The Tide

The American School System Should Be Reformed

Graphic by Valerie Wang

Graphic by Valerie Wang

Victoria Tong, Opinions Writer

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America is the wealthiest nation in the world by far. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 36 percent of American eighth-graders performed at or above a proficient reading level in 2017. How can this be possible?

The answer, of course, is not simple. There are glaring flaws in the American school system that need to be fixed for all its students to become capable, knowledgeable, and most importantly, happy adults.

Before we focus on any specific issues of the American school system, let us take a look at the education system of another country: Finland.

According to the Finnish National Agency For Education, students in Finland take only one national test during the entirety of their basic education. Homework is kept to a minimum, and all students in the same grade level, regardless of ability, are taught in the same classes.

In other words, students in Finland are not separated into different learning groups based on their academic achievements. This is beneficial because every student receives the same quality of education, so the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is small. According to the National Education Association, when you group students together based on ability, the students in a lower ability group are given lower expectations, leading to lower levels of motivation towards school.

Furthermore, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, told the Huffington Post in an interview that the Finnish school day starts between 8 and 9 am and lasts only a mere 3 hours and 45 minutes. The national curriculum is very broad, leaving teachers much control over how to teach required subjects. Teachers are also highly trained; all teachers in Finland must have a master’s degree, and only about one in ten applicants are accepted into primary school training.

Although education is highly emphasized in Finland (given how highly respected and trained its teachers are), the focus of education in Finland is really on learning, not testing. The absence of ability grouping in Finland’s education system shows that they are striving for equality between all their students, and their short school day shows that Finland prioritizes its students’ well-being.

Finland’s distinct education system seems to work: the Pew Research Center found that in 2015, Finland scored within the top 11 countries in science, math, and reading on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds from 71 different countries. In comparison, America placed 38th in math and 24th in science and reading.

But, test scores alone do not show Finland’s educational proficiency. Smithsonian Magazine found that 93 percent of Finnish students graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than America. At 66 percent, Finland also has the highest rate of students pursuing higher education in the European Union.

I do not believe that America should completely adopt a Finnish education system. The differences between the two countries are too significant to disregard: Finland has a rather racially homogenous population of 5.3 million people, while America has a very diverse population of 318 million. However, I do believe America should consider adopting at least some of Finland’s practices about education.

One of the most well-known issues of the American school system is standardized testing. A study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that a typical student takes 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-K to 12th grade. Though having only one nationally required test is a bit extreme, America should significantly reduce the amount of student testing.

“Standardized testing is ultimately a very flawed system that encourages rote memorization and superficial recall rather than deep learning,” senior Grant Yang said. With the current system of standardized testing, students are merely regurgitating memorized information onto their bubble sheets instead of developing critical thinking skills and truly understanding the material taught in class. In addition, standardized testing by definition does not take into account the diverse needs of different students, so it does not accurately reflect students’ abilities.

Another flaw of the American school system is the length of the school day. A shorter school day, like the 3 hour 45 minute school day Finland has, would be beneficial to students by giving them more time to focus on other activities and get enough sleep. Giving students sufficient time for these things will allow them to focus and learn more efficiently in school.

The current almost-seven-hour school day is problematic because it gives students so little time to participate in extracurriculars, do homework, study for tests, and go to bed at a reasonable hour, leaving them incredibly stressed. The American Psychological Association found that on average, teenagers reported that their stress level during the school year exceeded what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale).

Of course, the school day does not need to be shortened as much as three hours, but even a small half-hour reduction in the length of the school day will give students a little more time to explore other interests and do the things they enjoy. This one-hour reduction could be implemented by cutting just five minutes out of every period. However, a shorter school day may initially hurt the quality of learning taking place during school hours.

“A shorter school day would not be as educational or would not be of much use academically if classes were shorter than what they already are,” freshman Francesca Venditti said. This decrease in learning quality will only be temporary, though; after the adjustment, because a shorter school day gives students more free time, it will leave students more relaxed and able to learn more efficiently during their classes.

Fixing the problems of the American school system will not be easy. However, by taking some inspiration from countries with higher-achieving education systems, such as Finland, America can begin its improvement.

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The American School System Should Be Reformed