Manya Whitaker, PhD, Developmental/Educational Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Education; Educational Consultant
The United States' educational system is often compared to those in other countries when it comes to issues of teacher salary, class sizes, and tracking (among others). Most often the U.S. is compared to Finland who has the 'best' education system in the world. The problem with this statement is that it is often unclear what makes them the 'best'. Some people cite test scores, but this is untrue as many other countries (e.g. Korea) have higher PISA scores than Finland. Other people cite teachers' job satisfaction. It is not debatable that teachers in Finland have reported higher job satisfaction that American teachers. Some people are referencing long-term successes of Finnish school children, while others are talking about the quality of the curriculum.
The first problem with making sweeping comparisons between nation-wide school systems is that such a comparison does not account for the demographics being served. America has one of the most diverse student bodies in the world (the U.K. is often a good comparison of student diversity), which makes teaching way more than a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Finland however boasts one of the most homogenous populations in the world so on that basis alone, Finnish teachers have far less to worry about when it comes to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse student needs.
The second problem with international educational comparisons is that they also ignore the sociopolitical context of the nations. The U.S. is struggling with income inequality, housing issues, unequal access to quality healthcare, and systemic racism. All of these affect children's preparedness to learn and the support they receive during their education. They also affect who chooses to teach and why they remain in the profession. Teacher job satisfaction is highly correlated to their salary, job prestige, and reported stress levels. In the U.S., teachers have low salaries, little prestige, and very high stress. These are realities engendered by economic and political structures far beyond the school building.
So when you ask what the U.S. school system can learn from other countries, I can only suggest that we attend to their curriculum. Because curricula are decided by individual states, U.S. schools can adopt any curriculum they want. Many other countries have a much more well rounded curriculum that includes music, P.E. and foreign language K-8. They also move through their curriculum much faster than we do in U.S. public schools. In fact, 5th graders in Korea do the same math as U.S. high schoolers. By 8th grade, Korean students are doing U.S. college-level math, have command over multiple languages, and many can play an instrument. We vastly underestimate what our children are capable of in the U.S., so we don't push them to reach their full potential.
We might also 'borrow' other countries' school schedule. While the U.S. operates on a strict 7 hour school day, other countries have closer to 10 hour school days. The extra instructional time allows for more diverse course offerings, required extra-curricular activities, and time to go in-depth with course content. Their focus is on quality while ours is on quantity.
I don't think we need to look to other countries for ideas of what works to enhance student learning. We can look to our own private schools, many of which are structured similarly to public schools in other countries. The problem with that again is that the homogenous population that attends private schools and the economic and informational resources they bring with them are not comparable to public schools. Until we address larger social issues in the U.S., I am afraid there is little hope our schools will ever perform like those in many countries.