INTRODUCTIONIn all of human history, the spread of knowledge and the act of learning may have been the most important part of society, and even more so now with the never-ending continuation of discoveries. Education provides opportunities for a better, more comfortable lifestyle, and almost all well-developed and long-established nations have solidified an education system with the purpose of serving the student in their studies for future careers. The search for the “best” education system has long been a concern for world leaders, and this is displayed in each nation’s individual education systems. This paper will address the research question: To what extent can a fair comparison measure the successes of various education systems while still addressing cultural differences, and in what ways, if any, can these education systems be combined to form the most efficient and ideal system? Education is, of course, a very large and broad concept enveloping many different aspects, though for the purpose of the scope of this investigation, we will only be focusing on education systems around the world that are already highly respected and are high ranking in global assessments like PISA and NCEE.Many lists of education rankings are based around test score statistics of a particular nation. The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) was created to essentially analyze the effect of changes in the international economy on American education, and to plan and adjust the education system accordingly. They accomplish this in programs that provide research, analysis, and strategic planning support for states and districts to design education systems designed to perform well and efficiently. The other global student assessment in which rankings of education systems for this paper will be taken from is The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. PISA is a program developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) located in Paris, France. The PISA assessment is a triennial international survey for 15-year-olds that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide based on the students’ mastery of a particular subject. The subjects assessed are academic courses of science, mathematics, and reading, and in necessary life skills like collaborative problem solving and financial literacy. The exam aims to test students’ abilities to apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to real life situations; rather than testing memorized dates or events, they are asked to interpret text, solve wordy math problems, or explain a phenomenon scientifically using knowledge and reasoning skills. To create a global student population, countries or states/provinces/districts volunteer to take the assessment. From there, schools are randomly chosen to represent its nation. Students are then randomly chosen to represent the school. These test scores provide statistics for evaluating school systems globally through the educational state of their representative 15-year-olds and encourages the search for an ideal education system through encouraging countries to learn from each other. Another commonly used measure of education systems is through a company called Pearson. Pearson is the world’s largest learning company, with about 35,000 employees across 70 different countries. Pearson utilizes assessments such as GCSEs, A levels, BTECs, WISC-V, PTE Academic, and TestNav for school assessments. From the most recently released Pearson rankings, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Canada were ranked at the top. Both these ranking lists (PISA and Pearson) contribute to the bettering of education systems globally through providing data on the world’s leading education systems and their understandings of the world’s constant change and the ways in which education systems must develop and modify along with it. For this study, the main education systems to be focused on are Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, and South Korea. These top-performing education systems will be used to help answer the question: to what extent can a fair comparison measure the successes of various highly successful education systems while still addressing cultural differences, and in what ways, if any, can thee education systems can be combined to form the most efficient and ideal system? CULTUREPerhaps the largest dilemma in the creation of this hypothetical ideal education system is the difference in culture (i.e. cultural values, notions, etc.). To what extent can we determine various educational techniques used in one place in one cultural to be applicable to another place in another culture? To better analyze this question, we must first understand the education systems of all the education systems. Canada is an interesting top performer in education. Canada is known for its academically rigorous teacher education programs and high salary. Canada spends slightly more of their GDP on education than the average OECD country, about 6.8% as opposed to 6.1% (OECD). Another notable feature of the Canadian education system is its cultural characteristic of its high immigration rates. As a response, the education system places a great emphasis on the smooth integration of immigrant students into schools. The Canadian government grants immigration rights to people based on their perceived ability to fill certain professional roles in Canadian society. In doing so, the Canadian population is consistently being filled with highly-educated people that are likely to hold strong educational values that will be passed on to their children. This immigration policy also increases the value of education in students. Canadian colleges and government departments also often offer training programs, and many adult learning centers and non-profits have emerged in communities to focus on offering additional training to populations that may need it, like immigrants, rural workers, the unemployed, and people with low literacy and numeracy skills. 53% of adults involved in adult education reported that they were supported by their workplace. