When wistful thinking prevails, it’s easy for people to fantasize. Popular media perpetuates fantasies by continuing to compare the American educational system to those of other countries. With this, people are left thinking: America’s education system doesn’t work; why can’t we be more like Finland?
Finland does it differently. According to Stanford University, the entire education system in Finland is different. Finland’s students spend significantly less time in an actual classroom and more time in recess. Finland’s schools are funded by the government, not locally, as America’s schools are. Additionally, the disadvantaged schools end up receiving more money from the government, not less.
While teaching is a low-paying job in the U.S., in Finland, teaching is a sought-after job. Not only is it a high-status occupation, but Finnish teachers are also required to have master’s degrees (which are paid for by Finland’s government).
But what’s most amazing about Finland’s education system isn’t how different it is; Finland’s practices receive so much attention because they work.
Finland’s students have managed to rank internationally second in science and third in reading, according to the 2009 OECD Education Rankings. On the other hand, the United States ranks 17th in reading and 33rd in science.
Finland schools seem like paradise compared to U.S. schools, where standardization reigns supreme. However, a variety of factors inhibit the United States’ academic achievement. Even if we attempted to improve America’s education system by modifying our system to be more like Finland’s, we overlook one key point: educational outcomes do not exist in a vacuum.
Despite both being industrialized first-world countries, the United States and Finland are two very different countries.
Although Finland is an industrialized country in the same way America is, there are significant differences in their economies. According to information published by the Heritage Foundation, Finland has a lower unemployment rate. Not only does Finland have a lower unemployment rate, but it also has a significantly lower level of income inequality than America. And although America has a higher average household income, it also has a significantly higher poverty rate.
Living in poverty is not conducive to educational development. Even before children begin elementary school, children from the lower income bracket come to school less prepared to learn. One of the most well-known reasons for this is because of the “language gap.”
The “language gap” refers to the fact that lower income infants of the same age have a significantly smaller vocabulary than their higher income peers. This gap is recognizable at 18 months of age. By the time that these children reach kindergarten, the difference in language ability is enough to have a pervading negative effect on their education long into their years of schooling.
When comparing education systems, it’s also important to consider how cultural differences may account for the disparity between American and Finnish academia.
Learning does not begin and end with the ring of a bell; a person’s culture contributes to their overall educational experience. Therefore, even if schools in the United States were to adopt Finnish educational policies, it is hard to believe that this would translate into academic achievement for American students.
Because America views education, especially university education, as a privilege rather than a right, school culture is different. The way that a country views university education has implications that affect even younger students.
The pressure not only to be admitted to college, but also to garner enough funds to pay for college, can and does make high school a toxic environment for students.
American students, even at a young age, are left thinking that if they’re not the “top of the class,” then they have no chance,and no place, in the university environment.
In Finland, this isn’t an issue. If a Finnish student wishes to attend university, the government pays for it. Without the fear of crippling student loans, Finnish classrooms are far less stressful than their American counterparts, leaving Finnish students with a healthier mindset for learning.
This more peaceful, eager mindset is conducive to academic success. But in the U.S., where there are GPAs, SATs, ACTs, APs, IBs, and various other abbreviations to worry about, the classroom is anything but peaceful for a college-bound student. Even for younger students, American students’ experience is permeated by standardized assessment.
The classroom becomes an extension of fear, insecurity, cutthroat competition, and a place for average students to feel like they’re drowning.
Instead of seeking to emulate a system that works for a country like Finland but won’t necessarily work for a country like the U.S.,it would be more productive to investigate how we can modify the current U.S. system to give our children the education they deserve.
America’s education system is different than Finland’s. With America’s push for more assessment and new curriculum standards through the Common Core and lower income students still lagging behind their wealthier peers, it’s clear that America doesn’t want to have Finland’s educational system. Finland’s system comes with social and cultural factors that promote education for all, but America doesn’t want that: the only thing America wants is Finland’s educational success.
Image Credit: Lauren Kwa