Wednesday, October 12, 2011

All Hail Finland?

I enjoyed this article on Finland:

All Hail Finland?

October 6, 2011 – 8:00 am | By Neerav Kingsland | No comments yet

Everyone is talking about Finland's education system (here, here, here – forget it, just google "Finland is awesome" and you'll see what I mean). Steve Peha jumped into the fray on this space yesterday.

People talk about Finland for good reason: Finland is amongst the highest-performing education systems in the world.

So what can the USA learn from Finland? And just as important, what should we be careful about trying to transplant?

Be Wary of Glib International Comparisons: Confusing the Best Existing System with the Optimal

Imagine if the founding fathers had looked across the globe for best practices in governance when developing our democracy. By measures of economic performance, England looked pretty great – so what if we had just split from them and adopted their governance model. All hail King Washington. The lesson here: the best existing system may not be the optimal system. Of course, plenty of things may be learned from other countries (thank you France), but wholesale adoption of the best existing system may not lead to the optimal solution.

#1 Limitation of Finland's Model: Government Creates a Performance Ceiling

The United States teacher recruitment and development strategy is this: take the bottom third of college graduates and place them in poorly functioning governmental school systems. The Finnish model is this: take the top third of college graduates and place them in decently functioning governmental school systems. The Finnish model is clearly better. However, here's a potentially better model: take the top third of graduates and place them in a dynamic and entrepreneurial setting where educators can thrive. The Finnish model is better than ours, but it's probably not the best.

The Fin-America Solution: Talent + Entrepreneurship

So here's an idea: What if we can take what Finland does best (recruit and train excellent educators) with what the USA does best (support entrepreneurs to solve tough problems via innovation)?

Well, we have an idea of the results we can get when this strategy is executed: KIPP, which is amongst the nation's top school operators, has a teaching force that consists of 30 percent Teach For America alumni, an organization that recruits from the top third of graduates. Skeptical? Don't be. Even Diane Ravitch admires KIPP!

But KIPP will never serve all of our students, and Teach For America will never train all of our nation's teachers (though their cousin organizations might fifty years from now if regulations allow). So to achieve our Fin-America solution, two near-term things need to happen:

1.       Reform Education Schools: Ed schools will need to become as rigorous as medical, law, and engineering schools. Remember, medical schools used to be terrible. In 1910, the Flexner Report criticized the fact that there were too many medical schools, many of which were substandard. Sound familiar? Educations schools need to go through the same transformation medical schools went through in the early 1900s (and that business schools went through mid-century). FYI: As much as I love innovation, my instinct is that ed schools that are held accountable to results will cause more standardization, not less. There is generally one best way to perform knee surgery, so to speak.

2.       Build Charter Districts: I've written before about how charter districts can provide the necessary space that educational entrepreneurs need to accomplish great things for students. New Orleans is our nation's first example of this. The development of more charter districts will bring America's greatest strengths to the education sector. Unlike others — I actually think charter districts will lead to greater standardization of good practice. As with teacher training, de-regulation and accountability will lead to best-practice recognition and adoption more quickly than government fiat. I do admit charter districts could take up to a decade to build in any given city — all the more reason to get started now.

Taken together, these two strategies – the reformation of education schools and the development of charter districts – hold great promise.

Or to put it another way: All Hail Fin-America!

More: For more of our Finapalooza coverage, check out yesterday's blog from guest contributor Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense.

Photo Credit: Tommi Berg

(Guest Contributor Neerav Kingsland is Chief Strategy Officer of New Schools for New Orleans.)

 Subscribe in a reader