International Inspiration: Learn From Other Countries' Education Systems

After a recent study ranked the U.S. 26th in education, a look at the top-ranked countries may prove enlightening.

It's no secret that the United States is no longer a global leader in education. In a recent study conducted by Newsweek, we ranked 26th in education out of the 100 countries examined (though we ranked second in economic dynamism). In this proudly capitalist society of seemingly boundless opportunities, why are we suffering from such deficiencies in our education system, and what can you do in your role as a college counselor to help chip away at the problem?

Scrutinizing the failures of education in America can quickly turn into a futile blame game. In reality, there are many factors behind our lagging performance. Everything from television and video games to under-funded school districts in less-affluent cities could be cited. So instead of pointing fingers and dissecting what our country is doing wrong, I think it could be enlightening and inspiring to look at what the top countries are doing right.

Following is a list of the top three countries as ranked in the Newsweek study and some of the strengths that have helped them excel in education.

The world's top countries in education

  1. Finland
    In Finland, an education is deemed integral to the population's overall quality of life and is free and accessible for everyone, even at the university level. At 16 years old, students can choose to pursue either an academic or vocational course of study (or both at once), to help them sharpen their skills in particular areas and hone in on their future careers. Classroom sizes are capped at 20 stduents and national standardized testing has been done away with. In an interview with Huffington Post, Pasi Sahlburg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, asserted that "a successful education system should help young people to discover their talents and build their lives based on them."
  2. South Korea
    Public and private high schools in South Korea focus heavily on getting students into college. Specialty schools, which are highly competitive, allow students to pursue their individual interests and career paths. There are also vocational schools that prepare students to enter the workforce immediately after high school instead of attending college. Once the nearly nine-hour school day is over, students may spend additional hours studying on their own in school-supported sessions. The education system in South Korea is strict and rigorous, but it's producing some of the best and brightest high school graduates--and university students--in the world.
  3. Canada
    Canada's education system varies from province to province, but in general, schools are designed to help students learn and develop as individuals. In Ontario, students in grades 11 and 12 can choose to participate in workplace, college, or university preparation. At Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary, students work at their own pace in "a completely self-directed personalized program of studies," and can "investigate areas of interest at a depth that cannot be duplicated in a classroom setting." Only a small percentage of students attend private schools, due in part to the fact that some provinces have discouraged and even restriced private schools in an effort to maintain educational equality, regardless of a student's socioeconomic background.

Learn from the leaders

How can you take a cue from these international leaders in education? Rome wasn't built in a day, and there's no quick fix for the challenges we're facing in today's schools. But you can use your position as a college counselor to make strides, however small, toward a better future for America's students.

  • One thing these three countries have in common is their emphasis on developing individual interests and talents. Talk with your students about their long-term collegiate and professional goals and suggest which electives and extracurricular activities will help them reach those ends.
  • Unlike the Finns, we won't soon be doing away with standardized testing, but you can stress the importance of having strong grades in a well-balanced array of subjects.
  • The Korean approach to studying is perhaps too stringent, but you can certainly remind your students of the benefits of spending a few extra hours in the library.
  • And like the Canadians, you can do your part to ensure that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have equal access to a quality education.


Help your students get on the right track with the Postsecondary Sourcebooks and the College Admissions Data Sourcebooks--all the info you need to get your students into the best schools for them.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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