Is the U.S. Education System “Mean-Spirited”?

Mary Tedrow, a retired high school teacher, who is now the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA. recently had the opportunity to tour Finnish schools. She said that while in Finland she realized how “mean-spirited” the U.S. K-12 system is. 

Finland, as you probably know, is considered to have one of the top education systems in the world. They score at the top on PISA and have been at the top since 2000. I wrote about some distinctions at Caffeinated Thoughts in 2014, and here are some differences:

  • Finnish children don’t start formal reading instruction until they are 7-years-old, and compulsory attendance is age 6-16.  In the United States, we are pushing early education with most children starting school at 5-years-old and many children beginning when they are 4-years-old with preschool, and there is a significant push to make preschool universal, and I wouldn’t be surprised down the road if there is a push to make it compulsory.
  • They have less homework than many of their international peers.  The amount of homework students in the U.S. varies by local school districts, but there is a trend for more and more homework for students, even elementary students.  Common Core-aligned math homework has exasperated this for some.
  • Finnish students only take one standardized test given in their final year of high school. American students can expect standardized tests at least in Grades 3-8 and 11th Grade. Some school districts and states assess even more. 

Tedrow writes about the differences between the two systems and the problem of high school drop-outs.

She describes the Finnish system: 

Though students are required to go to school only until age 16, those who leave before secondary school are considered dropouts. Programs designed to entice these youngsters — typically those who struggle academically for a variety of reasons — back into education address the national 5 percent dropout rate. We visited one of these classrooms where teachers rotated three weeks of instruction with three weeks of internships in area businesses.

We toured a secondary school with both a technical and academic wing. The teachers were experimenting with melding the two programs. In the technical wing, we visited a classroom where adults were receiving training to make a career switch. Free.

The fact that students can fail and return, or work and return, or retire and return had a palpable effect on the mood and the tone of the buildings.

She also notes that Finland provides free dental, medical and psychiatric services for students, but people who take note of this seem to fail to grasp that the United States has decidedly more students than Finland. 

She contrasted this with the United States saying our education system is “mean-spirited” by comparison:

Our students enter at around age 5 and have some 13 years to attain a high school diploma. Failure to earn a diploma is a dead end for most. In the United States, when students fail at school — or leave due to many other factors, sometimes just as resistant teenagers — we are done with you. Sure, there are outliers who are successful through luck, sweat, connections or all three, but for most, the lack of a diploma is a serious obstacle toward advancement.

She also provided this contrast: 

 Unlike the Finnish competency system, ours is based on meeting a prescribed set of standards by passing tests of discrete knowledge. Our students face a gauntlet of tests, even though any standards can be woefully outdated by the time a graduate enters a quickly evolving job market. The Finns take matriculation tests (there is choice in these as well) at the end of secondary but all interviewed said the scores did not have much bearing on what students could do next.

So is our education system “mean-spirited”? 

There are a number of lessons we can learn from Finland. One thing people have to understand that Finland is also more homogenous, they have fewer students so their investment can go further. 

That is not the case in the United States. 

One thought on “Is the U.S. Education System “Mean-Spirited”?

  1. This article confuses and/or omits several important ideas. First, the US and Finland are vastly different educational cultures. Teachers in Finland have more training and are paid better, the range of student abilities is different, etc. Second, the scale or population differences should make little difference. Larger countries have more students and more families and more people employed to pay taxes to support education. Third, differences within those populations matter. The US student population is more diverse culturally and socio-economically, etc. To put it simply: the US is not enough like Finland (or South Korea, or Japan, etc.), so comparisons are nearly useless.

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