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One Size Doesn't Fit All

Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest posting this week.

When I stumbled on an article in The Atlantic a week or so ago entitled "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success," I anticipated--based on the catchy title and the fact that the link was tweeted by a colleague known for her good sense--that it would offer a fresh take on what is rapidly becoming one of education's most tired debates. Perhaps the article was going to argue that "what Americans keep ignoring" is Finland's wildly different size and demographics. At 5.4 million people, roughly the size of Minnesota, Finland's about a two-hundredth the size of the United States in terms of population. Or maybe the piece would argue that Americans are ignoring Finland's different governance structure, which has a stronger tradition of central control compared to our federalism. Or any number of the prudent cautions lucid thinkers such as Steve Peha and Neerav Kingsland (who will be guest blogging here in two weeks!) have brought up recently.

Alas, it was not to be. Rather, what Americans are ignoring about Finland's school success, according to the article, is "the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity." The article then takes turns jabbing at private schools and touting the Finnish view that "Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality." It concludes, "And perhaps even more important--as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform--Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity."

It's worth noting, of course, that many Americans on both sides of the aisle do view education as a way to promote equity--those on the left speaking in terms of "social justice" while those on the right talk about "equality of opportunity."

But there are two more interesting points in the article: first, the subtle implication that choice and competition are anathema to excellence, and second, the idea that if only America would be so wise as to adopt wholesale the Finnish model--with its emphasis on collaboration, its national standards, and its opposition to test-based accountability--then all would be well in our nation's schools.

Yesterday, I addressed the first point with a first insight I've had about education policy over the past two years in the field. I wrote about how such concepts as "choice" and "competition" should be viewed as a mindset, not a list of particular programs, in efforts to improve schooling. Understood properly, such ideas hold great promise to better our education system. Now let's turn to the second point above, and with it a second insight.

Insight 2: One size does not fit all

There's something appealing, on a gut level and especially to certain policy wonks and management consultants, to the idea that we can determine "what works" in a given field and easily replicate it. Want to fix America's ailing school system? Finland's doing great, and students there don't take a standardized test until they leave high school, there's a national curriculum, and they don't have private schools! It's that simple!

Of course, figuring out just which country to imitate can get complicated fast. Shanghai's students are also doing just fine on international assessments, and, the New York Times notes, "Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation." Hard to reconcile Finland's "not taking a standardized test until after high school" with Shanghai's "obsessive test preparation."

The simple truth is that neither approach is inherently correct. It's possible to test too much or too little, naturally, and how the tests are constructed, how the results are used, and so on are crucial design questions often overlooked in the frantic rush to praise, report on, and mimic another country's school system.

A far better approach to improving America's schools than international mimicry is to leverage the unique American make-up, structure, strengths, and insights. The United States is big, in both size and population, with a history of federalism and a robust culture of individual entrepreneurship that's been used to provide an array of goods ranging from smart phones to charter schools. Given such conditions, it's highly unlikely that blindly copying Finland's system would yield much fruit here.

In a nation with our size, preference for local control, and penchant for innovation, certainly our solutions for K-12 schooling need not be limited to what can fit on a glossy, two-page set of recommendations from a consultant's visit overseas. It's hard to not be inspired by the "Dynamism Devotees" in Mike Petrilli's well-written article last summer, who "envision an education marketplace full of can-do problem-solvers, myriad options for parents, and lots of customization for kids."

Such a vision isn't to be flippant about the fact that the "marketplace" in this analysis is made up of children and families, and that "market failures" involve real people and the future of the country in a way, say, the failure of a new laptop to gain market share does not. Rather, it's the recognition that America possesses unique strengths, while acknowledging that what works so well for one country may not for another given different norms, cultures, demographics, governing structures, and the like. One size does not fit all. At the end of the day, the U.S. simply doesn't need to be Finland or Shanghai.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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