The study, written by the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that the top two performers develop high-quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts. The report compared literacy rates, school attendance and university graduation rates.
“[In Finland] kids start school later; school hours are shorter than most others; they don’t assign homework; their teachers are in front of kids less. By one estimate, Italians go to school three years longer,” said Robert Schwartz from the Harvard Graduate School of Education of the Finnish system.
The other Nordics lagged far behind Finland in the the global league table. Denmark ranked number 12, Sweden 21 and Norway 26. Schwartz points out that the Finnish system has a reputation for being focused on helping children understand and apply knowledge, not merely repeat it.
According to Schwartz, the PISA data (the OECD's world education ranking) shows that very few Finns take prep lessons. "Those who do typically do worse on standardised tests, suggesting that this is largely remedial help," he said.
Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia ranked at the lowest end of the table of 40 countries. But while income matters, culture may matter more—that is the level of support for education.
No magic bullets
The Asian education system drew high marks on the list, with Finland being the only western country in the top five.
“Respect for teachers, for example, is ingrained in certain cultures such as those in Finland and South Korea,” states the Pearson report, which also says that the two countries “seem to have few similarities other than high academic achievement.”
Researchers also emphasised the importance of good teachers. According to the report, “having a better one is statistically linked not only to higher income later in life but to a range of social results including lower chances of teenage pregnancy and a greater tendency to save for their own retirement.”
The full report is available here.