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey showed that almost half of Canada’s 16 to 65-year-olds were enrolled in some form of adult education (OECD). Perhaps the most notable feature of the Canadian education system is the national health care system. Like their parents, children have access to healthcare. For those living in poverty, the government also offers income subsidies. This allows parents and students to worry less about health care and basic income and focus more on academic performance. This also means that students are less likely to leave school at an early age to pursue full-time work.A consistent high-performer, Finland is renowned for its unique education system. Much of the design of Finland’s education system is due to its equally unique history. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland had been a land of woodcutters and agriculturalists. Once the USSR collapsed, Finland lost its primary trading partner and was forced to undergo major economic reforms and transform into a technology leader economically centered on telecommunications, consumer electronics, forest products and metals industries (Lepi). A unified comprehensive education system and national curriculum was created that gradually placed more and more importance on mathematics, science, and technology, whilst still promoting critical life skills like problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and interdisciplinary studies. The Finnish education system was a result of a long, slow, and steady process, and a combination of developments, policies, programs, and administrations. Many researchers believe the key ingredient to the educationally successful Finland education system is the quality of their teachers and the trust that the Finnish people have invested in them. This high value on teachers and teaching is an example of a characteristic that can be easily emulated by other countries. Teaching is Finland’s most respected profession, though interestingly not especially well paying, the teacher confers prestige on the successful applicant due to the high selectivity and standards for teachers. Another unique characteristic of the Finnish education system is the high level of trust in the teachers. Students are not given tests at any age. Instead, the students’ skills are judged by the teacher and whether or not it is satisfactory. The only formal, national test is the university matriculation exam; an assessment comprised of four open-ended exams that are based on skills like problem-solving as opposed to simple subject mastery and memorization, though even this exam is not required for graduation or even university admissions. The Finnish government places reducing class sizes, enhancing remediation and special needs teaching, improving teachers’ working conditions, and establishing new opportunities for teachers to develop their professional skills and overhauling adult education and training as high priorities (Faridi). In regards to curriculum, the government also makes sure to maintain a fitting system to adapt to the constantly changing economic needs of the country- the government prepares a development plan for education and research every four years. The curriculum places a great deal of stress on the process of learning through doing, achieving this through the abundance of collaborative group projects and utilization of creativity and problem-solving skills by students. The system also pushes for creative student involvement, as opposed to a concrete curriculum and method of teaching. Students are encouraged to self-assess, so that the student may take responsibility for their education and understand their progress and therefore become more involved in helping to design their own learning activities. Teachers pride themselves on carefully crafted lesson plans and thinking of new and innovative ways to engage students while also personalizing lessons to fit their individual classes and also giving students individual attention to each student. In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together as a class with the same teacher over several years so as to allow the teacher to follow their development over several grade levels. This technique promotes a family-like environment, rather than a hostile and competitive atmosphere. Education of Finnish children is widely considered a collective responsibility, and parents are expected to be involved in their children’s education (Faridi).Hong Kong, another top education performer, also carries an interesting history that has developed cultural values demonstrated through its education system. As a refugee society, Hong Kong was built on hard work, as it was a means to progress in social status. This cultural ideology has been transferred into its education system, where hard work and diligence is valued over “natural intelligence”. Unlike Finland, the education system is largely academic, and places little to no emphasis on the promotion of incorporating thinking skills. Instead, understanding is defined by memorization, and the students’ ability to perform under pressure on important examinations. There is little group work or student participation; with a dense population, it is common for about 42 students to be crammed and organized in old-fashion rows, thus prohibiting any individual attention to each student. Many education experts, like Education Secretary Michael Gove, argue that the “context is important. You cannot transpose Hong Kong’s style of learning somewhere else without changing the parents, teachers, and classroom architecture” (BBC). In other words, the intense Hong Kong education system is only valid and functional in Hong Kong due to the nation’s cultural past and embedded values.South Korea, like Hong Kong, places strong emphasis on testing, though for a different reason. The South Korean education system was developed under Korea’s brand of Confucianism, which emphasizes hard work, reverence for education, frugality, and strong family structure. Korea is a relatively new independent nation. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was occupied by Japan, in which the Korean government was crushed. Additionally, the Japanese became the educated upper class, and Koreans were shut out from their own education system and forced to the bottom of the social ladder. When the Japanese left Korea, it left a country in ruins with the majority of its population uneducated, illiterate, and possessing no specialized workers. Thus, alongside the rebuilding of the Korean government, the construction of a successful education system became a national project, and every citizen was committed to doing his or her part to contribute. Korea’s difficult and discriminatory past developed an education system with a strong emphasis on equal opportunity and the access to social mobility- this egalitarian structure achieved through exams. Exams are the core of the Korean education system; a child’s future, career, status, and often even family life are completely dependent on exam scores (BBC). The South Korean government also places a large emphasis on the maintenance of equal opportunities among children, especially those that do not come from wealthy backgrounds. In an effort to level the playing field, the government offers subsidies for computer and internet fees and a provision of meals. Practices like buying additional out-of-school services from teachers and hiring tutors were outlawed, though they are still practiced. Students are also put into a lottery system when being placed in elementary, middle, and high schools, as to prevent one school becoming superior to others due to a higher proportion of wealthier children or children of high status (Hu). But why exactly are exams so stressed? Children are obligated by law and custom to provide for their parents/caretakers in old age, and thus, the quality of life in retirement of the parents is completely dependent on the child’s success in life, which is determined by his or her academic performance. University admission is completely dependent on the one exam administered: the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). This is the exam that the students begin preparing for years in advance for. On the day of this test, the government reschedules the workday so minimize the traffic students encounter on the way to the exam, police monitor noise in the streets, and even planes are grounded in efforts not to distract the students. The high stakes of education leads to a willingness in parents to spend as much as needed, more than anywhere else in the world, on their child’s education (NPR)  Many students attend cram schools, called hagwons, after regular schooling, which typically lasts past 10:00 at night. The number of hours Korean students spend studying every day and week is longer than in any other OECD country, at about 14 hours a day, five days a week (Koo). South Korea also places a great amount of stress on teachers and teacher quality. Teaching is the most popular career choice among young South Koreans, due to a combination of the high social status, job stability, and high pay that accompanies the position. Only about 5% of applicants are accepted into elementary school teacher training programs, and the proportion of all South Korean teachers that are fully certified and hold bachelor’s degrees is among the highest in the world (Pellissier). AN IDEAL EDUCATION SYSTEMSo what would an ideal education system look like? The difficulty in answering this question is not only in addressing the cultural components as previously discussed, but also in defining the goals and characteristics of an ideal education system. Is it to achieve a higher level of understanding in mathematics, science, and reading among the youth? Is it to create a more highly educated and literate population? Most likely, it is a combination of these and more, with the proportions of each varying from country to country. So how does one compare the efficiency of top-performing education systems in various aspects of education when each country chooses to focus on reporting different areas? For the purpose of this study, education systems will be bracketed on the information available for each country and compared by three criteria: test scores, student happiness, and country literacy. South Korea and Finland will be compared in their test scores, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Finland in student happiness, and Hong Kong and Canada in literacy.The first and most obvious way of determining the rankings of education systems globally is through test scores. Test scores are a method of measuring the level of understanding a student possesses for a particular subject. As discussed earlier, the largest global exam administered is PISA, which is given to 15-year-olds representative of their country. In the most recent PISA examination (2015), Finland and South Korea unsurprisingly topped the list in test scores. The exam focused on the students’ understandings of science, reading, and mathematics. It also categorized the students’ understandings into levels; shallow or poor understanding was labeled as a level 1 or 2, and students with a great extent of knowledge and understanding were labeled as level 5’s or 6’s. The proportion of these students within the samples was measured. The OECD average for all categories was: science at 493, reading at 493, mathematics at 490, and 15.3% of top performing students and 13% of low performers. Both Finland and South Korea scored well over the average with Finland at 531 for science, 526 in reading, 511 in mathematics, and a percentage of 21.4% high performers and 13% of low performers. South Korea scored slightly lower than Finland in science and reading, with a 516 and a 517, respectively, though scored a 524 in mathematics. South Korea also interestingly had a higher percentage of high performers and low performers, with 25.6% of students scoring in the level 5 and 6 range of understanding, and 7.7% scoring below a 2. The higher percentage of students scoring below the level 2 understanding may be a result of the strict South Korean education system in which students are forced to either sink or swim. On the other hand, Finland spends a lot of energy on providing each student with the individual help they need, as to decrease the proportion of students that cannot comprehend the curriculum on a satisfactory