Prior to the 19th Century, no organized public education system was in place anywhere in the world. In the United States, an educational system was created in order to meet the manpower needs of the Industrial Revolution. It was based upon the tenets of academic achievement and the application of reason. The most useful subjects to achieve maximum performance were ranked in a hierarchy of importance. On top of the hierarchy were subjects such as math, science and language. On the bottom of the hierarchy were less essential subjects such as music and art. Professors designed this educational system in their image. Their views on academics have come to dominate our perception of intelligence. The entire system was designed to create a track to university entrance, advanced degrees, and a perpetuation of the system. 1

As we moved from the industrial age to the electronic age, technology has transformed our definition of work and the skills needed to perform this work. Unfortunately, our educational system has not kept pace with the rest of the world. The entire structure of our educational system is obsolete. We are failing in our ability to train our labor force to be competitive in the new global economy. Up until the 1970s, the US public schools were considered the best in the world. Since that time, our ranking has tumbled. Of 15-year-olds tested in 30 countries, the US was 21st in Science, 25th in Math, and 16th in Reading Proficiency. The US share of the world’s college students went from 30% in 1976 to 14% in 2006. Our top 5% of students ranked 23rd of 29 developed countries. Between 1971 and 2006 we have increased our educational spending by 123%. Yet on a performance test for reading taken by 17-year-olds, there was zero change in academic performance.

Every president since Kennedy has vowed to be the “education president” and return the US educational system to prominence. In 2002, “No Child Left Behind” was implemented with a bold promise to have students achieve 100% proficiency in math and reading. Years later (2009), 69% of 8th graders scored below proficiency in reading and 68% were below proficiency in math. Across the US, only 20-35% of students scored at grade level for reading. Since the early 1970’s, despite being the 5th largest spender on education per student, our math and reading scores have barely budged. Teenagers are now less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were.3

The California State University system is designed to accept 1/3 of the top high school graduates. Most are unprepared. 50-60% of all incoming freshmen need remedial help in order to take college level classes.4 According to the Education Trust, nearly one-fourth of recent high school graduates who tried to join the US Army failed its entrance exam. Education Secretary Ann Duncan said, “I am deeply troubled by the national security burden placed on us by our underperforming educational system”.5

Research at the Princeton based Educational Testing Services recently found that despite being the most educated generation ever, generation Y Americans (those born after 1980), are some of the world’s least skilled people. Studies done measuring job skills of adults in 23 countries found – The top 5 scores in literacy; 1. Japan 2. Finland 3. Netherlands 4. Australia 5. Sweden. The United States was 17 out of 23. In numeracy the U.S. was 17 out of 23. The U.S. ranked 21 of 23 on PS-TRE scores.

By the year 2022, it is estimated that the US will have 123 million high skill, high paying jobs. Only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them.6 Major corporations are moving abroad not only because of access to cheaper labor, but to acquire competent workers. Bill Gates said that “our high schools are obsolete and our nation’s future is at serious risk”. By 2030, we will be a Third World labor market.

Our world has changed but our schools have not. Our antiquated educational system is no longer relevant. The world is changing so rapidly that we have little idea what the future will bring. The top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Half of what students starting a four-year technical school are learning will be outdated by their third year of study. How do we prepare students for an unpredictable future? We need to rethink the basic principles upon which we are educating our children. We must prepare them for jobs that do not yet exist using technologies that have not been invented.7

Our challenge is to prepare students for a constantly changing world. Globalization, new media and smart technology requires workers to have adaptable skills that can handle the demands of the 21st century workplace.8 The US educational system’s focus on acquiring discipline based knowledge through a core curriculum through teaching and testing is not working. We need to promote agility and adaptability, the ability to learn and relearn as information becomes obsolete. Academic success can no longer be measured by memorization and recall of facts. Einstein called rote memorization the lowest form of intelligence.

A recent study done by the National Center on Education and the Economy came up with several crucial skills necessary for the American workforce in the new millennium:

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Facilities to use ideas and abstractions
  • Self-discipline and organization to manage and complete work
  • Ability to strategize and think independently
  • Ability to function well as a member of a team 9

At the same time that our educational system began a decline, other countries in the world were on the rise. Finland, for example, went from a very poor rating 30 years ago to receiving the United Nations designation as the number one ranked educational system in the world. Finland has consistently been one of the top academic performers from 2000-2009. We might be wise to take a look at what they are doing right.

