In Global Education Rankings, Asian Tigers Nip At Finland’s Heels

 @JaceyFortin on November 27 2012 3:51 PM

A new report has ranked Finland as the best educational performer on Earth.

At first glance, the findings are a bit odd. You might expect the best performers – or the worst, for that matter – to come from the same general region.

Finland in first place? That’s no surprise -- those northern European countries always seem to do well on lists like these. But the next four countries are worlds away; No. 2 is South Korea. Then comes Hong Kong-China, then Japan, and then Singapore.

With a gang of Asian powerhouses in ascendancy, Finland is looking pretty lonely at the top.

As for global superpowers, the United Kingdom comes in 6th. The United States is in 17th place. Russia snagged 20th; France, 25th. And of the 40 ranked, the three worst countries were Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.

The report, called “The Learning Curve,” was produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, or EIU, and published by Pearson, an educational firm. It ranks countries according to various criteria, including standardized test scores, matriculation and literacy rates.

At a time of devastating recessions that have affected commerce in virtually every corner of the globe, the new data is of vital importance. It’s about much more than just rankings, which make for great talking points but miss the broader implications of the research.

“Although they may not be able to quantify it, governments in most countries recognize a link between the knowledge and skills with which young people enter the workforce and long-term economic competitiveness,” says the report.

“For this reason, interest is intense in research which explores the factors that seem to lead in some countries to outstanding educational performance, and ultimately to better qualified workforces.”

Given that link, it is no surprise that, economically, Finland is doing much better than nearly all of its neighbors. Income per capita is high, exports are diverse, and heavy public spending on welfare programs has raised standards of living across the board.

Finland, which acts as a creditor nation while the euro zone struggles through its seemingly endless debt crisis, is the only EU country that still maintains a top credit rating with no imminent risk of a downgrade. (Credit agency Moody’s slapped Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg with a negative outlook in July.)

Finland’s government, too, is well regarded for its efficacy and transparency; it is a parliamentary republic that enjoys a strong multi-party system. The latest Democracy Index from the EIU, which lists countries according to the extent of political liberty and the functionality of their governments, ranks Finland eighth among 167 surveyed countries.

These good rankings would seem to go hand in hand with an effective educational system. But then again, other education superstars on the Pearson list aren’t doing quite that well.

On the EIU Democracy Index where Finland performed so admirably, South Korea and Japan fell behind, coming in 22nd and 21st respectively. Singapore and China did even worse, ranking 81st and 141st respectively.

So if good politics are not a reliable bellwether for high-ranking educational systems, what makes Finland so special? How are the other high-ranking countries able to excel in education, even while faltering on democracy?

In short, what do Pearson’s top-ranked educational systems have in common?

It’s a tough question, because Finland is pretty unique. It has long been heralded as a global leader in education reform, which it pursued with gusto during the 1970s and 1980s.

In Finland, standardized testing is frowned upon. So is homework. Students, especially young children, are encouraged to learn creatively. Teachers have a high degree of independence when it comes to curricula and assessments.

Perhaps most importantly, Finland’s socialist-leaning policies have made educational advancement accessible to virtually everyone. All schools – even universities – are funded publicly. Child healthcare and welfare services are widely available. By law, pre-schools are situated in every community.

Policies like these are easy to pull off in societies like Finland’s, where the population is small and essentially homogenous. But in the Asian countries that also made a fair showing on the “Learning Curve” list -- like China, where the population is vast, or Singapore, which has devoted itself to privatization -- an emulation of Finland’s system would be highly impractical.

To figure out what Finland and the Asian runners-up have in common, researchers for the Pearson study had to dig deep. They concluded – disappointingly, but perhaps predictably – that there is no “magic bullet” for a winning education system. After all, the two top countries’ approaches are wildly different. Finland’s laissez-faire attitude toward homework and testing would be seen as backward in South Korea, where rote memorization and long study hours are par for the course.

But the report still holds out hope for a tenuous connection.

“The two systems, though, do share some important aspects when examined closely,” it says. “One element of this is the importance assigned to teaching and the efforts put into teacher recruitment and training. [….] The practices of the two countries differ markedly, but the status which teaching achieves and the resultant high quality of instruction are similar.”

In addition, adds the report, “there are cultural parallels. The two societies are highly supportive of both the school system itself and of education in general.”

So… High status for teachers? A culture of education? And the end of the day, it seems, this comprehensive global research project has yielded conclusions that are more than a little fuzzy.  Education officials keen to emulate the success of Finland and South Korea will be disappointed to find that there is no easy roadmap.

But in some ways, that’s exactly the point. General ideas like teacher appreciation may work precisely because they are vague enough to be molded to fit each country’s specific circumstances. The study lays out no simple guidelines for educational reform – but to do so would be misleading.

“As the differing approaches of Finland and South Korea show, there are diverse paths to success,” explains the Pearson report, adding that further research is necessary.

“Education remains an art, and much of what engenders quality is difficult to quantify.”

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