Phi Beta Cons

The U.S. Is Not Shanghai or Finland

I’ve written before about the perils of interpreting international disparities in test scores as evidence of disparities in educational quality. Diane Ravitch has a must-read post on that topic today.

Here’s a teaser, but read the whole thing:


Consider the two top contenders on PISA: Shanghai and Finland. These two places — one a very large city of nearly 21 million, the other a small nation of less than six million — represent two very different approaches to education. The one thing they have in common is that neither of the world leaders in education is doing what American reformers propose.

According to the OECD, the international group that sponsors PISA, the schools of Shanghai — like those in all of China — are dominated by pressure to get higher scores on examinations. . . .

OECD points out that more than 80 percent of students in Shanghai attend after-school tutoring. It remarked on the academic intensity of Chinese students. Non-attention is not tolerated. . . .


Finland is at the other end of the educational spectrum. Its education system is modeled on American progressive ideas. It is student-centered. It has a broad (and non-directive) national curriculum. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 percent of university graduates. They are highly educated and well prepared. Students never take a high-stakes test; their teachers make their own tests. The only test they take that counts is the one required to enter university.

Last week, I went to a luncheon with Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. I asked him the question that every politician asks today: “If students don’t take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?” He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for “accountability.” He said, “We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible.”

She takes this as evidence against the current fads in education reform (charter schools, etc.). Fair enough, I suppose, but I think it’s also evidence that we should consider the possibility of bad students as well as bad schools.

Maybe the fact that American kids don’t score as well is related to the fact that there’s no way 80 percent of them — three-eighths of whom are by definition above the average for their peers, and thus doing just fine in school — would take after-school tutoring programs. Shanghai kids make a bigger investment in education — arguably, too high of an investment, considering how much childhood these kids must miss out on. Why is it American schools’ fault if they get higher returns?

Similarly, Finland has a culture in which people will behave well even in the absence of accountability. (We see this also in the fact that its huge welfare state evidently hasn’t reduced its population to government-dependent leeches.) America does not have such a culture, and that’s not our schools’ fault.

Shameless plug: My review of Ravitch’s most recent book is here.



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