If we want to improve education in the United States, we need to start emulating the countries with good results

American education systemWhile discussing the American education system during a 2012 campaign stop in New Hampshire, 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 can see why Santorum and other Republicans don’t want an educated electorate, but college is still central to improving our standard of living and our economy.

The United States workforce is presently under-educated and underpaid. 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 2012 the U.S. was ranked 26th in math, 21st 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.

American education systemFinland 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 former 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, cheating 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?


  1. “The United States workforce is presently under-educated and underpaid. 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.”


    Everybody in North America is over-educated to be stock-boys at Amazon, picking up paper strewn around by the robots, slapping on tape that the machines haven’t been programmed for yet. You don’t need to know Isaac Newton, Dirac and Einstein to flip burgers. Or polish the burger flipping machine.

    The way to improve the workers’ worth is to pay them a living wage — enough to buy a house and a car, and put their kids through college, before they in turn take up jobs three or six hours a day picking up after the future’s robots.

    This may take trade unions. Ya think?


  2. When the US declared a war on poverty, along with incomes student test scores when up. If you want a better educational system, raise the income for all under $250K. If mom or dad both have two jobs and are not home after school or at night to make sure homework gets done, education will falter. From kindergarten to graduation, all of my classes had 30 – 33 student per teacher and no assistants from the 1970s to 1983. Teachers were able to teach. Autism was not around. Perhaps we need to figure out what chemicals or environmental conditions are destroying our children’s minds and eliminate them.

  3. I was graduated from UC Berkeley in 1959 and my brother in 1960. There was no tuition, simply a $72 fee per semester. Community colleges were also free at the time.

    All public universities and community colleges should have no tuition. Something should also be done about the cost of books. In 1959 textbooks were $5 to $10. Now they cost hundreds.

    We can attribute most of this to Saint Raygun who, when he was governor of California in 1967, was overhead telling one of his aids “why should I pay for someone else’s education”. That’s pretty much where it all began, at least in California. Most of my life I have heard the old complaint. “I don’t have kids, why should I pay for them in my property taxes.” This is another selfish complaint. I look at it quite different. I am currently paying back for my K through 12 education.

  4. The only thing I question in your article is this: “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.” Where did you get this statistic? I taught English and journalism in public secondary schools for 38 years, and during that time had many colleagues who were brilliant, talented educators who chose to teach, not because it was the best-paying profession, nor because they couldn’t get a good job in the private sector, but because teaching kids and making a difference in their lives was a passion, a calling.

    So far as private schools go, here in my neck of the woods, working conditions may be better, but the pay is much, much lower than that in the public school system. Many people choose to teach in private schools because the students tend to be from families in a higher socioeconomic group and are therefore more educated (and more education-friendly) and often better behaved.

    One of our biggest problems in the U.S., in my experience, is the huge disparity within the public school system. Districting lines are drawn to keep lower socioeconomic groups “in their place,” so to speak, as if mixing them with students from higher socioeconomic groups might contaminate them, and far fewer resources are put into these schools.

    When you couple this with the ubiquitous high-stakes standardized testing, you have a sure-fire formula for failure. The kids I’ve taught have been mostly from the lower socioeconomic groups, and they are wonderful human beings. They are also often square pegs that don’t fit well into nice, neat round holes, but they CAN be successful when taught in ways that speak to their experiences, their cultures, their needs, and their strengths. You just can’t measure that with a one-size-fits-all standardized curriculum and high-stakes test.

    My qualifications? I earned a B.S. in English Education with a 3.73 GPA and an M.A. in English with a 4.0 GPA.

    • I attended school in San Francisco in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In my grammar school, they had what they called an ungraded class for the children who could not keep up. I don’t know if this was good or bad. In the eighth grade I entered a private school called Lick Wilmerding. They taught college prep and the trades like machine shop, carpentry, etc. This prepared me nicely for a career as a civil engineer. After high school I attended San Francisco City College for three years and UC Berkeley for my last two years. I acquired a thirst for learning that seems to be getting stronger every day. I am 78 and still wish to learn everything possible before I die.

      • Mike,

        This really gets to it, I think. In the little village I’m from, a township or county council, or the Provincial or Federal Members of Parliament, might have a problem. Naturally they’d ask the local teachers for advice.

        Things would get passed around. Pretty often it would end up being “That’s the sort of thing Mrs. Cassidy (my Grade Five teacher) might know.” Other times it would be Mr. Van Dahm, a shop teacher across in the high school. And so it goes.

        When American schools have only teachers the Congressmen go to for advice, things will start turning around.


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