From the BrainSTEM: The failing U.S. education system

When it comes to training future generations, scientific research has proven that the U.S. education system fails. In 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) coordinated the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standard that was developed for measuring the performance of 15-year-old students in math, science, and reading literacy. They found that the U.S. was average when evaluating science and reading, while in math, the U.S. fell significantly below average. At the top of the list was Japan, South Korea, China, and Finland. Considering the fact that the U.S. government spends around $632 billion a year (according to the U.S. Department of Education) funding its education system—five times more than the second biggest spender, Japan—its standardized test results are pitiable.

It’s easy to argue that standardized scores cannot be used to measure a person’s intelligence and should therefore be dismissed. However, in light of the obscene amount of money the U.S. invests in its education system, there is no denying that we’re doing something wrong. Perfecting the U.S. education system has consumed countless amounts of taxpayer dollars and innumerable government official hours with no observable progress. This can only mean one thing: Policymakers are not listening to the right people.

Since the 1990s, researchers have been suggesting fundamental changes to the educational system. In 1993, researchers at Brown University showed that at the onset of puberty, adolescents will experience what is known as a phase shift in their sleeping schedules, causing them to fall asleep and wake up later. Following this, more evidence began to surface from universities across the globe, supporting and validating this claim. This led to physicians and scientists calling for delayed class start times to improve academic performance, but their cries were ignored.

Today, 85 per cent of U.S. schools have start times before 8:30 a.m. By failing to invoke later start times for schools, policies consistently subject adolescent students to states of sleep deprivation, decreasing overall performance. Twenty years later, when the importance of sleep is uncontested, we still fail to provide these students with this consideration. And when the problem can be remedied as easily as having the school bell ring an hour later, it seems draconian to not implement it. But starting the day later is frowned upon in North American society and often associated with laziness and ineptitude. Schools, as a result, reject the mere mention, fueled by skeptical parents and lazy educators unwilling to evolve their work schedules, ignoring the needs of children.

    The consequences of inept teaching is seen further when assessing American homework assignments. Finland, on the other hand, completely restructured their education system 40 years ago as part of larger economic recovery plans. This partly focused on improving teacher training by making it more selective and rigorous, ensuring quality control. But it extended beyond that.

On average, Finnish schools will assign no more than half an hour of homework a day, whereas, according to a 2007 Metlife study, the average American high school student will do upwards to eight hours of homework a week. Initially, the idea of assigning less work seems counter-productive; it is only when looking closely at the type of work being assigned that we begin to notice a difference. U.S. schools are in a chokehold caused by the American consumerist mentality—bigger is better; quantity over quality.

By throwing endless amounts of useless exercises at students, we are enablers of teacher shortcomings—if it can’t be taught in class, it can be assigned. We also limit the amount of time students can spend participating in extra-curricular activities where creativity, teamwork, and autonomy can be learned through experience. And while these skills aren’t immediately deemed valuable by the North American system—presumably because they can’t be evaluated through standardized tests—other countries are realizing that a successful student will generally possesses an array of these talents. Researchers have shown—as recently as last Monday in an article published in the Journal of Educational Psychology—that anything more than 70 minutes of homework per day is inefficient. Why, then, are U.S. students still inundated with mountains of work that have shown to serve no productive purpose?

In 2000, when the first PISA was done, a shockwave spread through the world: Finnish students were the best young readers in the world. By 2003, they were the best at math and by 2006; Finnish students had captured the top spot in science. No one expected the Finnish system to work this well, or for that matter, at all. Instead of focusing on their policies, they listened to the needs of the students, and responded to that. Finnish society has created schools where the students are not only nurtured, but prized. There is no segregation of smart and ‘dumb’ children; those who are struggling are offered the help they deserve.

The capitalist mentality of punishing slow learners and rewarding the fast learners by placing them into honour societies or in Advanced Placement programs is glaringly flawed. We are drawing an imaginary line where we define some children as being smart and others dumb. If the education system we’ve created convinces students that they are not equally as capable or intelligent as their peers, we have in fact, done the opposite of creating an education system. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States' secondary education graduation rate is only 75 per cent; Finland’s is 96.

Many differences exist between the U.S. and Finland that cannot be ignored. But when dealing with such a fundamentally similar problem, the same approach should be taken. The American education system needs a complete overhaul.

If, in the future, the U.S. hopes to compete economically, socially, and politically on a global scale, it needs to more properly prepare the next generation. By maintaining the current status quo of machine learning, hoping to pump out higher standardized test scores through shallow and flimsy education policies, it is setting itself up for disaster. If the cries of researchers are addressed, and students are treated like humans instead of numbers, then we might start to see progress. Until then, the likes of Finland, Japan, South Korea, and China will continue to outperform the U.S., and if no changes are made—for years to come.


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