Each year the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) tests the reading, science and math performance of 15-year-olds worldwide. Since 2000, Finland has been the top performer, followed closely by South Korea.
Yet oddly enough, children in Finland and South Korea have vastly different educational experiences.
In Finland, the public school day is one of the shortest in the world. Private schools are almost nonexistent, and all teachers have masters degrees and belong to a union. The curriculum, its implementation, and the assessments are designed by those teachers, homework is frowned on, and students take only one high-stakes standardized test – at the end of their education. Pedagogical techniques such as cooperative groups and portfolio assessments borrowed from America are popular. Finnish students use less technology than their European counterparts.
In South Korea, students arrive early and stay late at school for one of the longest school days in the world. Private schools and tutorials take up the evening hours, necessary for students to stay competitive with each other. Recently the government established curfews because children were staying out too late taking extra lessons. Officials have bemoaned the hypercompetitive culture and persistent measurement blamed for the high suicide rate among students. Technology is front and center in the classroom.
In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR’s On Point, Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, Okhwa Lee, professor at Chungbuk National University in South Korea, and Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy weighed in on whether the United States might be able to learn something valuable from either country.
As different as they are, both Finland and South Korea do share some similarities – and that’s where the U.S. needs to pay attention.
Both are relatively small and more homogeneous than the United States, but that doesn’t explain their success. Sahlberg points to other countries with demographics similar to Finland – Norway and Sweden, for example – which do not show the same test results of Finnish students. On the flip side, countries that are more diverse than the United States – Canada and Australia, for example – also post scores that are higher than ours.
Marc Tucker concludes that such examples show that race and ethnicity are not relevant in explaining disparities in performance. Instead, he points to the difference in incomes in the United States.
“The variation in parental income is now greater than any other industrialized country, and this, I think, is a big problem for American schools. It wasn’t that way 35 years ago when our income distribution was the most even in the world, but that’s not the case now. We’re at the other end of the spectrum.”
All economically disadvantaged children in the world perform less well than their wealthier counterparts – even in South Korea and Finland. But both South Korea and Finland are alike in their focus on school equity as a way to support their more disadvantaged students, unlike the United States, which spends more money educating the wealthy.
Another similarity in both Finland and South Korea is the status of teaching as a high-paying, well-respected profession that requires an advanced degree on par with law or engineering. Not so here.
“For a very long time,” Tucker said, “and including the present, what we have most prized about our teachers is how cheap they are to employ… We had the benefit of many years of a supply of college-educated women whose only choices really were secretarial, nursing and teaching, and so we got much better teachers than we deserved if you look at what we paid them and the conditions under which they worked….We aren’t going to have them anymore. We have more women in our law schools and our other professional schools than we have men, so the very able women that we have had in great supply for decade after decade are no longer going into teaching.”
So what can we learn? Sahlberg is blunt about what he sees as the dangers of the modern school reform movement. In countries that have tried the reforms being pushed in America – more school choice, more accountability, more standardized curricula and assessment, more high-stakes testing – student performance falls and the negatives that South Korean students experience emerge.
Rather, he says the goal is not to be number one but to provide equitable education for all children. That means looking closely at what welfare countries like Finland offer their children – childcare, preschool, comprehensive health care, and other support to disadvantaged families. It means making education about what he calls “real learning” and less about testing, about establishing a culture that believes that the health, well-being, and happiness of children are worthy educational goals, about valuing teachers and trusting their judgment.
Take care of those issues and children – all children – can be successful in school.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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