Note: this article has been updated in April 2017.
→ South Korea education performance [Infographic]
→ Expert roundup: how to improve the education system in the US?
→ From the student’s point of view
Back in 2014, Pearson released their Learning Curve. This education assessment service gathered the information of The Economist Intelligence Unit, did extensive desk research, and interviewed the world’s education leaders to report each nation’s ability to prepare students for the modern workforce.
What did they evaluate?
Including but not limited to, contributing factors were:
- the amount each nation spends on education
- average school attendance
- the salaries and earning potential of teachers
- test scores in math, science, and literature
- employment rates
- average salaries
Based on the info, researchers had created a ranking system identifying the top 40 countries in the world.
Interpreting the Report’s Findings
Looking beyond the numbers, there are several important conclusions we can draw from this report:
- Significant financial investment in a country’s education system does not necessarily produce academic returns.
- The countries with the best rankings make basic skill development (like numeracy and literacy) a high priority.
- Non-cognitive skills are equally important. Countries who excelled in the report also valued communication, leadership, teamwork, global citizenship, problem solving, emotional intelligence, and entrepreneurship.
- Effort is more valuable than inherited intelligence.
- Clear, measurable goals and outcomes are essential.
- It really does take a community to raise a child; the leading countries relied on the accountability and involvement of a well-utilized network of people to educate their students.
The Learning Curve 2014 concludes East Asian nations are best in education. With South Korea on top, followed by Japan (2nd) and Singapore (3rd), these countries have clear learning outcomes and a strong culture of accountability and engagement among a broad community.
As for the leader, the education system of South Korea has transformed the country over the last 50 years, leading to an expanding economy.
Is South Korea’s Education System One to Mimic? [Infographic]
The Secret of Success
South Korea does deserve some praise. After all, their students rank exceptionally high in reading, math and science. It’s also noteworthy that nearly 65% of young adults (ages 25-34) have a university degree. This graduation rate is significantly higher than the average 9% of other nations examined by The Learning Curve 2014.
To many, the success of South Korea is enviable. But is that the right mindset to have?
Let’s take a look at some of the factors contributing to South Korea’s “success:”
- All 12 years of elementary and high school education is about the need to prepare for the Suneung, known as the College Scholastic Ability Test. The result is the admission to the country’s top universities.
- South Koreans spend more than $17 billion on private tuition, accounting for nearly 15% of consumer spending.
- Four out of five students seek out private education.
- Students attend classes from 9am to 5pm. Then, from 5pm to 10pm, students attend a hagwon, or cram school.
- Of those who have graduated from university, only 75% are employed. Of those, 24% are overqualified for their current job (a percentage that is three times higher than the world average).
- Students report low interest and satisfaction rates in school.
- Stress associated with academic performance and career outlook is the leading reason teens contemplate suicide.
- The #1 reason for suicide among 15-24-year-old youngsters in South Korea is stress associated with academic performance.
In 2015, South Korea was the 3rd in math and science after Singapore and Hong Kong. In 2016, the education system of this country stayed debatable: despite high ranks, South Korean kids seemed to be those paying for that success.
Former students describe the Korean education as stressful and authoritarian, emphasizing high pressure and high performance:
“To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance, and obedience.” (See-Wong Koo)
“In my three years of high school, not once did any teacher ask me what I would like to do or what I would like to study in college. No one really cared about my interest or what I’d be better at.” (Dongyoung Shin)
What About the US Education?
Despite the above-mentioned human factor and stresses South Korean youths have to overcome for education success, statistics say it all. And many US educators and parents look at OECD and Pearson reports as a roadmap for enhancing the academic learning of their kids.
Everyone wants to be among the world’s top nations in education, don’t they? And while some name reasons why the US education system is failing and agree the US needs to reevaluate the current learning opportunities for students, the question remains: What are the best tactics for improving our education system, taking into account the fact we don’t consider going to extremes, as is evident in South Korea?
