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What makes an Education System great?

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Published on: November 24, 2014

Everyone has ideas about education since we all went through school to some degree, but some rely on misinformation. And, we all know we have to do something about our school systems, but many question what needs to happen. This is where was born — at the cross-roads of discussion, research, policy, teaching and truth. We can crowd source information and ideas, with everyone invited to pull up a chair to the education table, but make sure that was is not true is pointed out and what is true is further elevated for consideration.

But to begin, we have to have some level of agreement on this question: what makes an education system great? Set aside the funding issues, inner-city failures, technology problems, excuses, and other challenges. In general, what does it take for an education system to really be superb?

Bill Bennett, who was the secretary of education in the Reagan administration, said, “The longer you stay in school in America, the dumber you get.” In a 2013 editorial in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian online news outlet, the article closes with this comment that confirms the international view of America’s education system: “Canadian parents should be reassured that Canada’s education system is actually quite good by international standards, and performs at a much higher level than that of the U.S.”

We have known for decades that the American education system has been failing many, especially those who are allowed to simply slide through it. Yet, we don’t seem to have an image of what a strong education system actually looks like, leaving policy-makers, administrators and teachers without a general direction to focus their attentions.

In Amanda Ripley‘s book, The Smartest Kids In The World, she discovers what has made Finland, Poland, Japan and South Korea among the best education systems in the world. An article from Huffington Post summarizes her findings well, including that in Finland, arts education is woven into every aspect of learning, as studies show that those who are involved in the arts, especially music lessons, have higher IQs and learn STEM subjects more easily. By contrast, in America, when schools need to save money the first things we decide to cut are our music and arts programs, illogically removing what primes our children’s brains for learning.

Ripley also explains that Finnish teachers must first complete a master’s degree and conduct original research before becoming teachers, and acceptance into teaching programs is just as competitive as medical school. And, they’re paid accordingly. In my home state of Ohio, state universities discourage graduate degrees because schools want to hire 20-something graduates with merely a bachelor’s degree because it’s less expensive.

Students in other countries are also focusing on academics in school, not extracurricular and social activities. Yet, we cave to parents wanting to keep chess club and football, instead of remembering that schools are there to education our children, and parents can find extracurricular activities outside of school. In some of the top performing countries, school is serious, for both the teachers and the students. On big exam days in Poland, students wear suits and professional attire because they respect the importance of education, as well as themselves and their teachers.

In South Korea, students are in school for eight to nine hours a day, compared to American students’ five to seven hour day. Koreans continue with their studies into the evening, and children know they have to do well in school for their college and career paths. Parents are supportive, but children receive excellent instruction in school with remedial assistance when necessary, so children from poor, uneducated families can still thrive.

Students in other countries are given higher standards and more rigorous curriculum, they aren’t allowed to be lazy with calculators in lieu of learning material, flashy technology does not mask real results, resources are made available in the schools to make sure that students who need remediation receive it, teachers are more educated before they ever enter a classroom and are paid more for the results, unions are held under control, and school focuses on school. There are so many differences between the other countries and the American false utopia that has been created in our education system.

Another point of contention for American parents, teachers and students is the emphasis on test-taking. An article from NPR explains that tests are required in all other countries with great education systems by comparison, and in Finland there is only one major test at the end of high school. That one exam, nearly 40 total hours of testing, determines whether a student is accepted into college and can follow his or her dreams. But in America, we quibble over several hours of testing because we don’t want little kiddos to have stress and our teachers don’t want to be graded on results.

It seems that our education system is a symptom of what is happening in America as a whole: we expect great things without sincere dedication and work. Millennials and Gen X-ers want things right now, and have an attitude of entitlement because of what was an easy childhood by international comparisons. The philosophy of everyone getting a trophy leads us to allow kids to slide into high school without learning how to read for fear of hurting feelings. The excuse that teachers have too many difficulties to deal with has made some think that results should not factor in to how much a teacher is paid.

After looking at some of the basic evidence, let’s ask again: what makes an education great? This can be answered in four words: the demand for excellence. When excellence is expected from the students, the teachers and the parents, without excuse, most rise to the occasion and meet the demands. With resources dedicated to creating expert teachers, providing students with remediation when necessary, and making sure every child learns, students in other countries see more success.

In fact, students from educated American families even lag students from other countries, according to recent studies. When the poorest kids in Shanghai and Korea are performing as well as America’s best students, it’s a stone between the eyes of those who are telling us that America’s education system is succeeding.

When anything is being considered from policy-makers, administrators, teachers and parents, we have to first ask ourselves: is this helping us to demand excellence from everyone involved? If the answer is no, we are only going to cause our students to slide backwards even more, pushing the American dream out of reach for many as international students come to America to take college positions and jobs that American children do not graduate with the capabilities to handle.

As we embark together on this new column and the Education Table platform, we have to remember that it is the demand for excellence that all of our conversations must bring us toward. Without the demand for excellence, we will never again be able to create a great American education system.

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