By Amanda Li, Clarion Staff Reporter
With all the recent teacher strikes in the United States, specifically in major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Sacramento, one may begin questioning the U.S. educational system.
In relation to other countries, the U.S. is ranked low, while Finland is at the top, according to the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) international survey, which is conducted every three years. Furthermore, Finland “routinely outperforms the United States” in reading, science and mathematics. The credit goes to Finland’s school environment. Good education is based on the environment, which is based on the student to teacher ratio, staff, courses and extracurriculars, as stated by the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.
According to the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR), a study which was conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s, the ideal student to teacher ratio in a classroom is 20:1. A smaller student roster will allow teachers more time to grade, prepare for classes and tutor students outside of class. Finland’s student-to-teacher ratio typically satisfies this standard, with an average class size of 19 (Grades 1, 2) and 21 (Grades 3 – 9) claims Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College. The national average student-to-teacher ratio in the U.S. is 23:1; but in recent years, the student population in classrooms has risen, due to a loss of teachers.
Teaching was never a high paying job to begin with, and in recent years, teachers across the U.S. have been underpaid, which discourages the population to pursue careers in education and gives teachers a motive to quit their jobs.
A teacher’s income comes from the school budget, which is composed of state taxes that U.S. citizens pay. All of this money is collected and is placed into the state bank. This money is used for all public services, such as police, firefighters, roads, garbage pickup and most importantly, education. The states give each school district their school funds based on the number of students, the financial needs of each student and attendance.
“There’s a whole formula,” says K.C. McCarthy, a member of Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA). “The Sacramento City Unified School District receives $5 million every year. The money is distributed to each school based on the attendance, number and needs of each student.”
With this money, each school district single-handedly pays all of the teachers, staff, learning material, equipment, electricity, buses, etc. for every school in that district.
This resembles Finland’s take regarding school budget. Finland uses “broad autonomy, allowing resident administrators to make the calls regarding budget,” states Kevin Dickinson, a reporter from We Forum, an international body recognized by the Swiss authorities. Although both countries utilize the same budget managing method, Finland is able to produce better results with less cost. In a 2015 report from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Finland spent $9,305 per student from primary education, while the U.S. spent $11,727.
“We are spending less money than average for developed countries, much less than the United States. We spend less time, but the learning achievements are high,” says Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert and the director of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “You put more money and more time there, but the outcome, the achievements are less.”
To save money, pay cuts have been implemented. SCUSD teachers are moving to other districts to find employers who are willing to pay them more, after failing to sway the district in a series of strikes and strike threats.
“That’s why the [student-to-teacher] ratio is so high,” explains McCarthy. Hiring teachers is not an option either.
“School districts are the ones supplying schools with teachers. Hiring additional teachers will use up the site budget and teachers cost roughly $100,000,” says David Van Natten, principal of John F. Kennedy High School. “We only have five empty classrooms.”
Low numbers of teachers are not the only source of the skewered student-to-teacher ratio. A high student population is also a cause.
Courses and extracurriculars are also funded by the school district and, as a result of budget cuts, art and music classes typically suffer the most. Without a variety of courses and extracurriculars, students are not able to maintained immersed in the pursuit of education. In Finland, successful education systems are designed to emphasize “whole-child development, arts, music, drama and physical education,” as important elements of curriculum, as stated by Pasi Sahlberg, professor of education policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and Peter Johnson, director of education of the Finnish city of Kokkola.
These key factors (the student-to-teacher ratio, budget, courses and extracurriculars) make a school a school. It is up to students, teachers, and parents to decide if the U.S. is doing a good job, and whether to act on it.