07/12/2013 10:23 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Cultivating a Culture of Education

When disillusioned Americans take a glance at our school system and see it for the steaming pile of crap that it is, they are quick to offer advice -- advice that each believes more original, insightful, and ingenious than the last. To many, the solution seems both simple and obvious.

Democrats want to throw money at public schools. Republicans support charter schools and voucher programs, and want to destroy teachers unions. Both offer mostly useless ideas as to how to encourage healthy competition, provide schools with adequate resources, ensure the effectiveness of teachers and give parents options when it comes to picking a school for their child. But despite the continual debate between the parties and a pretty significant increase in education spending over the last 40 years, schools have hardly improved and overall graduation rates have barely increased.

In recent years, policymakers have repeatedly looked into the secrets behind the effectiveness of the education systems in Finland and South Korea, which rank number one and two respectively in education in the world. But in all likelihood, any attempt to emulate either system would end in failure. First of all, each country has achieved success with entirely different, if not polar opposite systems.

For example, in Finland, education is free from a young age, and low-income college students are offered monthly stipends to attend university. That's right. Some students are paid to go to college. In Korea, schools can be quite expensive, and parents spend an incredible amount of money to send their children to after-school academies and "cram schools" for test prep, in addition to paying highly for private tutors.

In Finland, standardized testing is very rare, as it is not considered an accurate measurement of achievement. In Korea, from elementary school through high school, students spend their lives preparing for the College Scholastic Ability Test, the single test that is thought to determine their future success. (The amount of stress students endure in preparation for this test is thought to have contributed to the high rate of suicide among students).

Finnish education is about equality, and is seen as an investment in the future of the country. Korean education is extremely competitive, and like the US, is considered a means of achieving personal success.

The list goes on, but the point is clear. In many respects, Finnish and Korean education could not be less alike. But there is one essential quality both cultures share. So what is this secret to each country's apparent success? Well, both are small countries with homogeneous populations. Both have very scientific languages that make achieving literacy less of a chore. Both are somewhat nationalistic and view military service as a sort of rite of passage into manhood. But most of all, both have great pride in their school systems and have cultures that emphasize the value of education. And the fact is, we don't.

As much as we as Americans would like to think that we value education, the evidence is lacking. Before education, American culture prioritizes individualism, competition, money and happiness. The Finnish and Korean cultures of education manifest themselves in different ways.

Finland sees schooling as a basic human right and expect its citizens to use their learning to better both themselves and their communities. Korea values meritocracy and views education as inextricably bound to future success. The US sees education as a means to an end: namely, money and a good career. Finland views education as an end in itself. Korea regards it as the means to an end, thus putting a huge emphasis on working hard, because it is believed that any lack of talent or skill can always be overcome with extra effort.

In contrast, Americans believe there are a variety of ways of achieving the American Dream, and education is just one of many possible paths. Our media reflects a culture that embraces fame, fortune and flashy lifestyles at the expense of education. We idolize our sports stars, musicians, actors and celebrities over our scientists, businessmen, academics and educators.

It is not difficult to view the effects of different values in a country as multicultural as the US. Examining the success of Asian immigrants in American society is particularly fascinating. Statistics show that Asian-American students graduate from high school and college at a significantly higher rate than their white, black and Hispanic peers. They also have the lowest rate of unemployment, earn a higher median income and hold a disproportionate amount of the highest-paying jobs.

Studies have shown that the children of immigrants who don't speak English struggle to do as well in school as their classmates. Regardless, Asian-American students often outperform their white peers in reading and writing. Additionally, white and black children from low-income families tend to be less successful than white and black kids from middle-class families. Asian-American kids, however, perform at similar levels regardless of family income.

The fact is, Asian immigrants have demonstrated that it is far from impossible to overcome language barriers and poverty in order to achieve success in the US. There is nothing special about these students, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the ones who are underachieving. The only difference is a family environment and culture that puts a strict emphasis on the importance of hard work and education.

That being said, there is very little our institutions can do to fix education for underachievers because the root of the problem lies in the family environment. The students who do best in school are the ones who have parents who are involved in their education and create cognitively stimulating home environments. These are factors that are unlikely affected by public policy. Offering teachers higher pay and giving them more autonomy in the classroom as the Finns do, or extending class hours and testing students more rigorously as the Koreans do, will not improve our schools until we fix our families and cultivate a culture of education.