General Education

How the Rest of the World Learns

How the Rest of the World Learns
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Adam D'Arpino July 21, 2014

Despite all the effort schools in the U.S. put to encourage high standardized testing scores, other countries are thriving at cultivating high-scoring students.

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You’ve probably heard that when it comes to primary education, the United States is falling behind. The facts mostly back up this assertion.

In 2012 the United States finished near the middle of the pack of 64 countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tested 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science. While American students’ test scores are lagging behind, different education structures across the globe are helping international students excel in standardized testing.

Education structures and outcomes vary for a huge number of reasons, including culture, history, and infrastructure. You might wonder “How is compulsory education different in other countries?” Here’s a brief outline of six different systems across the globe.


In Brazil school is mandatory for students between the ages of 6 and 14 for 200 days a year, which is a bit higher than the United States average of 180. However the school days are generally shorter due to the high population and limited resources. The mandatory length of a school day is just four hours, although there’s been a movement towards full school days in different parts of the country over the last few years. The school year generally runs from February to June and from August to December, although there’s some variation since the climate varies so widely across the country.


Canada may have one of the most impressive public education systems in the world, outpacing the USA in test scores for science, math and reading. Like the USA, their primary public schooling system runs from September to late June, and is mostly overseen by a combination of provincial and local governments with 180 school days in the year. However there are some differences between the American and Canadian systems, particularly on a province-to-province basis. Ontario recently made a push for full day kindergarten, and in Quebec schooling ends in 11th grade.


Finland has one of the most unorthodox (and successful) primary school systems in the world. Students start at 7, incredibly late by comparison to other industrialized countries, and school is largely homework free until the early teenage years. According to a New York Times article on Finnish education, the nation largely views the high demands placed on kids in other countries to be “a violation of children’s right to be children.” Primary education lasts from age seven until age sixteen, where for the first six years the students aren’t graded. School days range between five to seven “lesson hours.” It might sound a bit lax, but their system has proven results. Finland frequently ranks at or near the top of European education surveys.


Japan’s compulsory education system, which has nearly perfect enrollment throughout the country, requires six years of elementary education and three years of junior secondary education. At school, in addition to traditional coursework in areas like history and science, students partake in distinctly Japanese art forms like calligraphy and haiku. School years are generally around 200 days total, and run on a trimester term with breaks for summer, new year, and spring break.


The most populous country in Africa, Nigeria is currently struggling to meet its citizens increasing demand for public education. Primary school (grades 1-6) and junior secondary school (grades 7-9) are compulsory in Nigeria, although according to UNESCO one in five Nigerian children are out of school and less than fifty percent are enrolled in junior or senior secondary education. School years generally run from September to July with a mid year break similar to the United States, or run from January to December with three 10 -12 week trimesters.


Currently Shanghai’s education system is the envy of the world in terms of standardized testing. Shanghai’s students rank at the top of all three categories of the 2012 PISA. Education is heavily emphasized in this Chinese coastal city. The day generally lasts around eight hours, but students crowd after-school tutoring sessions to prepare for standardized tests and exams. Students also spend more days at school compared to their American and European counterparts, with the average student spending 245 days a year in school. Chinese law guarantees the right to six years of primary education starting around age 6, but the quality of education varies wildly between rural and urban areas.


Barboza, D. (2010, December 29). Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests. The New York Times. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from The New York Times

Brazil: Encouraging Lessons from a Large Federal System. (n.d.). Pearson Foundation. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from Pearson Education

Clark, N. (2013, July 1). Education in Nigeria. WENR. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from WENR

The Finnish PISA 2006. (n.d.). PISA. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from PISA

Full-Day Kindergarten. (n.d.). What else do I need to know? Ontario Ministry of Education. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from Ontario Ministry of Education

Layton, L. (2013, December 3). U.S. students lag around average on international science, math and reading test. Washington Post. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from the Washington Post

Singmaster, H. (n.d.). Shanghai: The World’s Best School System. Asia Society. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from Asia Society

Structure of schools. (n.d.). Government du Canada, Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada, Communications. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from Government of Canada

Wei, K. (2014, February 23). Copying the long Chinese school day could have unintended consequences. The Conversation. Retrieved July 11, 2014, from The Conversation

World Data on Education. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2014, from United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization


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