When examining the attributes of a successful educational system, one of the commonalities is the quality of the teacher. The Fins have a culture that values education and a belief that parents also have a key role. Teachers are very much appreciated and it is the 3rd most aspired to profession for young students besides medicine and the law. Although earning just an average salary, teaching attracts talented young people. The University of Helsinki only accepts 1 in 15 applicants into its teacher training. Candidates must be in the top 10% of their class to qualify for what is considered an elite calling. The high performing countries of Singapore and South Korea also require a top 10% ranking from teaching candidates.

Teachers in Finland are highly respected professionals by their communities. They are rarely evaluated and quickly receive tenure. Finish teachers must have completed the minimum of a Master’s Degree in order to teach. One of the most important duties for a Finish teacher is to mentor teacher trainees to develop their own working theories on teaching. They give constructive feedback and discuss lesson plans but encourage creativity in trying new concepts.

U.S. teaching schools are open to anyone who will pay the tuition. Little screening is done in most schools to assure future success in the classroom. 47% of U.S. teachers graduated in the bottom third of their class. Only 23% of our teachers are from the top third of their class. The U.S. educational system does not allow for innovation or creativity. Standardized testing requires standardized teaching.

Although Finland has a strong teachers union, it does not compare to the power and influence wielded by U.S. teachers unions. The NEA and the AFT are the largest campaign contributors in the country. Over the past 20 years, they have donated $55 million to national candidates and parties. The unions have stymied the ability to use teacher performance as criteria for evaluation and tenure. This makes the process for dealing with a bad teacher cumbersome. Teachers unions have had a long history of placing the job security of teachers above the quality of education for students.

The Obama administration has tried to counteract the unions’ financial persuasion by offering a 4.35 billion in stimulus incentives to states. The Raise to the Top Foundation has as its goal to raise academic standards, evaluate teachers based on how much their students are learning, and to train teachers more effectively and remove those who are not competent.10 This is not a condemnation of the commitment and passion of most teachers. Research shows that teachers in the U.S. can be important role models and attachment figures. They can have a profound effect on a child’s life. Teachers are hard-working and underpaid. Their hands are often tied by the parameters of the system they must work in.

Team Approach

Success in Finland’s educational system is not measured as in the U.S. and UK by competition with winners and losers. Learning is seen as a team activity. There are no private schools in Finland. All students, rich or poor, gifted or delayed, receive the exact same education. The best and worst pupils in any subject are taught together. The more gifted students actively help in the teaching. This is a brilliant idea that keeps the more talented child from being under stimulated and can actually enhance his grasp of the subject. It also gives students an opportunity to experience service to others. This cooperative, we are learning together approach also can reduce friction and stress in learning. Giving pupils extra help is standard practice. Most classrooms have three teachers, one who works primarily with children who are struggling.12

Decentralized Education

We now have evidence that implementing a successful program in one school or district might not work so well in another setting. A program has to meet the specific needs of that district. Additionally, in the U.S., there are several levels of bureaucracies that often operate at odds with each other. The federal government, state educational systems and local school boards all have different ideas of how to educate children. Tradition and special interest groups commonly are influencing educational policy. US schools are entrenched in inconsistency and lack of accountability which is an impediment to reform.

An Atmosphere Conducive to Learning

Schools in Finland are relaxed and casual. Students address teachers by their first names. Primary school students often stay with the same teacher for several years, enhancing relationships and making the child’s learning pattern easier to understand. Elementary, middle and high schools are very small. Class size is 20 students. They understand the importance of building intimate relationships between teachers and students. There is no pressure to be the best. They are encouraged to follow their passions and follow their dreams based on their own unique talents. The goal is cooperation not competition. Children in Finland start school at a later date, enjoy a 3-month break, take fewer classes, barely have homework, and have the least amount of classroom hours in the developed world and have the best academic results.13

For decades tests have revealed a significant achievement gap between rich and poor children in America. We have tried many solutions with little result. Many schools have become dropout factories. Students are dropping out in droves. Millions of kids are roaming the streets with no diplomas, no skills and no hope for the future. For example, 68% of inmates in Pennsylvania prisons are high school dropouts. New research reported by educator and journalist Mark Philips indicates that less than 30% of a student’s academic success is attributed to schools and teachers. The most significant variable is socioeconomic status, followed by the psychological quality of the home life, the neighborhood, and the physical health provided.

