Finland should inspire American education

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By Julia Fisher

After thirteen years of being funneled through the public education system, I have earned the right to give some feedback on the way it is run.  Although I have kept a meticulous list of grievances about school since kindergarten, I realize that there is one problem that seems to be the root of our substandard education ranking in America: we are too competitive.

When competition becomes the game, one loses sight of the goal.  For the U.S., the goal of education should be to create well-rounded, thoughtful, creative individuals.  Instead, it has produced a colony of greedy, fact-reciting young adults who see the world as a lion’s cage rather than a home.  We are out to get each other after all, and everyone knows that the kid who goes to an Ivy League will be a millionaire.

Thus begins the race to win the college competition, a race that would not exist if our country was not desperately promoting “gifted” programs in elementary school, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in high school.

Despite attempts to make students smarter, the U.S. is ranked below 25th in the world for education, a surprising fact given that our country leads the world’s economy.

America has moved forward in education reform, but not in the right way.  The original intent of the 1965 No Child Left Behind Act was to identify the needs of at-risk students and help them progress educationally, but all it has done in recent years is “focus schools too much on a single test score,” rather than teaching for the sake of learning according to Arne Duncan- U.S. Secretary of Education.

The emphasis on test scores in today’s American public schools is reminiscent of the way South Korea trains its students, and South Korea is ranked #1 in the world for education by the World Health Organization and Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development (OECD).  However, it is also ranked #1 in the world for suicide rates.  This leads to the question of what the “best” system of education looks like.  How can we educate young people so they learn productively but maintain mental health?

One country seems to have found the answer. Finland, ranked just below South Korea on Pearson’s Index of cognitive skills and educational attainment, teaches its children differently than South Korea, yet its students share the same abilities. In Finland, students spend an average of five hours a day in school and 30 minutes on homework a night, while South Korean students are glued to a chair for 13 hours a day. Finnish students have 190 days of school compared to 230 days for South Korean students. Pre-school and college are free, while private for-profit institutions dominate South Korea.  Schools are not ranked for prestige, whereas in South Korea, the name of a school determines a student’s value.  Finland’s only standardized test is the matriculation exam at the end of high school, while South Korean students are drilled daily.

The Finnish education system also differs in that teachers have freedom to teach however they please.  Students also learn at least three languages in elementary school: Finnish, Swedish, and English.

Competition is fiercely downplayed as well. Teachers do not formally “grade” students until after fifth grade and gifted students are not tracked into special programs. Tutoring is offered for any struggling students in order to curb gaps in learning.  Lastly, Finland owes much of the success of its education system to the way it pays and treats teachers; the Finnish revere teachers the way Americans revere doctors.

In Finland, the goal of life is to learn, while in the South Korea and increasingly in the U.S., the goal of learning is to have a financially successful life.

Ultimately, the U.S. must keep the true goals of education in sight.  Children are born to learn; pitting them against their peers by testing them repeatedly sucks away their fascination in learning.  If we follow in Finland’s footsteps, America will not only be smarter, but happier and healthier as well.

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