As we approach our departure to Europe for the Global Perspectives Program, I have found myself more curious than ever on education abroad. It is no secret that although the US spends staggering amounts of money on education ($591 billion/year according to the National Center for Education Statistics (Stats Link), the US struggles in world rankings. There is seemingly endless literature on why this is occurring and how it can be fixed. But when it comes down to it, educating a nation is complicated.
On an idle Wednesday night, in an effort to not work on my PhD at all, I found myself pursuing Netflix. Under “New Releases” I found Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Inside Man.’ I have seen a few of Spurlock’s documentaries and rather enjoy his approach. Inside Man – according to the show’s page at CNN.com, “immerses the host in topical subjects while offering an intimate look at diverse aspects of the human condition.” After noting an episode on education, I decided to give it a watch.
Spurlock is probably most famously known for his documentary Super Size Me, where he ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. He ended up gaining 25lbs and it reportedly took him 14 months to get his body back to where it was prior to the experiment. Ironically, within the ‘Inside Man’ episode on education, Spurlock sits in on a class in Finland discussing American culture and McDonald’s is a topic of conversation.
The episode opens with Spurlock heading to Finland to meet with the principal of a school (that is gorgeous and looks more like a opera house) to discuss why Finish schools are so successful. There are many interesting observations made, including the academic approach, the focus on student well being, how much the government supports Finish families, and the interesting lack of homework. The teachers are very well respected by the community and the students and I got the impression that the majority of the students didn’t mind being there.
Spurlock then heads back to the States and attends a non-profit charter school in Brooklyn, NY. The school is made up of 311 students, 80% of which are low income. Statistically, students from this school thrive under the administrative and teaching styles utilized. As a charter school, there is flexibility in how the school is run in comparison to a typical public school, but the school must show progress on a grander scale. Failure to do so would result in the revocation of their charter and the school would be shut down.
The success of this school is obvious, but the approach is completely different than the approach taken at the Finish schools. Constant testing, extremely detailed lesson plans, data driven approaches, and accountability all play a factor in the school’s academic method. The fact that the school’s success in spite of the disadvantages of the students shows a positive step for US schools that deal with more diversity and the second highest child poverty rate among developed countries.
In my opinion, there is not a magic solution out there that will fix everything. The diversity present in US schools will require equally diverse solutions, but it was refreshing to see a school in the US advancing students that deal with substantially more disadvantage. Comparing US schools to Finish schools is not really apples to apples. According to the documentary, Finland is roughly the size of Montana with a population of 5.4 million people. It is estimated that there are roughly 56 million K-12 students in the US. Just in terms of resources that is a substantial gap. However, that does not excuse the US from the obvious missteps that have been made. In my opinion, if we as a nation want to continue to be a major world player, education for our young will be of paramount importance.