level. In the general pattern over the years, Finland has consistently scored higher than South Korea in science, Korea has always scored higher in reading, and mathematics switches back and forth (PISA). In terms of test scores, it is difficult to determine which education system, South Korea or Finland, has a better method of education, as they are both consistently ranked in the top with similar scores.Student happiness is another criterion that is often overlooked in judging the efficiency of education systems. PISA also aids in this study as it, as an exam, aims to not only measure the statistics in the test scores, but to also understand the other factors contributing to the performance of students in these assessments. On the 2015 test (the most recent), students were asked to rank their satisfaction with their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 representing the worst, and 10 representing the best. The OECD average was about 7.31, which the researchers interpreted to mean the students were relatively happy and satisfied with their lives. Finland topped the list, with an average of 7.89, whereas Hong Kong and South Korea occupied the bottom with below-average scores of 6.48 and 6.36, respectively. In relation to these statistics, Hong Kong and South Korea both have alarmingly high student suicide rates. According to the South China Morning Post, a quarter of all unnatural deaths from 2012 to 2013 were Hong Kong student suicides, reportedly due to the stress of schoolwork and family pressure to perform. In a survey conducted in South Korea, results showed that 3/4 of South Korean middle and high school students consider running away or committing suicide because of the pressure to perform at high levels in school. According to Koo, of the young South Korean students who confessed to feeling suicidal in 2010, a drastic proportion of them, 53% of them identified inadequate academic performance as the main reason for the thoughts. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Finland’s success seems to be credited to maintaining a happy environment and ensuring the children have enough time for extracurricular activities and to maintain a healthy well-being. Sophia Faridi, an educator, was given an opportunity to travel to Finland to observe the education system in effect. The conclusion she drew was that the “secret ingredient” to Finland’s success was the heavy emphasis on play, lack of high-stakes standardized testing, lack of a competitive environment, and emphasis on quality of life. Logically, opposite methods of education lead to opposite results, as demonstrated by the contrasting education systems of South Korea and Finland; South Korea boasts tense, competitive environments structured around stressful examinations, and Finland emphasizes a familial classroom environment, no standardized tests, and less time in school. In the aspect of student happiness and a healthy well-being, Finland shoots above South Korea in its strategy of education.In the general level of education in a country, literacy is the most common and easiest form of judgement. What is notable about these statistics is the commonly accepted notion that many immigrants are uneducated and damaging to a nation’s quality of education and average level of education, but the opposite is demonstrated in Canada. In fact, Canada has one of, if not the, highest rate of immigration. In Canada, much of the process of achieving citizenship is based on education. This gives immigrants an incentive to achieve a higher education and a degree. These immigrants then pass down strong value of education to their children and this ultimately creates a nation of highly educated people. Though both countries have exceptionally high literacy rates, considering the high immigration rate of Canada, the ideal education system would have the same integral curriculum and programs as demonstrated by Canada. CONCLUSIONIn the search for an ideal education system, there is no “standard” definition, though all sources generally agree that it will efficiently: provide all students with equal learning opportunities and offer advanced curriculum that is up-to-date with the global economy and emphasizes thinking skills necessary for success. Some of the top academic performers in the world are Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Canada. In Canada, a notable characteristic that can be credited with the success of the education system is its available financial and medical help to students and family to prevent dropping out to work. In Finland, it is notable in its rigorous teacher training and respect for teachers. In Hong Kong, the system is based around the students’ diligence and relentless work. In South Korea, it places a large emphasis on an egalitarian structure based around standardized tests that allow for social mobility. In pulling these characteristics to form an ideal education system, the ideal education system would have curriculum as advanced as South Korea and Finland, a school system implemented like Finland’s, in which students are allowed free time to experience their lives, and would have immigrant integral education systems to increase educational value within the population, especially within immigrants. The largest limitation in this ideal education system is the matter of its validity. Each one of these top performing countries has a unique history in the development of its education system and the culture that shaped it. This is especially apparent in the drastic contrasts between the education in South Korea and Finland, both of which are nations that are consistently ranked at the top. These results can be credited to the differences in the culture of both countries. Perhaps these systems can be joined together eventually, though culture takes time to change and it would be extremely unlikely to have this ideal education system achieved in the near future- we can only continue to slowly modify. We must also remember that the notion of an ideal education system is ever-changing along with the global economy and the cultural ideologies of the time.


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