Since different countries have different education systems, how can one be compared to another? PISA, the Program of International Student Assessment, has devised a test to examine the educational programs of 70 different countries worldwide. 15-year-old students are tested on math, science and reading; the test may also include financial literacy and problem solving. Schools are selected at random to participate. The test includes both multiple choice and open-ended questions. The purpose of the PISA test is to study how students reaching the end of compulsory education can use the knowledge they've acquired in real-life situations.
While some countries maintain their place at the top, others are new on the list of the top ten performing countries:
Top 10 Canada
Canada's education system allows each province or territory to control what goes on their curriculum, although they do work together to maintain the quality of education. Each province uses the others to provide a model. Interestingly, despite this decentralization, there is little difference in performances according to the ethnic or socioeconomic group students belong to. Canada also places emphasis on involving family and preventing students from leaving education early.
Finland's superb education system means that it first dominated the PISA results in 2000. The country allows schools and students a great deal of autonomy, with students able to pick their own textbooks. Teachers also have a great deal of freedom in planning their classes. Unusually, teachers are required to have a master's degree.
The system in Japan is quite different from countries like Finland, being based on a rigorous and demanding method that requires students to conform. They are expected to become useful members of society and fit in with their peers. The system demands that students work extremely hard and strive to succeed. It aims to encourage them to work to the absolute best that their abilities allow. The math and science curriculum is extremely tough.
Poland has made a remarkable climb up the ranks since the first PISA assessment in 2000, advancing from below average to the top 10. This improvement stems from a change from the old communist system, which only allowed the top 20% to carry on at school. Under the current system, students have four options once they reach 15; all of these options allow them to take university entrance exams. Reforms also include improved teacher training and the extension of early childhood education.
Singapore has carried out three main reforms to its education system over the last 50 years. It began by focusing on improving literacy rates to allow workers access to the world market. The next step was to create an excellent school system in which the majority of students completed their education. This involved creating streams according to the ability of students and tailoring the curriculum to each level. Most recently, the final stage gave up this streaming for an emphasis on deeper material and brought in improved teacher development.
Estonia has made considerable changes to its education system since achieving independence. This involved creating a national curriculum, providing more innovative training for teachers, and improving vocational training. Teaching now covers personal skills as well as more academic training.
Hong Kong education used to focus on teaching the elite, but has now moved to a focus on educating all children. In addition, students now receive an education that encourages them to develop their thinking skills and apply those skills to real-life situations. Testing not only covers traditional exams but also real-life situations.
South Korea has seen huge improvements in education rates. At one time, the majority of the population were illiterate, but after the Korean War the South created a very strict system that emphasized testing. Students now work longer hours than in any other country, and the system places a heavy emphasis on academic success, with failure seen as shameful.
Like Finland, Shanghai allow its students a great deal of freedom. Since the 1990s, the system has encouraged students to use the knowledge they acquire, rather than simply learning by rote. There has also been an emphasis on teacher training, with teachers encouraged to offer opportunities for learning, rather than simply giving the students facts to learn.
Taiwan's education system focuses on allowing students to contribute to the global economy, as the island is lacking in natural resources. As a result, students must spend 12 years in compulsory education and classrooms are equipped with ample technology. From offering early education to encouraging poorer students with subsidies, the system ensures that all have access to opportunities.
These top countries may have very different systems, but they all work in their own way. Each one places a great importance on education, and has adapted the system when needed.