It seems like education reform is always a hot button item in the United States, especially in recent years when we’ve started to slip in the global rankings. The 2012 PISA test scores once more indicated that the United States is falling behind as Asian countries rise to the top. In an effort to keep pace, we’ve implemented different and more standards, introduced sloughs of standardized tests, and, essentially, made it much harder for teachers to get creative with content.

The PISA scores reflect three different areas of testing: Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The top achieving countries included China, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Finland, Estonia, Lichtenstein, Ireland, Canada, Vietnam, and Poland. The United States was near the median score for reading and science, and below the median score for mathematics.

CNN’s Jason Miks recently reported on an interview with Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. During the interview, they talked about the United States’ lackluster performance in the global education scene and compared our education model to some of the top countries’ models. She put South Korea, Finland, and Poland (consistently top achievers) into three categories:

“So, South Korea is the pressure cooker model. The extreme case of what you see all over Asia, where kids are working night and day, literally, under a lot of family pressure, to get very high test scores. Now, South Korea does get those high test scores, but at a great cost,” she says.

intelligence, bright idea

Elite teacher training programs would create better teachers and, in turn, improve education overall.
Image: Shutterstock

“Finland is, in many ways, the extreme opposite of South Korea,” Ripley explains. “And Finland is what I call the utopia model—they’ve really invested in quality over quantity and the kids are, on average, doing less homework than our kids, but still achieving at the very top of the world on tests of critical thinking and math, reading and science, with very little variation from school to school or from socioeconomic status from one to the other.”

The third model, Poland, “is an example of the metamorphosis, a country that has a high rate of child poverty and plenty of trouble and trauma in its background, and yet has radically improved its education outcomes over the past 10 years.”

Finland’s model seems appropriately named, no?

Part of what Finland did happened in the late 1960s, when they shut down many of their teacher training colleges. When they reopened them, they were only located in the country’s top eight universities. This led to better-educated teachers, all of whom are pulled from the top 10 to 20 percent of graduating classes. That’s compared to our teacher pool, which tends to draw from the bottom third of graduating classes.

So, in Finland, becoming a teacher comes with the same elite title as, say, becoming a doctor, dentist, or lawyer here in the United States. Tack on to that the fact that extracurricular sports programs rarely exist in top schools around the world, and the U.S. has some serious thinking to do about how our system is set up—from teacher trainings, to attitudes toward teachers, to what kids are really focusing on at school.

“[M]ore and more people are starting to talk about the quality of our education colleges,” Ripley said. “To get into education college in Finland is like getting into MIT in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here. I mean, you could make a case to pay teachers more, to give them more freedom in the classroom, and to finally five that profession the respect it deserves.”