A number of international reports, such as the United Nations Education Index and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, rank countries by the quality of their education systems. These reviews typically focus on the number of hours that students spend in the classroom, the dollars spent per student, teaching methods, and the cultural pressure students feel to perform academically.

The reports do not discuss in-depth school-based practices that address broader issues affecting educational outcomes, such as economic inequalities and mental and physical well-being—likely because of the difficulty in quantifying and comparing these practices.   

A recent report by the education company Pearson, titled “The Learning Curve: Lessons in Country Performance in Education,” ranks Finland and South Korea as the top-performing countries in primary and secondary education, respectively. The rankings are based on a variety of quantitative factors, including test scores and graduation rates; qualitative factors, such as school autonomy (the school’s power to make decisions related to the distribution of resources, the selection of curricula, and student assessment); and school choice (students’ ability to choose the school they attend).

The authors state that all the top-ranking countries have in common a “level of support for education within the surrounding culture.” Finland, for example, invests heavily in teacher training. In South Korea, where education was seen as key to the country’s development after the Korean War, education is still perceived as a moral duty, as well as an individual one.

A “culture of education,” however, does not mean that students in these countries do not experience barriers to academic success, such as poverty and mental health issues. Do the top-ranking countries address these issues? If so, how?

One strategy South Korea uses to ensure that students and teachers throughout the country have similar experiences in the classroom is requiring teachers to rotate schools every five years. Additionally, South Korean schools increasingly use government funds to purchase digital textbooks, giving rural students access to materials that may otherwise not be available. According to the report, the use of digital textbooks has led to declining achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic positions and genders. 

But South Korea has not made similar strides in promoting students’ mental health. Spikes in the suicide rate among older South Korean students occur annually during exam times, due to the competitiveness of university admission. And, according to the World Health Organization, no South Korean schools employ mental health professionals—even part-time. Stigma within Korean culture against providing or receiving mental health treatment is a significant contributing factor in the lack of school-based mental health services.

Finland, on the other hand, has tackled the issue of mental health head on. To reduce stigma, a national mental health promotion program developed by the Finnish Association of Mental Health uses the phrase “well-being of the mind” rather than “mental health.” With financial support from the government, all Finnish municipalities maintain school health care services, which employ mental health professionals, nurses, and doctors in schools to assess the cognitive development of younger students, screen older students for common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and perform routine physical exams.

Clearly, no ranking system can capture all the programs, initiatives, and societal factors that affect students’ success. Indeed, educational ranking systems do not even attempt to measure whether or how students’ mental and physical development are promoted in different countries. Research-based approaches do exist to improve students’ mental and physical well-being, and many can be adapted to fit a given cultural and socio-political context.

Tell us what you think about international rankings and different countries’ approaches to student supports. Are there policies and practices in these countries that you think U.S. schools should consider? Please add your comments below (email address will not be displayed). 

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