Monday, February 18, 2013

Finland, Korea, and then fourteen other countries, and then us

Everyone should listen to this excellent program from NPR's On Point. Finland and South Korea are first and second in the world in education as determined by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures fifteen-year-olds on math, science, and reading. The U.S. is seventeenth. On Point's Tom Ashbrook speaks with Finland's  Pasi Sahlberg, South Korea's Okhwa Lee, and the U.S.'s Marc Tucker about these results.

Finnish and South Korean schools almost couldn't be more different. Finnish schools are relaxed and friendly, with decentralized pedagogy, relatively short school days, and little testing; South Korean schools are intensely competitive even for young children, with long school days followed by after-school tutoring and a strong emphasis on high-stakes testing. While South Korea has admitted to significant challenges in its schooling despite its high ranking, mostly related to the amount of academic pressure the children feel, Finland's school system has been a positive example in the edunews lately. Finland and South Korea share some key features in their education system that the U.S. lacks.

  • Teachers are highly respected and highly sought after, the way people medical and legal professions are. We don't do this in the U.S, the guests point out.
  • As with other high-status professionals, teachers are highly educated through a rigorous standardized training program. We don't do this in the U.S, the guests point out.
  • Teachers are afforded working conditions and pay commensurate with the importance and prestige of their job. They have professional autonomy, time to work with colleagues, and opportunities to continue their own professional development. You know, the way people medical and legal professions are. We don't do this in the U.S. On the contrary.
  • Funding follows need--schools that have greater need get more money, because they need more money. Quality resources and  facilities are equally distributed, not clustered in better-off areas. We don't do this in the U.S. We do the opposite.
  • There is a strong focus on primary education. We don't do this in the U.S.
  • Families place very strong value on education. The guests didn't comment on the U.S.'s behavior here, but I will: we claim we do,  but in reality as a society we do not respect educators, we do not feel that other children necessarily deserve the same education as our own, and we hold intellectual achievement, at least as reflected in our public discourse, highly suspect.
So, in short, the two most effective education systems in the world value fair funding, careful attention to the early years, and respect for educators, and we do none of these things.

Generally the immediate rejoinder one hears to praise for Finland's virtues is that we're not Finland, in terms of our demographics, economics, or much else. But Korea and Finland are different in these ways, as well, and extremely distinct culturally, and yet they share these virtues in their education system--of course they manifest them in different forms, just as we would. We can't simply overlay deep cultural dna such as education and child-rearing from one society onto ours, but we can take some key points and make them our own, can't we? We think we can't learn from anyone except ourselves?

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