Over the past few decades, America’s education system has drifted into the realm of obscurity and has caused the country to miss out on a great deal of intellectual progress. Although our country’s private schools are still regarded as the best in the world, our public schools are no longer competing with other developed nations. Our children have fallen far behind in literacy, language, math, and science. Consequently, graduation rates have dropped significantly, especially in underfunded schools in inner cities and rural areas. This is because the U.S. funds their education systems based on property tax values for specific school districts. This forms school districts that are distinctly better than others, creating educational inequality across the country. Although reforming this system completely is improbable due to political barriers, there are some small changes that could go a long way towards regaining our academic edge globally. Considering we live in a world where ideas can be exchanged from every corner of the earth, it is simply ludicrous not to afford our nation’s youth the same opportunities that have created educational success around the world. Therefore, the U.S. should tap into the free market of educational ideas and make changes to our country’s current educational system by following the examples set by countries that have mastered their own systems, such as Finland and China.
First, we must look at the most glaring deficiencies within our own economic systems compared to that of Finland and China. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. has a dismal overall ranking of 25th in the world regarding public education, while Finland comes in at 5th. Most notably, the U.S. is ranked 40th out of 70 countries tested in mathematics (National Center for Education Statistics). While our private schools and universities are still regarded as some of the best in the world, our public education system has failed to keep up with the world’s standard-bearers for education.
Furthermore, Many American public schools lack incentives for their students, which creates an environment of apathy and restlessness. This became apparent through a study conducted by the national bureau of economic research, in which students in the U.S. and China were given a test and told they would be financially rewarded based on test performance (Gneezy). As shown in a subsequent article published in the Wall Street Journal, American students performed well above their average compared to their Chinese counterparts, prompting Sally Sadoff, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, to argue that America’s gaps in ability are instead gaps in motivation, as Chinese schools place a much greater emphasis on effort compared to the Americans (Leubsdorf). The problem is not rooted within the students, but rather the environment around them.
Clearly, the first thing we must do is incentivize our teachers to do whatever it takes to connect with their students. Finland has properly incentivized their teachers by paying higher annual salaries and allowing teachers to circumvent any sort of curriculum to connect with students. American teachers are not only pressured to teach to a strict Common Core curriculum, but they are also incentivized not to work as hard over time with the implementation of tenure. Furthermore, Finland’s teaching programs are far more competitive than those in the U.S. as the Finnish government has placed an emphasis on quality over quantity in the classroom. This is shown by the University of Helsinki education program’s 7% acceptance rate. Finland appears to have found a winning formula through their system, which boasts a 100% graduation rate from compulsory education. Meanwhile, the holes in America’s education policy cause some students to slip through the cracks, resulting in our 81% graduation rate, which is shocking for any nation willing to call itself the most developed in the world.
Finland has recently implemented a phenomenon-based style of learning, where students will receive experiential teaching designed to help learn 21st century skills. According to Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, this involves “broader, cross-cutting topics” that “bring in multi-disciplinary modules on languages, geography, sciences and economics” (Strauss). This departure from the classic subject-based learning system could certainly help American students by learning skills relevant to today’s society rather than the classic block-based subject schedule.
The reality of our education policy is that the country’s test scores continue to slack because education has become an afterthought in certain areas around the country. This is seen in the cities and rural areas, where school is viewed as a waste of time that doesn’t provide the skills necessary to thrive in their environment. Furthermore, the incentive to simply drop out and provide for their families is far greater than a seemingly unnecessary high school diploma. Using the principles of free market economics, the U.S. can create a system to incentivize students for constant effort and participation in school activities throughout their educational development. By eliminating such barriers to nationwide education such as the “one size fits all” Common Core curriculum and introducing courses and activities that fit each student’s environment, teachers will be given the leeway necessary to cater to the needs of each of their students. Furthermore providing incentives for kids to participate in activities and regularly attend classes, such as scholarships for acing state tests and tax breaks for families with heavily involved students, will further encourage students to reach their fullest potential, whatever it may be. By incentivizing American students to literally stay in school, the government may finally achieve the scores they have been looking for.
We live in a global community where ideas can be disseminated at anytime from anywhere in the world. The American education system is broken, but it is not too late to fix it. Therefore, it is only right to use the principles of economics to gain value from other countries that have ideas we desperately need. We owe it to America’s youth to not only build a better country, but a better global community.
“Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) - Science Literacy: Average Scores.”
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department
of Education, 2015, nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/pisa2015/pisa2015highlights_3.asp.
Gneezy, Uri, et al. “Measuring Success in Education: The Role of Effort on the Test Itself.” NBER,
Nov. 2017, www.nber.org/papers/w24004.
Leubsdorf, Ben. “Maybe American Students Are Bad at Standardized Tests Because
They Don't Try Very Hard.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 27 Nov.
Strauss, Valerie. “No, Finland Isn’t Ditching Traditional School Subjects. Here’s What’s
Really Happening.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Mar. 2015,