To find the answer, we went to several educators and education professionals with the only question: “If you could name three key ways on how to improve the US education system, what would they be?”
||Graduate TA Mathematician Programmer
||Social Studies teacher James Madison High School
||Physics and Math tutor
||writer teacher (Philosophy and English)
||web T G+
||Brandon D Stiller
||Biology teacher at New Trier High School
||National Board Certified teacher and teacher trainer
||Ph.D. from UCSD Science & Mathematics tutor
||Teaches Economics at SUNY University at Albany
||history department at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School NY
||AP English Teacher in suburban Colorado
||University of Illinois student studying Computer Science
||Education Technologist Teacher at Fairfax County VA
||AP and SAT II Physics & Math Tutor
||former teacher and founder of ESLAuthority.com
By combining their suggestions, we’ve come up with several ways to improve the US education system.
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Respect and Encourage Teachers
- More respect for teachers. Higher pay, fewer classes, and less classroom time, with this extra time being used for training and curriculum development. Discipline should come in the form of training with temporarily reduced class loads. / Jeremy Kun
- Treat teachers differently. They are responsible for each new generation of learners and should be regarded as some of the most influential individuals in the country. Teaching should be considered a top level profession with higher salaries. Teachers would quickly teach to inspire and so students can learn versus just to retain their job by passing yearly tests. / Travis Ward
- More freedom for teachers. Hire the best teachers, pay them well, and let them teach in the way they best see fit (trust and mild oversight). / Jeremy Kun
The Importance of Teacher Education
- People need to understand that we are a country of immigrants. Part of this professional development that teachers in most all areas of the country also need is in the area of teaching students in their class who are English Language Learners. Studies of teachers in America show that the majority do not feel they have the skill set in order to meet the demands of second language learners in their classrooms. / Laurie Flood
- Raise the standards for becoming an educator. Require more stringent training for teachers in their actual subject (c.f. the extremely low standards for degrees in math education). / Jeremy Kun
- Teachers will need more training in order to adapt to the way of mathematics instruction that the Common Core Standards and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics suggest. The old way of teaching formulas and procedures is only a portion of the picture. Students understand the use of these formulas and procedures (and remember them) when they can derive the formulas themselves in interesting activities done with manipulatives and visuals to make mathematics real and real life. Then, students need to utilize these traditional formulas and procedures solving real life problems and have whole class discussions about their findings. This makes mathematics a field of problem solving, which it truly is, rather than just a field of disparate numbers. The legacy will be a generation of adults who can utilize mathematics seamlessly to solve real life problems, instead of generations of adults who state, “I never really understood mathematics,” as we have now. Teachers need time to get the professional development to teach these new standards and to create lessons that are targeted and relevant for their students. / Laurie Flood
- Continuous Education for Teachers. Provide annual seminars/workshops/classes for teachers. In order to stay competitive with the world, our teachers, the backbone of the education system, need to be continuously growing and learning new skills and ways to effectively teach our youth. / Jake Lopata
- I take a page from Amanda Ripley’s book (The Smartest Kids in the World) and say that we should make it harder to become a teacher, trying to make the profession more of a first than a last resort. Finland and South Korea, though opposites in many ways, agree on this. / Jim Cullen
- Eliminate the bachelor degree for certification and provide internship opportunities combined with a graduate program for teacher certification. / Michael Mazenko
- Update and improve teaching curriculums yearly. Use a forum setting among teachers that teach the same subjects across several school districts. Allow teacher to learn from each other. This could include summer retreats to learn from and network with each other. No single teacher following a set strict level of rules from a book will ever become the best teacher. You need multiple teachers coming together iteratively to achieve the best level of teaching and improving upon it each year. / Travis Ward
Providing Personalized Learning Opportunities
- More personalized learning for students. / Frank Franz
- Move away from standardization and uniformity of learning focused on a one-size-fits-all system that is excessively focused on bachelor degrees for all as a measure of success and achievement. In its place, the system should develop and promote career and technical education at grades 6-10, offering greater choice, including graduation at sixteen for students pursuing associate degrees and trade certificates. / Michael Mazenko
