“While one hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
– Henry C. Link
High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries.
American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.
Finland’s students placed first in science and near the top in math and reading, according to results released late last year. An unofficial tally of Finland’s combined scores puts it in first place overall, says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The U.S. placed in the middle of the pack in math and science; its reading scores were tossed because of a glitch.
The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children.
Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
And all we could come up with was “no child left behind.”
The difference is this: Finns take education seriously. Not just teachers and educators, but citizens. People. Parents. Children. Voters. Education is culturally relevant. Ignorance, in Finland, is not a virtue as it can be here in the US.
I recall my own high school courses being infinitely tougher and more enriching than almost every college course I took in the US. I am a product of both the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and the International School of Brussels’ (ISB) incredible roster of professors, so my experience may not be typical of most Europeans, but let me say this: Only four courses I took in college were above the level of any class I took in High School in Europe. The rest of my college courses were on the level of ninth grade courses at ISB, if that.
I watch my kids go through school and wonder what they learn all day. They’re on par with European schools in math, but not particularly in science… and not at all when it comes to history or literature. Not even close, in fact.
I’ve actually been asked by an American close to me if we had toasters in France. Seriously. (I politely responded that yes, once American GI’s brought electricity with them, toasters and televisions made their way to France fairly quickly – although the government allowed only one of each per village.)
No matter how you look at it, when your own Commander in Chief is hardly capable of putting Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan or Turkey on a map of the world, when he has a tough time pronouncing simple words like “nuclear” and seems to have a very tough time understanding (and funding) scientific research – and the majority of the country feels an affinity to him because of that “hey, he sounds like one of us” kind of affinity, you can’t help but wonder if we’re committed to being a nation of educated citizens or a nation of proud-to-be-ignorant consumers.
It is one thing to talk about being a world leader, and another completely to be a world leader. Unless we are talking about debt, illiteracy, carbon emissions and military spending.
As a superpower, we really ought to at least try to do better. Out of national pride, if anything. Maybe it;s just me, but we’re starting to look and act a lot like the dumb rich kid who likes to make fun of the nerdy kids in the classroom and shove the ethnic foreign kids into lockers when the teacher isn’t looking.
We really need to start raising the bar in this country. It was cool to be the Chuck Norris loving tobacco-chewin’ country neighbor with the really tacky McMansion and a huge fifteen-car garage and the manicured lawns back in the 80’s, but not anymore. We’ve become a cliche – both overseas and inside our own borders – and that’s never good.
What makes this situation even sadder is this: The only difference between Americans and Finns is mindset. We’ve just become lazy and self-indulgent. We take everything – starting with education – for granted, and have absolutely no clue how far behind we are getting. Honestly, education in the US may be one of those endeavors that Americans may have to outsource. Let an International Baccalaureate team come in with the heads of the world’s top ten national education programs, assess our K-12 system for a year or two, and rebuild it from the ground up.
Maybe this is the only way we get ourselves out of this shameful pit of educational mediocrity.
But before this can happen, our leaders need to have the will to make it happen – which starts with their electorate having the will to make it happen.
Sadly, in a multiple-choice culture in which no child is left behind, in which even the losing team gets a trophy, in which chief business leaders get paid tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for running Fortune 500 companies into the ground, and in which intelligence seems to demand little more than guessing the right answer just over 50% of the time, there is little need to waste time on world history, geography, world languages, literature or critical thinking. In other words, edukashion don’t need to be much gooder than this. If you spell something wrong, Spell Check will correct it for you. If you say something wrong, no one will catch it anyway.
When everyone is dumb, no one is dumb.
Except… when Americans start to travel to places other than Mexico, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys.
Perhaps “good enough” is just that: Good enough. America: Home of the okay, land of the good enough. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound hot to me. Yet here we are. Whether you believe it or not, whether your US-made statistics agree or not, the sad reality is that America’s K-12 system is in shambles, and yes, we are getting our asses handed to us by Finland.
(Case in point: I challenge any one of you – American readers – to actually put Finland on a map. Not scandinavia as a whole, but Finland. Before you do, I also want you to write down what major country Finland shares a border with. I also challenge you to describe its flag.)
Make fun of the French and the Finns and all of those faggy tree-hugging pinko Europeans all you want, but when they’re traveling overseas, at least they can find their own asses on a map without having to google-Earth it.
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