American primary education was once hailed among the best in the world. Unfortunately, it appears that America is gradually falling behind, and if much attention is not given to education (especially primary education), future generations will suffer greatly from this neglect.
On the surface, it appears that young students in America fare well according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), where fourth and eighth graders are tested every four years since 1995.
Before you doubt me or pronounce me as the “prophet of doom”, take a look at yet another recognized international assessment called PISA.
In 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) came up with Program for International Students Assessment (PISA), a testing program for teens aged 15 years old around the world to assess their academic performance focusing largely in Math with minor focus on Science and Reading. The testing is administered every three years.
To break things down further, 540,000 students in 73 countries took the test in 2015. Out of the 73 countries, the United States placed 40th in Math, 25th in Science and 24th in Reading. Singapore topped the list, followed by Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Macao (China), Canada, Vietnam, Hong Kong (China), B-S-J-G (China) and finally Korea.
As a matter of concern, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in the United States, Marc Tucker, pointing out the results from the Chinese and other Asian countries stated that United States should study how a country that is still relatively poor can outperform students in the wealthiest country in the world.
“We’re living in a world that is highly integrated,” Tucker said. “And the United States cannot long operate a world-class economy if our workers are, as the OECD statistics show, among the worst-educated in the world.”
Though we currently cannot conclude what made Singapore the best, we can draw out a few important tips from GreatSchools.org on Finland which was 5th in 2015 and topped the list in 2012.
- The Finnish school system uses the same curriculum for all students (which may be one reason why Finnish scores varied so little from school to school).
- Students have light homework loads.
- Finnish schools do not have classes for gifted students.
- Finland uses very little standardized testing.
- Children do not start school until age 7.
- Finland has a comprehensive preschool program that emphasizes “self-reflection” and socializing, not academics.
- Grades are not given until high school, and even then, class rankings are not compiled.
- Teachers must have master’s degrees.
- Becoming a teacher in Finland is highly competitive. Just 10% of Finnish college graduates are accepted into the teacher training program; as a result, teaching is a high-status profession. (Teacher salaries are similar to teacher salaries in the U.S., however.)
- Students are separated into academic and vocational tracks during the last three years of high school. About 50% go into each track.
- Diagnostic testing of students is used early and frequently. If a student is in need of extra help, intensive intervention is provided.
- Groups of teachers visit each others’ classes to observe their colleagues at work. Teachers also get one afternoon per week for professional development.
- School funding is higher for the middle school years, the years when children are most in danger of dropping out.
- College is free in Finland.
The Finland case study above is not to say that the United States must be like Finland. However, it is not bad to sometimes assess the best and emulate it to improve performance.
If the two tests (TIMSS and PISA) can be considered a valid assessment, it is quite obvious that our children in the United States are falling behind academically as they progress. If the earlier stakeholders (students, parents, schools, and the government at large) took things seriously then surely we can make education better in America.