America the Follower?


For this assignment, we were to find a cultural issue that interested us, and do a bit of exploring on the issue. Throughout our exploration, we should have concluded on one way or another. This paper touches on America lagging behind other nations academically. It was a rather fun paper to write, as I picked a subject that seemed really interesting. Also, the subject is very relevant, and something that seems to me like it should be talked about a lot more than it is right now.

When I went back and revised this paper, I tried to make my statistics a little more clear, and explain just exactly what they mean. I also had a lot of structural and grammar issues this time around.  

America, the Follower

It is the general consensus among probably most of all Americans that our country is supposed to be the leaders of the world. In some aspects, that statement is very true. The United States has probably the most fearsome military in existence, as is known to interfere across the world if we so deem necessary. We pride ourselves on being a country based off of pure democracy, where one can arrive from anywhere else, with nothing but the clothes on his back, and make a modest life for himself. Why then, when it comes to high school academics, does America under perform compared to other countries in the world? Our country has all the necessary resources to be successful, so is our poor scoring a result of the culture? Or is it the system? Can it change? Clearly every high school in America isn’t exactly the same, but there has to be some reason to explain why we don’t perform nearly as well as others.

There’s no doubt that we are behind our foreign peers academically, and we are also being outpaced by a number of countries as well. America placed very low on an “international exam” that tested math, science, and reading. We ranked 25th, 17th, and 14th, respectively, out of 34 countries (American Students 2011). A 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test proved that America ranked in the bottom half in terms of number of kids determined to be on the “advanced level” (United States Lags 2011). According to the Huffington Post, America ranks 31st and 23rd globally in mathematics and science, respectively (Education Olympics 2011). The United States reading literacy score based off of the PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, is right at the average, out of 65 nations (Fast Facts). The PISA assessment is a worldwide study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This assessment is given strictly to 15 year olds, in the subjects of science, reading, and mathematics. So it is no secret that America certainly lags behind other industrialized countries in academics. I’m curious to see the reason for this.

There are a number of countries to analyze, to determine what they do right that makes them academically successful. 21 developed nations were ranked by Pearson, based on a handful of measures, including international test scores, graduation rates, prevalence of high education seekers, and other figures. The United States ranked 17th. Let’s first look at the top ranked nation, Finland. lists several distinctive properties of Finland that contribute to their success. One difference that jumps out is that there is no separation for higher academically inclined students. Everyone learns the same exact curriculum up until their second year of high school, and there are no classes for gifted students. This has several effects. Higher achieving students, when placed in the same setting as lower achieving students, can often end up serving as models of success. It is often said that if you want to get better at something, surround yourself among others who are already much better than you, and you can quickly change your habits, skills, or whatever it may be you wish to become better at. In Finland, “Efforts are made to provide instruction to cater to the needs of different learners in terms of their skills and interests.” Another difference that really jumps out, is, in Finland, all teachers are required to have a master’s degree. This is something that really makes a difference. The Teacher profession in Finland is extremely competitive. Only ten percent of Finnish college graduates are accepted into the teacher training program (Wilde). The result of this is that teachers are high end jobs, and only the top students can become one, directly increasing the potential effectiveness of high school and middle school teachers all across Finland. Here in the U.S., the teaching position is so massively undervalued. It is only necessary to have a bachelor’s degree in order to become a high school teacher here. This results in lower caliber teachers, leading our youth. Also, students are frequently diagnosed, to see if certain students are falling behind. When results show a certain student is in fact falling behind, efforts are made right away to fix the problem (Wilde). These are only a few systematic differences that surely make a massive distance.

Next, we’ll focus on the country that placed second in the Pearson ranking, South Korea. South Korea achieves their success a bit differently than Finland. Here, the culture is what mostly sets their education from other nations. Education is the number one priority in every family household. To drop out of high school in South Korea is basically unheard of. South Korea has a 93% graduation rate, compared to that of just over 75% in America (Lynch). The average South Korean family reportedly spends three times more than the average American family on education (Lynch). But this increase in spending is mostly a result of more private institutions in the country. South Korea also spends a higher percentage of its economy on education. But I don’t think these reasons in particular are the reasons South Korea succeeds higher than the U.S. In South Korea, it’s the social pressure that produces success. The schooling in South Korea is intense. On top of eight hour school days, most students use their remaining time reviewing even more school work, or practicing with private tutors (Lynch). Every student there wants to make it to a university. The thought process among South Korean students is, “if I can make it to university, I will succeed in the future.” Lynch states, in South Korea, “parents regard getting their children into the right university with a fervor that dwarfs even the most ardent ivy league crazed American mother or father.” One South Korean mother explained that roughly one third of their family’s total income goes towards education for their children (Lynch). That truly defines what it means to be a student in South Korea. And not just some students, but most students, have this unparalleled drive and work ethic. On top of the completely different culture in South Korea, they, like Finland, also value the teaching position more than the U.S. An experienced high school teacher in South Korea makes roughly 25% more than a comparable American teacher (Lynch). This will cause many more intelligent and driven kids to pursue the position.

The last country we will explore will be Poland. Poland is an interesting country because of their dramatic change in academic achievement in such a little time, while also spending a minimal amount of money. Poland went from below average in almost every aspect, to above average, all with the 46th globally ranked GDP (Williams).  There isn’t a very clear difference between systems in Poland and America. High school teachers in Poland don’t make much money compared to the average, just like the U.S. One American foreign exchange student mentioned that in Poland, there is a more sense of seriousness than in the U.S. He remarked that there is a much higher mutual respect between the student and teacher, and much less joking around in the classroom. The atmosphere isn’t necessarily intense, just intentful (Searching for Lessons). Something can also be said about the testing done in Poland. In Poland, they don’t test more, they test “better”. Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World,  mentions that education is more revolved around critical thinking in Poland, rather than straight up regurgitation, or fact learning. This, in turn, leads to better performances on tests like the PISA (McNeel). Education that is more focused on critical thinking also leads to more progressive adults, and people who are more flexible in their job training, and their ability to learn multiple skills. Like Finland, Poland delays their tracking. There aren’t any accelerated classes until late in high school. The effects are the same. Students who perform poorly due to lack of effort, eventually learn what it takes to succeed as gifted students’ traits rub off on them. Another theme in Poland that seems to be the theme in most top performing nations, is the rigor (McNeel). Foreign exchange students who come to the United States almost always say the rigor is much more intense where they came from. Most American high schools simply don’t push students as much as they need to be in order to perform anywhere close to these top performing nations.

America has found itself spending twice as much as many top performing nations with nothing to show for it. As a nation, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that our youth is performing and learning to the best of their ability. We should be watching other countries and adopting aspects of other systems that lead to success, that are implementable in our nation. It seems that the major factors that lead other countries to success are certainly possible to adapt here in the U.S. Teacher value is a priority that should be near or at the top. When high school teaching is seen as a lower end kind of position, then hardly any gifted, driven students are going to want to pursue education as a major. This seems to directly affect the quality of education that younger students receive. An interesting, perhaps more complex issue is the culture we have as young high school students. It was mentioned earlier that in Poland, students simply seem to care more, and understand the importance of education. What is that a result of? To me, it is a result of child upbringing. It is every parent’s duty to stress the importance of work ethic, and drive, to their children. Without any nurturing, students will never understand the importance of education, or what it takes to succeed on a higher level. America is supposed to be a model to other countries, yet we continue to lag behind academically. It seems change isn’t only necessary, but very possible.