By Sophia Ordaz, Staff Writer
Semester exam week at Central. Dark circles encircle tired eyes, hands clench pencils and pens. Answer sheets cover each desk. Students fidget. Empty bubbles eyeball students, their hollow, vacant gaze unnerving even the most experienced test-taker. Minds race and pencils scratch. The clock ticks at a tiring, unvarying rhythm, its pulse becoming the students’ own life-force. But soon its beat accelerates. Half of the bubbles remain unfilled, half of the test lies ahead, but there is so little time, so little time to finish a test that determines twenty percent of a semester grade.
Semester exams are only one example of the stressors Central students commonly experience, and on a national level, American students face many of the same challenges. Today, college is seen as a surefire path to success, meaning that students in the U.S. end up juggling high school’s educational demands with extracurricular activities in order to attract colleges. The pressure for American students to achieve is high, but around the world students are succeeding by following vastly different education systems.
Around the mid-1900s, 78 percent of South Korea’s population was illiterate. During this time Korea was occupied by Japan, and only Japanese people were allowed access to secondary schools and higher education. Koreans were excluded from education. Today 98 percent of the country’s population is literate. When Koreans were finally in a stable enough place to build an strong education system, they drew on Confucian values, principles that honored hard work and reverence for education. They combined these standards with elements of egalitarianism, relying on merit-based tests that leave everyone on the same playing field.
Korea’s test-driven education system is producing incredible results. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a worldwide study that tests the ability of 15-year-old students from around the world in reading, math, and science. Korea’s scores are significantly higher than the OECD average and those of the United States.
The amazing performance of Korean students is linked to a rigorous curriculum that focuses on math and science and intense studying. The typical high school student will have class from 8 AM to 10 PM, and many students stay up to all hours of the night studying at private cram schools called hagwons. “If you sleep for four hours a night, you’ll get into the college of your choice,” a student proverbs says. “If you sleep for five hours, you fail.”
The three best colleges in South Korea are Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University, nicknamed SKY. As a SKY graduate, students secure a higher status, the best academic pedigree of the country, and even better marriage prospects. But to be accepted in a SKY college, students must score a near-perfect score on the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). Students spend their lives preparing for this all-or-nothing test.
There is a dark side to Korea’s effective education system. The number one cause of death for young people aged 15-24 is suicide, according to a 2011 report by Statistics Korea. Each year brings a new spate of student suicides, most occurring around the CSAT dates. Despite South Korea’s astoundingly high scores, students experience unhappiness and feelings of inadequacy. High school students dedicate their teenage years to studying and feel enveloped in the CSAT’s “deep play,” where the consequences of losing arguably outweigh the consequences of winning.
“[My student] said that when she finished her university entrance exam she started to uncontrollably cry because such a large mix of emotions, both positive and negative, hit her at the same time,” James Kobes, head instructor at SNU’s Foreign Language Center, says. “She said that after she cried she felt empty because she realized that she had dedicated the best years of her young life to the exam and that much of her identity as a person hinged on the exam. Upon completing the exam, the force that had given her life structure and purpose was suddenly gone.”
Finland has a completely different education system, yet ranks with South Korea and out-performs the United States. The Finnish model focuses on providing every child with the best possible education, relying on hands-on experiences and a close teacher-student relationship.
Before the 1970s, Finland’s education was less than remarkable. The economy was struggling with unemployment at near 20 percent. In 1972, the Finnish parliament began a series of reforms to transform education. Reforms included national curriculum guidelines and improved teacher training.
“Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess,” Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, says. “It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features [the American] system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”
Today Finland’s education is not test-driven and is geared towards cooperation rather than competition, unlike the Korean and American model. Only one standardized test exists, taken when students are sixteen. The list of differences goes on. Finnish students aren’t divided based on their strengths or weaknesses; all children are taught in the same classroom. New York City has as many teachers as Finland, but there are 600,000 students in Finland compared to New York City’s 1.1 million students. For the first six years of their education, students aren’t measured. The early years of education are for students to explore their interests and learn from hands-on experiences. Finnish students aren’t assigned homework until they are well into their teens, and even then, homework usually does not exceed an hour each night. While the average American child gets 27 minutes of recess, the Finnish child gets 75.
The secret to Finland’s success lies with its teachers. Being a teacher in Finland is similar to being a doctor or a lawyer. To work as a teacher, a master’s degree is necessary, and teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of graduates. Many teachers teach the same students year after year, making it easy to establish a close student-teacher bond. Because the Ministry of Education holds teachers in high regard, teachers also have a lot of freedom with lesson plans. They spend only 4 hours each day in the classroom, and they receive two hours a week for professional development.
“In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future, and it’s a very important profession—and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers,” Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education, says. “Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils. I think this is also one of the reasons why teaching is such an attractive profession in Finland because teachers are working like academic experts with their own pupils in schools.”
The Finnish model does not come without its downfalls. Finnish schools aim to advance the lowest-performing students rather than getting the best out of some of the higher-performing students. This can potentially limit a student’s growth.
Both South Korea and Finland surpass the United States, in regards to education. Although, the two countries have different approaches to education, they have similar cultural aspects that allow education to be effective. Both cultures hold teachers in high regards. They are respected and trusted by both students and higher-ups. In both cultures, education is seen as necessary for a better future. Based on its results, the United States needs to change something about its education system, but it may not be possible to apply values from South Korea and Finland in the American system.
“An educational system has to serve the local community, and it’s very much tied to a country’s own history and society, so we can’t take one system from another country and put it somewhere else,” Virkkunen says. “I think that teachers are really the key for a better educational system.”
To improve the United States’ education, teachers need to have the freedom and inspiration of Finnish teachers, and American students need some of the discipline and hard work of Korean students. Students and teachers need to foster relationships of mutual respect and trust for the most effective learning to take place.