An article published on the BBC News website yesterday on “successful” educational systems introduces the topic in a very odd and misinformed manner. The article takes a very brief look at educational systems in Finland, Hong Kong, and South Korea, claiming that they are “often lauded as among the best [educational systems] in the world”. Now, I don’t know who is saying that these or any other educational systems are the ‘best in the world’. The fact is that any claim to that effect would be a meaningless statement because it suggests that the ‘system’ is separable from its context. Thankfully, the educational researchers and specialists interviewed for the article do allude to that fact which, in turn, makes it all the stranger that the writer would still introduce the article as purporting to be about some of the ‘best educational systems in the world’. So, what is the real deal with these educational systems and what might policy makers learn from them?
First of all, let’s be clear about what is really being discussed in the article. It’s not about ‘best educational systems’ at all. It’s about educational systems from which come learners who have outperformed their peers on various international comparisons of learner achievement. This does not really say much about the nature of the underlying system nor what aspects of that system contribute to leaners’ achievement. Let’s consider, for example, the South Korean educational system. South Korea has a major problem on their hands in regards to their educational system. They have allowed so-called “shadow education”, i.e. private tuition meant to supplement formal education, to become not only a critical component of their system, but also one that is imperative for learners’ success. The result is a subsystem that privileges the better off and has negatively affects the formal public educational system. What kind of shadow education a learner has access to is determined by the parents’ socio-economic status. The South Korean government has provided some income-based subsidies for private tuition, but that doesn’t come close to leveling the playing field. Also, the shadow education system draws highly qualified instructors away from the formal public system, resulting in even more inequalities. Finally, the shadow education system has become so ingrained in South Korean attitudes toward education that it is unlikely that it can be dismantled in the near future as it would require a fairly major culture-shift.
So, is the South Korean educational system one of the ‘best in the world’? I think few would agree that it is. It is, in fact, deeply troubled with no likely solution on the horizon. Nevertheless, from the system as a whole, including public formal education and shadow education, come learners that do well on the examinations and surveys used to calculate comparable measures of achievement across countries. The same goes for the Hong Kong system (which is experiencing a growing problem with shadow education, too, as the concept continues to proliferate throughout East Asian culture), and the Finnish system (which I have written about many times. see here, for ex.). But, is it the system as such that produces learners of high calibur? No, it is a range of educational practices, cultural values, etc. that happen to be a good fit for each country’s social reality at this point in time. That is to say, that each of these countries have managed to produce an educational system which is currently the ‘best in the world’ for them. That does not suggest that they would be the ‘best in the world’ for any other country.
File this one under -not helpful for the discourse-