As the Washington Monthly explains in its current cover package, the American dream—the notion of equal opportunity for all, the chance to make something of yourself—is dying.

This is not news to anyone who follows comparative national studies.

Consider what Ed Miliband, the popular British Labour leader—and would-be Prime Minister—said to a conference on social mobility last year: “If you are born poor in a more equal society like Finland, Norway, or Denmark, then you have a better chance of moving into a good job than if you are born poor in the United States.”

This is a sad, depressing state of affairs for the U.S. and is becoming more true every day.
Recently, President Obama told a group of high school students in Brooklyn that other countries are working every day to out-educate and out-compete us “every year brings more research that shows them pulling ahead.”

All the studies back him up. Today, American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to be stuck there, compared to the opportunities available in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Only 8 percent of Americans born into the lowest fifth of the income scale will move up to the top fifth. In Finland and many other European countries, upward mobility is closer to 14 percent. The U.S. now ranks 8th in the world, a far cry from where we once were.
The reason is obvious: Our education system is static and falling behind other advanced countries—an economic time bomb. American students rank 37th, behind such countries—in math, the basic sciences and even languages.

Whereas Finland is an educational superpower, the best in the west, according to the PISA studies of 470,000 15-year-old students from 65 countries, (conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
And American adults do not fare much better. U.S. workers trail their counterparts in other advanced nations on basic competence and workplace skills.

A recent study of 166,000 adults, ages 16 to 65 in twenty-four countries, found that the United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology.
The 2013 PISA study of adults measured cognitive and workplace skills needed for people to participate in society and for national economies to prosper.

Older Americans—in the 55 to 65 age group—scored higher than their foreign counterparts. But in the 45 to 54 age group, American skills were merely average, and, among younger people 25-45, American skills clearly lagged behind those in other countries.

As our population ages, we are falling further and further behind, comparatively, and the literacy skills of our young people, now entering the labor market, are no better than those workers about to retire. This is in contrast with other countries that have rushed to educate their students. The problem going forward is we live in a global economy and international companies don’t care where they find educated people to hire.

Once upon a time this would have been shocking. Not so long ago America had the best school system in the world and the best access to education. Land grant colleges created the largest, most educated middle class in human history, which, in turn, led to world supremacy in education, civil liberties, social mobility, science, medicine, and a host of other areas.

But no longer. Newsweek in 2010 found that Finland was the “best” country in the world after examining living conditions in more than a 100 countries.

The magazine measured factors such as education, health care, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.

Finishing after Finland were Switzerland and Sweden. The United States was in 11th place. The analysis of educational systems used factors such as the international PISA studies, as well as measures of efficiency and the educational level of the population at large. In this, Finland was in first place, followed by a tie between South Korea and Canada.

The Washington think tank, the Fund for Peace, which is famous for studying and ranking failed nations, found that Finlandis the world’s most “successful” country socially, economically and politically.

A recent UN report ranked Finland the
second happiest country in the world, behind Denmark, based on wealth, political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption. The U.S. ranked 17th in national happiness among 156 countries evaluated for the UN Gallup World Poll. America lagged way behind Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, and Costa Rica, but fared better than France and Japan. From 2012 to 2013, the U.S. fell from 11th to 17th.

Happiness is important. Happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens.

Happiness scores tend to be tied into crime rates and rankings of economic inequality. The larger the gap between the one-percenters and the have-nots, the less happiness there is and the more crimes that will be committed.

Economic inequality also leads to shorter life expectancy and worse heath—for both the poor and, strangely, the rich. But the poor are hit harder.

Equality Leads to Excellence

Why do Finnish students achieve such extraordinarily high educational scores? Finnish journalist Anu Partanen tried to answer this question writing in The Atlantic, “Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the programme that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equality.” Finland rivals East Asian educational hothouses such as Singapore and South Korea, but without those countries’
high-pressure homework expectations.

In Finland, Partanen says, there are no nationally standardized tests, inspections or league tables, no private schools or private universities, and no fees. Competition is frowned upon; co-operation is king. The Finns cultivate great teachers and they are respected and well paid.
The country is conspicuously equal in other arenas, too. It was, for instance, the first in the world to give women the vote in 1906, 12 years before the U.K. and 14 years before the U.S. A century later, in 2009, the nation that gave us Nokia was the first to enshrine internet broadband as a fundamental human right. The government promised every Finnish citizen access to a 100mbps high speed connection by 2015.

Finnish per capita national income is not too shabby—around $46,000 per year, according the World Bank.

Unlike the U.S., Finland is a small country with homogeneous population of just under six million. But its commitment to economic and educational equality has produced tremendous results and a contented citizenry. (Other Nordic countries have achieved the same excellence.) But Finland’s successes may harbor powerful lessons which can help the U.S. make up a fast growing educational gap.

Education is essential in preparing the next generation for competition in a shrinking world marketplace said President Obama, and he singled out the special Brooklyn school, known as P-Tech, as a ticket into the middle class.

“This country should be doing everything in our power to give more kids the chance to go to schools just like this one. In previous generations, America’s standing economically was so much higher than everybody else’s that we didn’t have a lot of competition,” he said.

“Now, you’ve got billions of people from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all of whom are competing with you directly. And they’re — those countries are working every day, to out-educate and out-compete us.”

Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood , formerly on the staff of the New York Times, has written for New York Magazine, the New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, the Atlantic, and the Washington Monthly.