Education 101

By Jessica Kumari 12.06.2011 blog

In the 2010 PISA, an international system for evaluating the quality of education that measures 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

But the United States used to be the world leader in education. We were the first nation to offer free, public education to everyone in the country. Education was the great equalizer – the essential tool in obtaining the “American Dream.”

After World War II, the GI Bill enabled thousands of returning veterans to pursue higher education. Because of opportunities in education, Americans excelled in innovation and we became the #1 superpower in the world. So what happened? Well, we didn’t get worse. But other countries caught up. They saw what was going on in the U.S. and decided they could do that too. And they did. And now, some are doing it better. Education “experts” say it’s a “Sputnick moment” in the United States and that we should be observing other countries to see what we can learn from them.

So the question now becomes, who should we look to as a model? There are countries in Asia like South Korea, Singapore and China, which ranked #1 in all three subjects in the 2010 PISA.

But China’s own education leaders admit they focus too much on test preparation and not enough on skills like critical thinking and creativity.

There’s our neighbor to the north, Canada. It has greatly improved its education system in a short amount of time while also successfully resolving issues with teacher unions. As recently as 1997, teachers in Ontario, Canada held some of the biggest strikes in North America. In 2003, Dalton McGunity became Ontario’s premiere. He made education his priority and sat down with union leaders.

When I visited Canada earlier this year, I talked with union leaders and Mr. McGuinty. Everyone agreed since 2003, there’s been a level of “respect” for each other that never existed before. The two sides may still disagree on issues but they find common ground by putting the needs of students first. Sadly, I’m not sure that’s possible in the U.S. given the current political environment.

And then there’s Finland. Ever since students in Finland started outperforming other countries in international assessments, people have been trying to figure out why. Education experts have swarmed to the country to analyze its schools, students and teachers.

Finland’s education system is the focus of a 2011 documentary called “The Finland Phenomenon.” And scores of reporters have flown to this Nordic country of 5 million to compare their native countries to this “Eden of Education.” In February, I joined them.

I boarded a flight and headed to what Newsweek named in 2010 the “best country in the world.” This Florida native has to disagree with that statement based on the weather alone — it was cold and as you can see here — I even donned a cap while filming to preserve the heat that would have otherwise escaped from my head. I do have to say I was happily surprised by the food — apologies to Rudolph but reindeer is actually quite tasty. Every restaurant where we dined was delicious! O.K., now back to education.

I spent my week in Finland’s capital of Helsinki talking to students, parents, teachers and the Education Minister trying to figure out what makes Finland so special. In my opinion, up close, Finland doesn’t seem that different from the U.S. Schools look like any you could find here.

Students know they are considered the “world’s smartest” but they themselves don’t know why. They don’t stress about homework, getting into college or test scores. In fact, the students I met seemed to be more concerned about fashion, Facebook and dating. Sound familiar?

The one thing that stood out was how people described the teaching profession. Students LOVED their teachers. Teachers LOVED their jobs. I asked students to rank the following professions from most to least respected: scientist, doctor, politician, teacher, businessman. Teacher was most respected. Businessman was least.

Not just anyone in Finland can become a teacher. Only those with the highest grades apply. Even then, just 1 in 10 applicants are accepted into teaching school. In the U.S., if I said I wanted to become a doctor, lawyer or businesswoman, I would be lauded for my ambition. If I said I wanted to become a teacher, I would not get the same praise.

I fear people would think I’m taking an “easy” route. But I know from experience, teaching can be one of the hardest professions in the world. My mother has told me stories of her experience teaching chemistry to high school students. Most teachers I’ve met don’t go into the profession for summers and holidays. Instead, they’re determined to make a difference. And in order to do so, they work 12-hour days and are on call 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

Yet for some reason, teachers in the U.S. don’t have the same prestige as they do in Finland. But one positive thing I have noticed recently is that ever since the latest PISA scores came out, more people are talking about the “teaching crisis” in America. Teachers are getting the attention they deserve. Communities are taking steps to get rid of the bad teachers and reward the good ones. Teachers should be held accountable for their work. But they also need to be able to earn a good salary without having to take on a second job to make ends meet.

I hope we can keep talking about this and make real changes despite other ongoing crises, like the country’s debt or unemployment rate. Education is still the key to the American dream. I do not believe we, as a nation, are average. The greatest innovations still originate from the U.S. But in order to maintain that and compete globally, we have to keep focusing on ways to improve education — starting with the status of teachers.

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