America's K-12 public school system, as a whole, has long been an embarrassment, especially when compared with other countries. The problem has been worse in some states more than others. But in perhaps the most heterogeneous country in the world, what can we take away from that assessment?
Choice! That's the silver lining to this broad diagnosis of being an under-educated, sheltered county. What we have is choice, with all the top programs in every field in different quality vs. price flavors. It's a luck-of-the-draw depending on where you are. And if you can pay for it.
What we also have is chaos, the kind of chaos that can only be readily alleviated with uncommon amounts of cash, the kind of cash that makes decisions for you that you can only be born into! We also have the highest income inequality of any developed nation, equaling and rivaling some of the under-developed ones, spread across one of the highest populations across the broadest distance. If you have the cash to move around, you better hope the district or private school you choose isn't educationally backwards or just a rich kid club, and actually cares about education, because there isn't much of a correlation between price and quality. All the rating systems are managed by private, external third parties. Oak Ridge High puts every school in Knox County to shame, regardless of how much you're shelling out. How is that fair?
Alleged equality under the law is all good and well when that's kind of a new thing, but now it's time to stop over-generalizing that historical checkpoint as if it were still relevant. It's probably time for us to stop ignoring the very real factors that make America so actually unequal. School, which a large percent of America's offspring spends most of the first 18-24 years of their lives doing, is arguably the most important one. It's too important to allow some notion of "competition" to mysteriously fill in the hideously wide gaps that too many of our countrymen fall through.
Finland was recently identified as having the top national school system in the world in a study testing the actual academic skills of 15 year olds in the usual math, science, and reading, and it still remains among the top three or so. Finland doesn't have any private or for-profit academic institutions; all the data collected was from the students of its public schools. Even independent schools aren't allowed to ever charge tuition.
They also work less and play more for it. Finland's K-12 schools assign decidedly less homework than other nations, relying more on "creative play"; learning is more interactive, and many different learning styles are employed. What's more, the criterion are far less structured than what is found elsewhere, meaning that it's up to Finland's teachers to individually evaluate the needs and progress of every student.
How is that accomplished? There are more teachers per student, and they get paid a bit closer to tenured university folk than our teachers here. They go through a lot more training, and usually need a masters degree or higher in their field — yeah, just to teach drooling first graders. There's the competition for you. Instead of subjecting their children to chaotic, unequal competition by squeezing them through a stagnant, bureaucratic nightmare, they get the people who have actually been highly trained to do it. It makes for an almost completely equal, high-quality experience that, maybe, could be superior than our illusion of control. Spread the money around where it counts, and the sheer crippling human cost we write off every day as acceptable damages could finally end.
— Wiley Robinson is a senior in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.