What Can We Do About the U.S. Education System?


Photo from JSTOR Daily

Walking around any public school in the nation you are bound to hear the phrase, “the education system in our country is so outdated.” I, like my peers, commonly question how much school benefits me and if I could learn more without it. Are American teenagers, like ourselves, just complaining because we must go to school, or is there something systematically wrong with our country’s school system? How does America compare to the educational strategies of the world?

The world has many different cultures and education systems that have evolved out of these societies. Some prioritize retention, others creativity. Every country has its unique system of education that they believe best fits its population. 

High school in China revolves around taking the college entrance exam, known as the GaoKao. The GaoKao primarily contains criteria in Chinese literature, mathematics, and foreign language. It is basically a much harder SAT that is almost the sole factor in determining your entrance into college. School days in China are much longer than we are used to in the U.S., typically starting at 7:30 AM and ending at 5:00 PM. It is also not uncommon for students to continue to study after school or on weekends in cram schools to increase their chances of doing better on the GaoKao. On the bright side, high schoolers get 2-hour lunch breaks! 

Similar to China, South Korea and Japan both highly prioritize studiousness. They both also have standardized tests that you must score sufficiently enough to get consideration for admission to colleges. But unlike the U.S. and China, both countries also have entrance exams to get into high school. There is very intense academic competition in middle school and high school. Cram school is usual in these countries in hopes of obtaining the upper hand. At least in these countries, it is pretty common to be involved in extracurricular activities. Despite being very academic-based and ranking as one of the highest in national education levels, South Korea has a unique opportunity for specialized secondary education for students with artistic and musical talent. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Finland is one of the leaders of modern-day progressive education. Schooling does not start for a child until they reach the age of 7 due to the belief of “letting kids be kids.” Upon entering school, they have one of the shortest school days worldwide. Finnish students have the luxury of going home with little to no homework every day. There are extremely few standardized tests because they believe that they are counterproductive and create a stressful environment that will not promote the fun of learning. On top of the short time in class and the low-stress environment, there are also many breaks during class. Being a teacher is one of the most prestigious occupations in the entire country. Teachers have to not only have a Master’s degree but are also constantly evaluated. Teachers typically follow students for more than just one year (up to 6 years in a row!) because they begin to learn the learning styles of their students and understand how to best strategically educate them to their strengths. Finland consistently ranks as one of the highest-ranked countries for education worldwide (based on comprehension in reading, math, and science).

Does a 6-week summer vacation sound like fun? It must be in the Netherlands because that is just the usual! The Netherlands choose to spread out thier breaks over the year and have them more frequently than we do. Students start attending school at the age of 5. From there, they stay in Primary School up until 8th grade! Parents have the ability to send their children to many different styles of schools in The Netherlands. Some are more independent for the students, others prioritize working in groups, and a few are similar to our schools. Before ending 8th grade, students are tested and recommended by their teachers to one of three main categories of high schools. If the student leans more towards a skill-based career (mainstream occupational path), they go to a preparatory school (VMBO). If they are more research-oriented, they go to a school that will help them on their analytical and research path (VWO – a 6-year program). Lastly, if a student does not yet fit either of these, they are sent to a general education school (HAVO – a 5-year program), where they will later choose to go on the VWO or VMBO path. The Netherlands is one of the highest ranked European countries for comprehension in reading, math, and science.

After a quick look at alternative education systems across the globe, ours appears to be in the middle. It is not too progressive and not completely testing-based (our futures do not rely on a single test). We can engage in many activities inside and outside school to discover our interests. We have shorter days than our Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean counterparts and much more freedom to determine our futures based on our capabilities. If you think our days are already super restricting and that our future rides on the tests we take in school, imagine living in one of those countries!

Admittedly, there are flaws in the United States’ educational system. American students do not test the highest worldwide, students are typically unhappy with our system, and most students argue that our testing is short-term memory based and not long-term, meaning we will not retain most of what we learn. Additionally, most high-school students graduate feeling unprepared for the world outside of studying. 

The United States education system is not the best it could be. While I disagree with the arguments that our schools are inferior to those of other countries, I believe that some reforms to the public education system should take place to offer more school programs that take differing approaches for various people. Some programs could be instituted for creative learners and others for more test-oriented students, helping everyone maximize their potential. By offering a more personalized education (like Finland does), students could take on long-term retention programs that would increase the overall educational level of our country. It would be to the benefit of everyone if we all came together to acknowledge and address the possible changes to our education for the betterment of society.