During a campaign stop in New Hampshire the other day, Rick Santorum said “What elitist snobbery out of this man!” referring to Barack Obama’s statement that every child should go to college by 2020. I have no idea why Santorum is opposed to giving every student a chance to go to college as it is central to improving our standard of living and our economy.
The United States workforce is presently undereducated and overpaid. In order for the economy to grow long term the value of the workforce must rise or we will continue to see a decline in wages. The only way to increase a worker’s worth is, of course, through education.
Contrary to popular opinion, money is not the problem. The United States spends more than $10,000 a year per student, more than any other country, but students are continuously ranked in the middle of the pack of the 65 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. In 2009 the U.S. was ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading.
So what is the problem? For starters, half of all teachers in the United States graduate in the bottom third of their class. In essence, you have the uneducated teaching the uneducated; not the best formula for success. Teachers are also forced to teach by following a curriculum that does not enable students to develop creativity or solve problems.
Another issue in the U.S. is the high rate of poverty. The richest 10% are among the best educated in the world while the poorest of the nation rarely graduate high school. Private schools work great for those who can pay for them. Private schools can afford the best teachers, the best technology and have the best learning conditions. The key is to raise the education level of the poor while maintaining the status quo for the rich. Therefore, the question is how do we improve public schools?
The best way to solve the problem is to look at the countries that have the best results and then try and emulate their success. Finland has been ranked first in science for the past 10 years, and has been in the top five in reading and math during that same span. South Korea has been first in reading and also has success in science and math in the past decade.
Finland and South Korea are tops in the world in education and both are great examples to follow, however both countries are vastly different in their approach. In South Korea, the school year is on average 27 days longer than an average American school year. In fact, a typical South Korean student spends an extra 2 years in school before going to college.
The average school day is also much longer; most students attend learning sessions after school that can last until 10:00PM. There are actually police roaming the streets to ensure these late night teachings don’t go beyond the government imposed ten o’clock deadline.
The biggest problem with the South Korean system (a problem even President Lee Myung-bak admits) is that parents put enormous pressure on their students to succeed and the result is an extremely high suicide rate among teenagers.
In contrast, we have Finland. The Finnish school system starts at age seven, two years after North Americans. The school days are shorter and there is far less pressure on students, yet they have more success than South Korea. How is this possible?
Teaching is one of the most fought after jobs in the country. Finland holds teachers in high regard, on par with doctors and they get paid as such. All Finnish teachers are required to have a master’s degree and of those that acquire one, only the best are chosen. Only the smartest of the country are permitted to teach.
Just as important, there is no standardized testing in the country; this allows teachers to choose their own textbooks and follow their own education plan. The development of creativity is of the highest priority in Finland as they prefer to teach people how to think and question things rather than forcing students to memorize places and dates.
Clearly there are lessons to be learned here; both South Korea and Finland have better results and they do it cheaper. The American government currently awards funding to schools based on performance, this strategy allows the good schools to thrive and the failing schools to shut down. Regardless, this policy has led to wide spread cheating by teachers who raise the marks of their students in order to receive more funding. For teachers in a thriving school it could mean a higher salary, in a failing school it could mean they get to keep their job. In any case, the students are the ones who suffer.
I’ve been told repeatedly that the reason behind the poor performance of the United States educational system is that the government would prefer to keep it that way. After all, an uneducated public is less likely to think for itself and question those who hold them back. I find this theory rather short sighted; people are just as likely to rebel when they have nothing left to lose than when they are smart enough to know when their rights are being abused.
Education is the key to prosperity; always has been. If you look at the countries that are tops in education, you’ll find countries where the economy is doing just fine. Coincidence?