By Duncan Seston· On April 19, 2016

In 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) commissioned its most recent study comparing students across the world in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, science, and reading. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assesses 15-year-old students on key skills for “integration into modern society.” The study serves as a benchmark for educational excellence and offers a glimpse into classrooms around the world.

The PISA results proved less than exceptional for the United States. In mathematics, the US finished 36th of the 65 countries tested. In science, the nation fared marginally better, placing 28th. The OECD placed America in a group of comparable nations that included: Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Russia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Hungary. Americans everywhere were utterly confused: how could a nation with such a recognized reputation in mathematics and science fair so poorly? Perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the future of America’s dominance in these fields?

Where is the underlying problem?

Despite spending the third most in the OECD on education per student, the United States has failed to keep pace with its closest competitors in standardized tests. This can be attributed largely to the teaching practices used in the country. In 2001, then President George Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). With bipartisan support, the bill was considered a substantial step forward for the American education system. At its core, NCLB was designed to raise the bar for disadvantaged students. The bill offered federal education funding only to those states whose schools underwent standardized testing — ensuring that schools in disadvantaged areas were keeping pace with their peers. Schools that were unable to keep pace in these standardized tests offered to transfer their students to a higher performing school. Schools were judged on the results of these standardized tests, with the goal of all grades being at the same level of reading and math by 2014.

In practice, NCLB proved to be toxic for the American school system. It forced teachers to forgo practical teaching methods and instead tailor their curriculum to generating high test scores. The bill has largely been considered a failure, and in December of 2015, it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA still requires standardized testing to be administered, but gives discretion of sanctions to States. This change is intended to ensure more informed decisions are made when imposing penalties to underperforming schools, thereby reducing pressure on teachers and hypothetically improving educational results.

While ESSA will open the door for teachers to use more effective methods to raise the educational level of their students, fundamental change is needed for consistently better results. Often used as a model for educational excellence, Finland employs a vastly different model than the United States. For instance, students are typically not formally graded at younger ages. As they get older, they begin receiving semi-annual report cards; however, they are never subject to standardized testing. Teachers are given a state approved curriculum, but are free to decide upon their own teaching methods and pace. This degree of discretion means teachers are highly regarded in Finnish society — often considered on par with doctors and lawyers when it comes to career prestige.

The Finnish education system is also renowned for fostering a love of learning among its students. Children don’t start school until age seven, allowing them to develop to a sufficient level to take away value from a classroom setting. When they do begin formal education, they have more recess and fewer school hours than their peers in the United States, allowing for them to engage freely in more extracurricular activities. Students are also rarely given homework in an effort to promote the pursuit of outdoor activities. The combination of these innovative policies, in conjunction with no standardized testing has resulted in Finnish students developing at a much faster rate than American Students. They have consistently outperformed their American peers in standardized tests and have enjoyed the long-term benefits of a strong fundamental education.

Implications of Underperformance

Despite glaring underperformance among its children, America remains among the top nations for performance in science and mathematics related fields; its dominance in these fields can be largely attributed to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism coupled with strong sources of capital. While this competitive advantage exists today, it is certainly not unique to America and may deteriorate over time.

At the post-secondary level, America boasts the highest percentage of top universities in the world. Of the Times Higher Education rankings, 16 of the top 25 schools are located in the United States — including 6 of the top 10. However these schools are very expensive for students to attend — often putting them out of reach for students not from wealthy families. Legacy students — those who have family members who have previously graduated from a school — are also well documented in having an impact on admissions. These factors create substantial barriers to entry for students without wealthy parents.

A strong education system is at the core of social mobility — an issue American politicians have seemingly failed to solve. Without the ability to maximize their potential, students will continuously underperform. In doing so, they are unable to access their outstanding domestic universities and achieve their career aspirations. Without better long-term educational output, American stands to see its economic standing erode. This challenge will require fundamental reform to evaluation standards and teaching methods. If America fails to take a step forward in its practices, it risks taking a step back socially.