In an interesting post on teacher evaluation, E. D. writes:
The most successful education system in the world is probably Finland’s, and they have made teaching standards and credentials more exclusive and exacting, not less. In a system that is 100% unionized, Finnish teachers write their own tests and use them as guides for students who may need additional help. Teachers have autonomy and collaborate with one another extensively. They have a strong, standard curriculum and lots of flexibility in how to teach. Teachers are considered professionals in the same class as doctors and lawyers. I know everyone invokes Finland – but there’s a reason for that. If Finland is a shining example of how to do public education right, then America is fast becoming a cautionary tale.
I actually spent three years in Helsinki, and while I didn’t attend Finnish schools, I think my experience is instructive. The Finnish public education system is undeniably great. I suppose it’s possible that Finnish schools are successful because every teacher is unionized and formal credentials are extremely important. But here’s an alternative hypothesis.
In middle school, I used Helsinki’s wonderful public transportation system all the time, often unsupervised. Metro and train conductors rarely – if ever – checked my tickets. You might find this hard to believe, but the entire system basically ran on an honor code.
Relatedly, Finland and other Nordic countries routinely rank at the top of international good governance indices. I strongly suspect many of the same factors that discourage corruption and foster effective government allow foreign kids to ride the train in and out of Helsinki unsupervised. I also think that these factors contribute to a thriving public school system.
Small, homogeneous countries enjoy high levels of social trust and cooperation that engender effective public services. In an extremely smart post I frequently think back on, Will Wilkinson made a point about confusing outcomes contingent on culture and outcomes contingent on the architecture of public policy:
Suppose you have a super-cooperative, high-trust society. This is the kind of society where the need for coercion to solve collective action problems is least necessary. Voluntary civil society associations will thrive. But if you’ve got the super-cooperative, high trust conditions for a thriving voluntary civil society, you’ve also got the conditions for a really effective government in which corruption will be minimal and power will tend not to be abused. If there are limits to non-coercive social coordination even in super-cooperative, high-trust societies, states in those kinds of societies will tend to do a pretty good job in deploying coercion responsibly to secure the otherwise foregone gains from successful collective action.
So: The world in which there is little need for state coercion, states will tend to be pretty effective and non-abusive. And worlds in which states work pretty well are worlds where states don’t need to do all that much. Reduce the level of cooperativeness and trust, and the quality of government gets worse. But then civil society gets worse, too. So whatever you want, whether it be good government or a flourishing voluntary civil society, you want the conditions for the other thing.
In other words, Finland would have a successful education system even if teachers received a pittance and every school was privately-run. To be clear, this isn’t an exercise in partisan point-scoring – conservatives love to tout Swedish vouchers as a model for school reform. But again, that system probably functions because the kids being educated are Swedish, not because vouchers magically enhance students’ learning ability.
I wrote a confused post a few days ago that reflects my own frankly conflicted views on the implications of all this. On the one hand, conceding that factors beyond our control dictate student achievement suggests that we should radically scale back our commitment to public education and reinvest that money elsewhere. On the other hand, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that society – particularly our society, which prides itself on a strongly meritocratic tradition – has some deeper obligation to provide educational opportunities to everyone.
So what are the policy implications of this thinking? Culture matters, but it’s really difficult to overcome barriers to learning from outside the classroom. My proposed solution – if you can call it that – is straightforward: Embrace a radically-decentralized approach to public schooling that gives states and localities wide latitude to experiment with students, teachers, and curricula. Forget about national standards, let a thousand flowers bloom, and hope that someone, somewhere hits upon a way to overcome cultural barriers to student achievement. Absent a solution to underlying problems that are at once amorphous and intractable, the best alternative – at least in my mind – is to keep trying different approaches until something starts working.