Some innovative programs do seem to be making a difference. Jeffrey Canada opened up a charter school in Harlem, NY. His students were all 2-3 years behind grade level and were from a background of poverty, crime and troubled homes. His students are performing on a par with more advantaged schools in the city. Schools like Canada’s have had the courage to challenge the entrenched ideas of the past. They insist on great teachers, provide more classroom opportunities, and aspire to higher standards.

Kipp Academies are another example of how to help students succeed who come from underperforming, low income neighborhoods. These students doubled their reading and math scores. Kipp’s approach of accountability not only helps his students perform higher than other poor kids, they do better than anyone.14

Children all have extraordinary capacities for innovation and creativity. It is part of their nature. We need to encourage their unique talents and skills and not discourage their dreams.

John was a 15-year-old in 1949. When he informed his teacher that he wanted to be a scientist, his teacher said he had no aptitude for science, there was no hope, and he shouldn’t waste his time or the teacher’s. He is now Sir John Gunden, winner of the Nobel Prize for his pioneering stem cell research. He framed his report card next to his Nobel Prize.15

Education has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of hard skills while failing to develop the moral and emotional facilities underneath. The most important decisions a student will make in his entire life have to do with character. In order to face the challenges of the future, we need to nurture the students’ whole being.16

Educating students is more than giving them knowledge. Real education has little to do with knowledge. Wisdom is knowledge applied. We teach children what to think instead of how to think. Knowledge is forgotten; wisdom is forever. To be competitive in the ever-changing world ahead, students need to be allowed to develop their own critical thinking and creative problem solving abilities. They must learn to think outside the box and come to their own conclusions. We need to foster life skills, not merely memorizing facts but learning to challenge the facts. Science has always progressed based on new assumptions being proven to be true.

To be successful in the work force, character is paramount. People with good character are energetic, honest and dependable. They are persistent after a setback and acknowledge their mistakes. They have enough confidence to take risks and have enough integrity to live up to their commitments. They recognize their weaknesses and can control their impulses.

We need to realize that human relationships are just as important as facts. A value-based curriculum could include experiences such as:

  • Peaceful conflict resolution
  • Fairness
  • Tolerance
  • Honesty and responsibility
  • Celebrating self, valuing others
  • How to achieve a loving relationship
  • Development of empathy
  • Working as a team

These survival skills will not only help future job performance, but success in life. Youngsters who could master this curriculum would surely make the world a better place.

  1. Sir Ken Robinson. TED Conference Podcast, Jan. 6, 2007. Monterey,
  2. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: National Center for Education Statistics.
  3. Ripley, Amanda. A Call to Action for Public Schools. Time Magazine Annual National Service Issue, Sept. 20, 2010.
  4. Waiting for Superman, directed by David Guggenheim, written by Billy Kimball. Paramount Vantage – Electric Kinney Production.
  5. Army Entrance, Associated Press, 12-30-10, Education Trust.
  6. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Time Magazine, Sept. 20, 2010.
  7. Working and Learning in the 21st Century, National Center for Educational Statistics.
  8. A Nation in Crisis: America’s Educational System is Broken, Time Magazine, 2007.
  9. Cloud, J. How to Recruit Better Teachers, Time Magazine, Sept. 20, 2010.
  10. Finland’s Education Success, April 10, 2012, BBC News.
  11. The Finland Phenomenon, Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System, Nov. 2, 2012. Robert A. Copton, New School Films.
  12. Waiting for Superman, directed by David Guggenheim, written by Billy Kimball. Paramount Vantage Participant Media
  13. As reported by Anderson Cooper on CNN.
  14. Brooks, D. (2011) The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character and Achievement, Random House, NY.