland is doing the opposite of everything we think helps. In an interview by Anu Partanen for The Atlantic, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, says that Americans are ignoring the distinguishing factor that drives the Finnish system: a focus on equality. While in the United States we turn to standardized tests and school ratings to increase accountability, the Finnish do not aim to have the most excellent schools, only to have equally excellent schools. And instead of using teachers as simply vessels to transport the curriculum through, Finland’s teachers receive rigorous training, high prestige, lots of pay, and lots of classroom autonomy.
So how can we rise to the level of the Finnish? Stop focusing on accountability. Start training teachers in such a way that we can start trusting teachers. Most importantly, though, we absolutely have to equalize our schools, because when schools are the mechanism with which we level the playing field of our country, we lose much less human capital and become much better equipped to solve the issues of today.
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