We Know Better (Part I): No Need for Competition!

Over the past few years or so, and with increasing frequency, international comparisons have been made about student achievement, and thus, the quality of schools, across the globe. The American response to these comparisons reflects two very different perspectives.

On one hand, our lawmakers have used these comparisons to note the weaknesses of our system. They then propose reform efforts that race to the top in order to leave no child behind. Over the last 10 years, we have watched how our policymakers have moved from looking at student achievement to looking at individual states and now to individual schools and teachers. In Michigan we went from the Michigan Curriculum Framework to Grade-Level Content Expectations (GLCEs) and now to the Common Core State Standards in less than 20 years. The Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), our measure of quality, has morphed over the last decade, reflecting these changing standards. Now, we anticipate yet another standardized test, one that is computer adaptive, that will allow us to make comparisons across the states involved in the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium. Meanwhile across the nation, additional tests are imposed that aim to measure the progress of schools and teachers as they make these substantial improvements so that we can be at the top of the world. Billions of dollars have been  given to individual states and to individual schools who have shown great promise in reform efforts, that have reduced achievement gaps.

These well-intentioned and obscenely-funded reform efforts have missed the mark. Policymakers, so impatient, so quick to blame, and so intent to put the United States at the top of the world, have lost sight of some very valuable insight provided by these top-achieving countries. This competitive mind-set allows for decisions to be made that are not in the best interest of our schools.

Educators, on the other hand, have looked at this from a very different lens. We have sent observers and researchers to places such as Finland, in order to see what is happening in the schools. Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, and many teaching experts and educational advocates have already described these school systems and what makes them successful. It takes only a Google search of "Finland education" to see that many have reported on these aspects. From a science perspective to the business industry, we have some powerful and consistent evidence on why Finland's reform efforts have been so successful and student achievement remains the top of the world.

The disconnect between the educators and policymakers, basically what we know and what we do, is daunting. For the sake of this post, I am going to limit what Finland has taught us to two simple ideas.

First, the Finnish educational system did not set out to be "The Best" in the world; instead, they sought to provide "The Best" educational experience for every child, regardless of region, background, and any other factor that is used to excuse low achievement.

Oh, we Americans with our short attention spans and competitive natures. When the US continued to fare so low in international comparisons that the test scores got the attention of our policymakers, we immediately formed task forces and subcommittees. The appalling inequities of our educational systems had been ignored for decades. It was only until the spotlight was directed to US schools scoring lower in international comparisons that we began the race. Finland was probably uninterested in how it stood globally, as the efforts were on Finnish schools and children. I heard once that when Finnish school reformers set out to make substantive changes in their educational systems, they used the research that was already conclusive on effective schools. No additional moneys or committees were needed to determine the best direction, as plenty of evidence existed that provided that direction. This brings me to the second idea.

Finland's educational reform efforts did not change with leadership, politics, or conventional wisdom; these efforts are more than 40 years old.

Compare that to the US educational reform efforts that are renamed, discarded, generated, revamped, and replaced after failing to give many current efforts adequate time to see how and if they are working. In my almost 30-year career in education, I have seen fads come and go, entrepreneurs rise and fall, and standards and assessments change so many times. We latch onto the latest and greatest and the glitz and the glam.  We learn new terms that become the rage, from "curriculum mapping" and "differentiated instruction" to "formative assessments" and "flipped classrooms." This is not to suggest these ideas are not powerful ways to improve the educational experience of students. Finland began an endeavor that made fundamental changes in the business of schools. If curriculum mapping or flipped classrooms helped the progress toward these fundamental changes, I am sure they became tools and strategies that were incorporated toward the end goal. A key issue here is that Finland had an end goal, and nothing detracted from the progress of that goal, despite four decades of reform work.

Recently I saw an article with a headline similar to this: What Will Finland Do Next? My response? Finland will probably do nothing other than stay the course; that is, to work toward providing the best education for every student, regardless.

In order to make fundamental changes in the American educational system that lead to increased student achievement, we need to replace the scoreboard mentality for an abundant one, one that believes that not only is a high quality educational system attainable, but also that it will be available for every student in this country, regardless. Once we adopt this mentality, we need to step away from the microwave and know this effort will not bring immediate gratification. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who seek profit and fame in this process. The hard work will be done by those who have our children at the heart and at the forefront of any reform effort.

Quick fixes have done nothing more than further erode our educational systems. Long-term, sustained efforts toward a clear vision of student success is the way we bring fundamental changes in American schools.

We already know what to do. After all, we are the ones we've been waiting for.


  1. Well said Jem! I'm getting pretty tired of the comparisons as well. When these legislators (some of which are products of this "broken" system) walk the halls daily and watch the profound affect that our schools have on our kids then they can judge.

  2. Nice job, Jen! It is interesting that Finland has only one summative standardized test for students in their ENTIRE career! Just think of all the resources that could be freed up in the U.S. if there was only ONE test! There is no evidence or data that shows that the U.S. has ever had any long-term, sustained efforts. That would be one cycle to break!


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