- Teachers need to work one-on-one with students to see if proficiency is achieved and re-teach if necessary. Reduce class size to make this a possibility. / Frank Franz
- Learning needs to be individualized both in pace and format. / Ken Halla
The Importance of Basic Skill Development
- Focus on reading analysis skills. / Frank Franz
- Stay the course with the Common Core Standards. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions out there about the Common Core Standards. These standards focus on critical thinking skills and learning all of the traditional curriculum (and more) in a manner that allows students to solve real life problems. This is critical for US workers to stay competitive in a global workforce. We have barely begun the process in this country, and a misinformation campaign is forcing some states to rethink whether they will use the Common Core Standards or not. This is a mistake. Also, there is a view that the Common Core Standards and high stakes testing are intertwined. The high stakes testing was a part of the previous standards and No Child Left Behind legislation. This does not have to be the case if teachers and parents raise their voices against high stakes testing. / Laurie Flood
- We need to have everyone using standards based learning. / Ken Halla
How Schools are Structured
- Students in the States are not pushed to learn, nor do they have any motivation to. Kids in the US dream about playing football, but kids in Germany what to solve problems (for example). The culture plays an important role here. We have to make education interesting again or things will just get worse. / Jason Jurotich
- Make schools more progressive environments. Allow 4 day school weeks, increase or decrease the lengths of days, allow students to teach, allow students to rate teachers so that it enforces teachers to care and have to try. / Travis Ward
- Reduce the distorting role of sports in school life, which engenders misplaced priorities for too many people. / Jim Cullen
- Go completely digital and let the students investigate a lot more. Most of the world’s info is online and we don’t need professors simply repeating it. / Jason Jurotich
- As teachers and schools have begun to retool to teach the Common Core Standards, there needs to be a moratorium on strong sanctions against schools that get poor scores in some areas in the next few years. Teachers and students need time to adapt to the new standards. In California in the 1990s, we adopted standards that were precursors to the Common Core Standards. The state gave us a few years to retool in order to adapt to the new, more rigorous standards. / Laurie Flood
- Classrooms should be used for discussion of lectures that are on video. Khan Academy video lectures are an example of lectures that should replace classroom lectures. The classroom is best used for discussion of material previously seen on video. Testing can also be done via computer and internet if there is a system to prevent cheating. / Mitchell Timin
- Career Exposure. Students need access to the careers that are available in today’s economy. It could be a class, a seminar, a work study, etc… but the point would be to familiarize students with real world careers and jobs that could be available to them someday. This would help student be more focused on what career or field of work they would like to pursue when they reach college, saving them time and money. / Jake Lopata
- Restructure a school finance system that’s based on local property taxes. It’s deeply regressive and, again, out of touch with the rest of the world. / Jim Cullen
- More thinking/analyzing and less memorizing. Innovation and creativity are based on understanding things, not on something memorized. / Jason Jurotich
- Have a practical skills program in addition to an academic program. I understand that this approach is successful in Germany. An academic education is not appropriate for everyone. / Mitchell Timin
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. Focus on teaching students how use and apply their minds to tasks or problems. These are skills that are usable in any career field. / Jake Lopata
- Teachers then need to move from passive (in terms of the student learner) to facilitators for student learning. / Ken Halla
- Make math/science relevant. Example: for the football players, a wide receiver lines up 15 yards left and he catches the ball 20 yards down field. How far did the quarterback throw the ball? The Pythagorean theorem (and just about every bit of math) can be applied to common real life scenarios. Not only does a real example make the topic more tangible, it also makes the topic more interesting. / Evan Winograd
How Students are Evaluated
- More demanding ways to show you know something. Exams based on memory don’t cut it, but on the other hand, evaluation systems need to be a lot more demanding to find out what the student really knows. There has to be objective rubrics that allow for universal, international proof that a student really knows his stuff. / Jason Jurotich
- Reduce some or most of the high stakes testing that sucks time and creativity from students who need it most starting in 3rd grade. Weeks and weeks are lost to teaching to the tests and then taking the tests. The best performing countries (one example is Finland) do not spend time and money on such testing. / Brandon D Stiller
