Monday, October 17, 2016

Apples to Oranges

Lately I've been seeing a lot of videos and stories show up in my Facebook feed that are intended to show how much better other countries do things than the US. They're supposed to shame us into making ourselves better. While I think it's great to look at what other countries do and think about how we could improve things in our own country, comparing our country to countries that aren't like us isn't really productive. I've compiled some information to show why.

The first one of these comparisons I've seen recently is with the Finnish school system. Finland is reputed to have one of the best school systems in the world. Of course the US would like to be the holder of that title. But let's look at what's different about Finland that makes it possible for them to have such good schools. Finland has a population of approximately five and a half million people. It's the most sparsely populated member nation in the European Union. Their largest city, Helsinki, only has a population of a little over a million residents. The United States has over 300 million residents. The largest city in the US has a population nearly 1.5 times the population of the entire country of Finland. Right there, it's much easier to have a good school system when you have fewer people to educate. Finland also has a much less racially and ethnically diverse population than the US. Nearly everyone in Finland belongs to the same religious group as well. It's also much easier to have a good school system when most of the students and teachers are from the same cultural and spiritual background and speak the same language. In Finland schools are managed by municipalities. Private schools are rare. Kids don't often attend preschool, and after high school they're just as likely to go to a vocational school as to college. All of that reflects an entirely different attitude toward how schools are operated and what their purpose in society is when compared to the US. And probably one of the most important differences: the personal tax rate in Finland is around 50%. The Finns have a lot more money to spend per capita on education than we do in the United States.

So how would we like to make our schools more like schools in Finland? First we have to change the public attitude toward teachers, and then what's our next step - higher taxes? Reduce immigration? Force all immigrants to speak only English and convert to Christianity?

Now we'll go on to the next "let's be like them!" post I've seen. This one is about how Germany recycles 65% of its garbage. Let's look at this. I think we all know that Germany is a smaller country in both land mass and population than the US. One of the things this means for Germans is that people who live in rural areas aren't that far away from a population center. Consequently it's probably not that difficult for German citizens to have recycling pickup or a recycling center in their neighborhoods. In the US there are rural areas that are hundreds of miles away from population centers. Here in the US, most garbage and recycling is handled by private corporations. Can you imagine how much it would cost residents in remote rural areas to have recycling from a company that had to drive a 200-mile round trip to make a weekly pickup? And we know that if the people have to transport the material to the recycling center themselves, it's not going to happen. What rural residents can afford to drive even 50 or 100 miles a week just to get rid of their recyclables? The highest poverty rates in the US are in rural communities. Even if recycling was handled by municipalities, it wouldn't help rural residents. Low population density and low per capita income would mean that many rural communities simply couldn't afford to pay for the service.

The only way the US is going to have a 65% recycling rate is if it's government-enforced and probably government-operated, and if urban residents are willing to be taxed for the service provided to rural residents. And on top of the financial and logistical considerations we'd need a major change in public attitudes, to convince people that recycling is an essential social responsibility, like feeding kids. We're not doing so well at convincing people they ought to feed kids, so it's hard to see how we could convince people they ought to recycle.

None of the above is meant to say that we can't achieve the same results as Finland and Germany. I think we can. But we need to remember that the United States is not like those countries, and what made their successes possible isn't necessarily going to work for us. Let's also remember that we don't know where these stories get their figures. Maybe Germany only recycles at a 65% rate in major urban centers. What basis are they using for claiming that Finnish schools are better? Graduation rates? Test scores? Are we sure those are the figures we want to use to measure success?

It's good to look to these countries as inspiration, but we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to them. It's like comparing apples to oranges.

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