Of all the problems with school reform, one of the biggest seems to be the tendency to seek bits of evidence that confirm preconceived notions. Silver bullets, tunnel vision, blind faith—call it whatever you want—somehow, those of us interested in school improvement have to stop searching for THE change. There is no one change that will get the job done.

The whole system has to improve.

Curriculum, materials, instruction, leadership, preparation, and professional development all matter. Funding, facilities, parental involvement, and community support all matter. Health care, nutrition, after school, and summer learning all matter.

Once we give up on searching for the one most important factor, we can make a long-term plan and finally achieve our goals. Just like Finland did.

Huh? Didn’t Finland just tackle teacher quality? Or just minimize assessments? Or just create a strong family welfare system? Or …

No. Unlike the US, Finland spent more than three decades pursuing a coherent, comprehensive improvement plan. But, to put it politely, many reformers eyeing Finland are missing the forest for their favorite trees.

In a recent policy paper, the director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment, Tim Oates, puts it less politely:

Due to myopia and elementary errors in enquiry, what foreign analysts have taken from Finland frequently has amounted to ‘Finnish fairy stories’….

In the course of the 2010 UK Curriculum Review, a number of high-performing jurisdictions were scrutinised for the form and content of their national curriculum specifications. Following its emergence at the top of the first PISA survey in 2000, Finland was included in the countries examined….

The children in PISA 2000 were 15 years of age. We assumed that it was unlikely that 1985 was the first year of the school system being of an interesting form, so we looked back at what was happening in the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1970s. What we found was a period of genuine improvement in educational outcomes and a determined set of reforms to schooling – but what we discovered was that the vast bulk of educational tourists had arrived in Finland 2001 and made a serious error. They got off the plane and asked the Finns about the system in 2000 – not what it was like during the 1970s and 1980s, when standards were rising. During the time of sustained improvement, the system was very different; policy formation was distinctive, the way in which this policy was implemented was distinctive – and very different from the way things were in 2000.

This elementary error of analysis has been compounded by non-Finnish analysts who have asked questions only about the things in which they are interested; they have ‘found’ what they have been looking for, and not understood the importance of things which they have not asked about. Combined together, these two errors have given a very misleading picture of what Finland genuinely appears to have achieved, and how.

 

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Tunnel vision courtesy of Shutterstock.

Oates goes on to explain that Finland’s transformation was centrally planned, implemented, inspected, and evaluated. From teacher preparation to curriculum to school leadership to measurement, the national government was conducting the orchestra. While the US is too large and too different from Finland for national or federal education reform, state leaders could learn a great deal from Finland (and from the one state that undertook a multi-decade, planned reform: Massachusetts).

Putting what some mistake for autonomy into its Finnish context, Oates adds, “Finland has a 120-year history of structured educational reform, using centrally specified curriculum requirements. Far from a history of autonomy, there is a culture of negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.”

Pause there: “negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education.” While it’s easy to focus on the “centrally specified” part, the “negotiated … agreement” is equally important. Perhaps central planning works in Finland because it is actually collective planning. The path forward is neither autonomous nor top down. It’s mutually agreed-upon action.

Finnish educators Pasi Sahlberg and Jukka Sarjala see such agreement as essential. They trace Finland’s educational improvement to the new consensus that emerged after Finland was devastated in World War II. Finland never tried to attain the highest scores; it built an education system devoted to supporting democracy, ensuring economic sustainability, achieving equality, and increasing cooperation. It saw centrally planned, consensus-driven curriculum, materials, teacher preparation, assessments, and family supports as necessary elements. And it recognized that systematic changes would take many years and much support.

Such comprehensive, collective transformation would be a struggle in any US state (perhaps that’s why none has followed in Massachusetts’s high-performing footsteps). But there’s no solid evidence that anything less is effective at scale.

3 comments on “Seeking Confirmation”

  1. 1
    Susan Toth on July 10, 2015

    Lisa, your useful account should be common sense, but there is none in our educational mindset. Instead, we have accepted the illusion that education–knowledge–is individual and local. It seems to me that, as a society, we have a very poor understanding of what education should do for the children, as well as for the nation.

  2. 2
    Miss Friday on July 16, 2015

    “Of all the problems with school reform, one of the biggest seems to be the tendency to seek bits of evidence that confirm preconceived notions.”

    In the skeptical world, this practice is called “cherry picking” and it is one of the favorite tactics of pseudo-science.

    Which leads me to a thought.

    While reading Dan Willingham’s “When Can You Trust the Experts”, it struck me: Teachers are just like physicians were back in the 11th century, when disease was thought to be caused by elves and spirits. We see achievement and try to replicate it. Sometimes it works, most of the time it does not. We have no idea how or why. We are not really sure what learning is exactly and how it interacts with teaching. It’s a huge mess. Neuroscience is just beginning to tease out some basics. But let’s face it…

    We’re nowhere. And in the void science has not yet filled, we are left with 11th century-style superstition, mysticism, and pseduo-science.

  3. 3
    Susan Toth on July 16, 2015

    Perhaps not enough is known about learning and teaching to enable us to offer a perfect educational structure. But enough is known to do better than the existing structure. It is not ignorance that holds us back, and we do not need to wait for science to provide an answer. We need to pay attention to what experience and the humanities teach. As you pointed out, Lisa.

    I think that Amanda Ripley contributes to the discussion with her book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.” (No capitals on the book cover!)

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