- Decrease the emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of rigor and accountability, and replace that with support for a child’s whole education, including social-emotional needs. Included in this is devoting funding and resources to providing social supports to students and families in terms of nutrition, health care, child care, counseling, supervision, etc. / Michael Mazenko
The Role of Post-Secondary Education
- Make post-secondary education more affordable so that student loan debt does not limit students and graduates. / Brandon D Stiller
- Make scholarships for service to the country more lucrative. If 18 year olds spend a few years giving back (e.g., in the Armed Forces or AmeriCorps) while their minds mature and earn all or most of their tuition, room and board, they will be able to afford college and possibly be in much better position to make the most of their educational opportunity. / Brandon D Stiller
- Treat college like an option instead of the ultimate goal. Real world programs like internships, apprenticeships, and even gap years are effective in preparing students for life after school and don’t leave you with a mound of debt. / Quincy Smith
- The US has an attitude problem. There is a stigma that math (and school in general) is boring / uncool. For example: http://mathfour.com/commentary/att-in-my-day-commercial-is-killing-math-students – this commercial drove me crazy. It took me about 5 seconds on Google to find this article that shares my view. / Evan Winograd
- I believe education needs to start at an early age in the home. When I was younger, my family would do math problems at the table and turn it into a game. As a result, I was ahead of the curve in all of my math classes (Sure, there may be an argument made that I had a natural disposition to math, but I believe that nurturing a skill at a young age can help the brain develop to support that skill in the future). As a young student, despite my parents’ efforts, I did not read as much as I should have. As a result, my vocabulary, albeit not bad, is worse than I would like it to be. / Evan Winograd
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From the Student’s Point of View:
Professors and teachers shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to sound off. Students have opinions too. After all, they’re the ones we are encouraging to do better — let’s learn what they need.
- Do not discourage students. Do not assume incompetence or that they do not want to learn. It is important that every person is encouraged to learn. I wrote about my experiences here: http://austingwalters.com/please-excuse-my-grammar/
- Give students some autonomy, which helps support longterm motivation. Perhaps have a suggestion box, which allows the students to ask questions anonymously related to any subject (obviously filter out inappropriate questions). Then every friday, or some other designated date, answer the questions in a fun way. Maybe bring in some snacks and make it a “fun” day.
- Engage students by telling stories and using metaphors. It’s important that students stay engaged and doing so by providing them with funny/interesting stories helps maintain motivation.
Here’s great post on Reddit with several more suggestions from students to consider:
- Feed us. Seriously! You’d be amazed at how attentive we can be after a fun sized candy bar!
For more opinions and thoughts on the topic, please check:
What Happens Now?
Education is still at the center of many debates. Experts conduct surveys and do research to find out what else we can do for a better education system in the US. Statistics are all well and fine, but some go further and let students share thoughts on the problem.
After all, who see it better?
One way of letting them speak is through essay writing. University World News published the article where shared the excerpts from the essays young people sent to take part in the international essay contest.
The topic was “The Ideal Higher Education Model for My Country,” and that’s what American students said.
Anne Hentzen, University of Missouri-Kansas City:
My vision of an ideal higher education model would almost require a complete overhaul of the current higher education model in the United States. Colleges could remain privatized in order to retain academic freedom. However, the government should fully fund students’ tuition and textbooks until the students achieve at least a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent.”
Professors work even harder than some of those in administrative positions. So, the salaries of administrative staff, departmental heads and sports coaches would need to be lowered.
Other problems of the US education, from the students’ point of view, include teachers “looking for one type of student only” and “the reduced level of the teaching staff.”
Can the US learn from their mistakes?
As one of the world’s leading developed countries, the US is constantly under scrutiny regarding areas in need of improvement. However, education should remain at the top of everyone’s priority list. As The Learning Curve 2014 points out, our children aren’t the only ones at stake here; our entire country depends on a sound and capable workforce.
It’s time for US leaders to stop wasting money and start to seek out a solution. Let’s listen to educators and students who are in the trenches, and let’s allow them to lead us to the brighter future.
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