The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is a country the size of New Mexico beating the U.S. in academic performance?

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By Dennis Van Roekel and Olli Luukkainen

On Tuesday people across the United States will once again be asking: ‘Why is a country the size of the state of New Mexico beating the United States in the academic performance of its students?’  They’ll be talking about the Program for International Student Assessments or PISA, a study released every three years by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which will probably generate an array of stories that look simply at the topline rankings and show how students in Finland, a small country, once again outperform those in the United States.

The detractors of America’s public education system will shake their heads, point their fingers and bemoan the failure of our public school system without actually looking at why in 2009, for example, the United States placed 17th in Reading and 31st in Math, while Finland was 3rd in Reading and 6th in Math.  In Finland, teachers’ autonomy is strong, as society’s trust in teachers is strong.  In turn, these factors motivate teachers.

Easy-to-grasp rankings may generate headlines and provide fodder for television talk shows, but rather than focusing on the bragging rights of one country over another, we need to determine what concrete steps we can take to ensure future generations have the knowledge they need to succeed in the global 21st century economy.

The National Education Association recently released the Great Public Schools Indicators Framework to help parents, policy makers and educators determine if their school has policies and practices in place to make it “great.” The framework focuses on critical factors including School Readiness, Standards and Curriculum, and School Funding. Using some of these indicators to compare our system to that of Finland will give you a picture of the direction in which we need to head to move our students onto the path of success and the United States to the top of lists like the PISA rankings.

Workforce Quality—U.S. government leaders and politicians often extol the value of teachers while at the same time they berate the unions that represent them. This schizophrenic view of educators is not one that is encountered in Finland, a nation with strong and active teacher unions. In fact, teachers in Finland enjoy a high degree of prestige—the level of which is usually reserved for physicians in the U.S. That respect is evident in the way Finland recruits future teachers (from the top 10 percent of its high school graduates) as well as the earning potential of teachers (teacher pay is comparable to that of other occupations requiring a similar amount of education). The contrast between the preparation of educators in Finland and their American counterparts is dramatic. Future teachers receive a strong academic education with the minimum education of a five year master’s degree program focused on effective teaching with all students. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license in Finland. More importantly, every candidate prepares to teach all kinds of students, including students with disabilities and those who bring other unique strengths and needs to the classroom.

School Funding / Equity — The most impressive outcome of world-class education systems is that they consistently deliver high quality learning across their entire system, so that every student benefits from superior learning opportunities. To achieve this, high-performing countries invest educational resources where they can make the greatest difference.  However only about 4 percent of the children in Finland live in poverty, compared to about 20 percent in the United States. This point is crucial. In the 2009 PISA, American public schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Unfortunately, U.S. pre-primary education spending is well below the average for the developed nations and U.S. public spending is only one-third of the OECD average, ahead of only three nations. During the early part of the global recession, most OECD nations experienced larger declines in GDP yet increased education spending by 3.9% while the US reduced spending by 1.5%. The students with the most needs usually end up short-changed. We cannot allow this cycle of poverty and inequality to continue if we want to see different outcomes.

Standards and Curriculum Not surprisingly, PISA results indicate that national standards, used to establish clear paths to good jobs or to higher education, can be an important factor in student success; however, the U.S. focus on encouraging competition among schools and districts is out of sync with what is being done in other countries. In top-performing education systems, all students are now expected to perform at the levels formerly thought possible only for the most elite students. The U.S., too, is raising its expectation for all students through the Common Core State Standards, but how U.S. students have traditionally been tested has been different than in other parts of the world. High-performing academic countries, like Finland, do not believe that multiple-choice, computer-scored standardized tests can properly measure higher-order thinking skills. Instead, they rely heavily on essay-type responses as a critical part of timed exams, while also factoring in graded pieces of work that could not possibly be produced in a timed evaluation. Finnish students do not take a standardized test until the end of high school. The only tests students take before then are created by their teachers to assess what they know, discover where they are struggling, and highlight their strengths in learning. The question is whether we want our nation’s students to become better test-takers or to become stronger thinkers?

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, should make a big difference. If properly implemented, the standards will raise the bar to the same level for all students, no matter their parents’ income or geography, and will help to ensure that students graduate high school ready for college, the work force, and citizenship.

PISA is a valuable tool when used constructively and not as “proof” for what is wrong with U.S. schools. In Finland, since the 1970s, education has been seen as a long-term investment in the well-being of the nation rather than a quick-fix political solution. In the United States and many other nations, drastic changes need to be made to improve the quality of education that our children are receiving.  In Finland and in the United States, our organizations are part of the Unite for Quality Education ( initiative that links educators internationally to focus on quality education. On behalf of students, educators, and communities, let us move the discussion from country ranking toward the changes we must implement to better serve our students today and tomorrow.