A recent CNN feature on education singled out students in South Korea and Finland for having significantly higher test scores than students in the United States. Ignoring the issue of the validity of the test scores, there were some significant differences among cultures that were glossed over.
The discussion of South Korean education mentioned that parents push students toward scholastic success so fanatically that it creates enormous pressure on students to do well. The South Korean equivalent of test prep centers would often keep students working until midnight causing the government to make it illegal to keep students beyond 10 pm. But the CNN report glossed over the issue of parental support. While the report mentioned that the cultural norm in South Korea is for students to succeed in school, it downplayed parental support and the cultural attitude toward education as if these factors were relatively insignificant in the total picture.
The report did indicate that there are 210 school days in a South Korean school year compared with an average of 180 in the United States. By contrast, Finland was cited as having significantly fewer school days and much less stringent curriculum requirements than South Korea, but similarly having students score very well on standardized assessments. What was glossed over in this report were the following points:
- Teachers in Finland are trusted with a great deal of flexibility and latitude with regard to how they teach.
- Teachers receive a significant amount of professional development before they are allowed to set foot in a classroom and they are assigned a mentor when they first begin teaching; this is a meaningful mentorship, not just a token assignment.
- Teachers in Finland are respected by parents and students on a level with doctors and lawyers.
Let’s take a look at these glossed-over points beginning with parental involvement and support in South Korea. Research is abundantly clear that the single most significant factor in the academic success of United States’ students is the degree of parental involvement and support. Not only is this true for K-12 students, but also at the college level. Perhaps parental support is the major reason for whatever success is being cited in South Korea.
With regard to the review of education in Finland, it seems the opposite approach is taken toward their teaching professionals than we take here in the United States. Here we are so fearful of the few bad teachers that we are using standardized assessments and regimented curriculum to straight jacket many of our better teachers into situations where their judgment is valued less. Our teachers are required to teach in ways that deprive them of the ability and flexibility to design and teach lessons using the skills they were trained to develop.
It is also clear from the reports on education in South Korea and Finland that the degree of respect of a society for its teaching professionals is proportionate to the amount of parental support teachers receive and becomes a model for the amount of respect teachers can expect from their students.
Here in the United States’ we have politicians who know little about how children learn engaging in teacher-bashing as a cheap way to gain votes; we have parents questioning the teacher any time they receive a report of a student’s poor performance or misbehavior. Until parents and politicians begin to model respect for professional educators it will be miraculous if we can maintain a level of education in the United States equal to that in Finland or South Korea.
Changing the culture of a society is a slow, long-term process. I am not suggesting that our country abandon efforts to improve accountability, or to improve how we assess student progress or that we abandon the many on-going initiatives to reform our schools. I am suggesting that major objectives in our battle to improve our educational system need to be to achieve a mutual respect between parents and professional educators and to afford the teaching profession the respect and latitude that our society affords other professions. Look through all the verbiage that describes “NCLB” and “Race to the Top”. How prominent are thoughts about the importance of parental support and respect for the professionals we hire to do the job?
Professional educators are not to blame for the ills of our educational system. Professional educators are a major part of the solution. In a society that is going through an ever increasingly adversarial phase, we need to remember this: professional educators are not the adversary.