It’s easy to look at the educational systems of developing nation and say that the US is at the top of the heap and that our educational system is one of the best, but that is like comparing apples and oranges. In order to get a more accurate view of our educational system, we have to compare ourselves to our equals, countries such as Germany, England, China, and even Finland. It is only after we make these comparisons that we are presented with an adequate picture of our educational system as a nation.
I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that American schools are failing, however it is becoming more and more apparent that we are not competing with other nations at the level of which we are capable. I think one of the many reasons we are not as successful academically as we can be is standardized testing. By focusing all of our attention on test scores and allocating funds based on those scores, teachers are more apt to teach to the test, especially since better scores lead to better funding.
Another mistake I feel we have made regarding American education is allowing our educational system to be heavily influenced and driven by international achievement tests such as PISA. The danger here lies not in the focus on the results but rather in the test itself. In order for the results to be presented in a comparative manner, it needs to be taken into account, not only by the test makers and administers but by analysts as well, that the PISA examination is not given in only one language. More often than not, as noted in Ruth Alexander’s article for BBC news entitled “How accurate is the Pisa test,” the meaning and general concepts of the questions often get lost or altered in translation. The nature of language pretty much guarantees differences in question when they are translated.
While I would not go as far as to say that American schools are failing, there are definitely some valuable practices we can learn from the Finnish educational system. I think one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from the Finnish example is to teach to the students as opposed to teaching at them. By placing more value on student input and class contribution instead of always focusing on the right answer and how the student failed to achieve it, school becomes a more pleasant and safe environment. When students are encouraged to contribute without the aspect of constant correction looming in front of them, students are apt to become more engaged in the classroom and take a greater responsibility for their education.
Another important premise we can learn from Finland’s educational system is a somewhat different means of using technology. More often than not, technology in the classroom is seen as a means to assist the teacher and nothing more. I think something we need to consider is, what would happen if the primary purpose of classroom technology was to assist the students and not the teachers. In today’s increasingly digital age, many students are more comfortable working with technology than with textbooks, paper, and pencils. There are also some students who have a better attention span when working with technology as opposed to being told to sit still and take notes while a teacher teaches to/at them. Keeping these scenarios in mind, it might in fact be beneficial to use technology as a means of supplemental instruction or even as somewhat of a bridge between teachers and students.
I think it is also important to note that the Finnish educational system does not mandate that students continue on a rigorous academic path once they reach the 10th grade. By shifting the focus from solely college prep and academics to an equal focus on college prep and vocational training, there is less pressure on students who may not feel college is the right fit for them to continue on with increasingly rigorous coursework. More often than not, when students are pressured to study certain materials that they may not feel drawn to, those students do not care as much about that topic as the students who are interested in it and therefore put less effort into the coursework which, in the long run, negatively effects test scores.
All in all, I think one of the most important things we can do is remember that today’s students are tomorrow’s America. If the education in American schools focuses solely on test scores we are not only doing the students a disservice, but ourselves as well. If we fail to equip the next generation of Americans with the skills needed to thrive in our ever-changing society because we are focused solely on what the test scores show and how much money those scores could provide our schools, we are not really educating them, rather showing them that being the best is far more important that doing your best and living up to your potential.