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Education Systems Around the World
Every year, the OECD ranks education systems around the world from best to worst. With these findings, we are confronted with how schools are succeeding and failing to educate our country’s young people. Our education system, made up of policymakers, school leaders, and especially educators, is raising the future talent of the country. As teachers, our role in shaping young lives directly impacts the next generation.
We can learn from other countries how to best design an education system from the bottom up. As an educator, I sometimes feel powerless in the greater tapestry of the American education system, but over time, I learned that teachers are the critical drivers of student outcomes. The lessons we deliver, the skills we focus on, and the learning opportunities we provide affect a generation of students. So, what lessons can we learn from other countries to better prepare our students to thrive in the twenty-first century?
The OECD uses the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to assess the critical thinking of 15-year-old students in math, science, and reading in 85 countries. Explore how the top-ranking education systems around the world prepare young people for life in the 21st century and what lessons we can learn from them.
1. Finland’s Education System
Finland has long held first and second place, as one of the best education systems around the world. Although in recent years, it has lost ground to other countries, it still is a high performer, particularly with the Western style of education. In Finland, schooling does not begin for children until age 7. Homework and standardized testing are delayed until high school. In fact, there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.
“Whatever it takes” describes the attitude of most Finnish educators, who are selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. The transformation of Finland’s education system began about 40 years ago as a part of the country’s economic recovery plan. What is most striking about Finland’s education system is that the people running it, from the national to the local level, are educators. Equality is of the utmost importance, and students receive an equal education regardless of their backgrounds. Their children-first approach seems to be working well for this extraordinary education system.
Finland Tip: Prioritize play and outdoor time. One Finnish educator incorporates time outdoors with math by having students measure various objects they find outside.
2. Canada’s Education System
Canada is a newcomer to the top ten best education systems around the world. They don’t truly have a national education system, since education is divided by their autonomous provinces. The Canadian education system focuses on literacy, math, and high school graduation. Administrators, teachers, and their unions have created a curriculum that is successful across the country. Canada’s education system focuses on providing continued teacher training, transparent results, and a culture of sharing best practices. Students have many opportunities to prepare and practice for their future careers. Teacher morale is also high due to trust in teachers as professionals.
3. The Education System of Singapore
Singapore has risen to second place in the PISA rankings. This city-state has a technology-based education system, similar to Japan and Hong Kong. In 2004, Singapore’s government built a pedagogical framework called Teach Less, Learn More, which encouraged teachers to focus on the quality of learning and asked them to incorporate technology into classrooms. The purpose was to shift focus away from the high-stakes testing environment that Singaporean classrooms traditionally valued.
Educational technology sets Singapore apart from many other countries. In classrooms, digital devices are viewed as a means to bring students together in collaboration, rather than using devices in isolation from other students.
Singapore Tip: Use technology to have students collaborate. Send them on technology missions in groups, then pull students away from their devices to debrief the exercise.
4. South Korea’s Education System
In the past fifty years, South Korea has transformed its education system into one of the best in the world. South Korean students have six years of primary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school. Coeducation schools are still rare in South Korea, with most students attending single-sex schools. Primary subjects include moral education, Korean language, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, music, fine arts, and practical arts.
South Korea is known for having a rigorous, high-stress educational system, where families invest enormous time and money into providing the best education for their children. Public schools are free, but private schools and tutoring are available. Being a teacher in South Korea is a coveted position because of the high pay and high level of respect that teachers have. One remarkable achievement of their educational system? South Korea has accomplished a 100 percent literacy rate.
South Korea Tip: Emphasize grit and a growth mindset. In South Korea, talent isn’t important. The culture believes that grit and determination will ultimately lead to success. Frame any challenge as one that simply needs practice.
How Does the United States Compare?
According to PISA –
‘Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematical tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems. An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains also in PISA.’PISA
The United States has been steadily improving its PISA scores over the past few decades. According to PISA’s analysis, implementing Common Core Standards with fidelity will yield significant performance gains. Socioeconomic status still divides test results, with students from higher socioeconomic statuses performing better. There is also a persistent gender gap, with boys performing better on the math portion of the test and girls performing better on the reading portion.
What is Next for the American Education System?
Fifty years ago, both South Korea and Finland had poor education systems. Over the past half-century, both South Korea and Finland have turned their schools around — and now both countries are hailed internationally for their extremely high educational outcomes. But these two models of education are polar opposites. South Korea’s rigorous, test-centric approach is so different from Finland, where students spend less time in the classroom and more time outside and in extracurricular activities. In Korea, school is about creating your future; in Finland, it is about creating your identity.
What do these polar opposite education systems have in common? A deep admiration and respect for teachers. In Finland, only 10 percent of applicants are accepted to teaching programs. It’s equally as difficult to become a teacher in Korea. Teachers are paid well and given enormous respect by the community.
One reason for the success of these education systems is that they were a product of economic and social change within the country. It has not historically been necessary for American students to need high-level problem-solving skills to live nice lives. This is no longer the case. According to author Amanda Ripley, “There’s a lag for cultures to catch up with economic realities, and right now we’re living in that lag.” The good news is that teachers are working hard to close the global achievement gap by teaching 21st-century skills, implementing the Common Core, and teaching the knowledge students need to be successful in a global world.
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Magazine, Smithsonian. “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Sept. 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/.
“Singapore Plows Ahead of U.S. with Technology in Classrooms.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 27 Apr. 2014, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/singapore-plows-ahead-u-s-technology-classrooms-n90086.
United States – OECD. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_USA.pdf.