Doubts about education "reform"
By Scott Sumner
I’m skeptical of most proposals for reforming education. Progressives tend to favor government schools, whereas conservatives tend to favor an approach that yields high test scores. I don’t buy either view.
American education reformers often point to Finland, which has produced high “PISA” scores relative to other western countries. (They tend ignore even higher Asian PISA scores, just as they ignore Singapore’s success in health care. Apparently only European models are useful for the US. ) But now Finland seems to be abandoning its own highly successful model, and its scores are falling:
Here they describe the recent changes:
Finland’s decline may make the wonks who rushed to copy its schools seem silly. But looking deeper there are still lessons to learn from Finland’s example. Despite the country having a reputation for cuddly teaching, it used to take a slightly more hardline approach. In 1996, four years before the first batch of pisa results, a group of British researchers visited the country. They found “whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher…We have moved from school to school and seen almost identical lessons—you could have swapped the teachers over and children would not have noticed the difference.” As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, an economist, has noted, most of the children who scored so highly in the first round of tests would have experienced this sort of schooling.
By the time the results came out, many Finnish schools had started to move in a very different direction, confounding touring policymakers. A forthcoming study by Aino Saarinen and colleagues at the Universities of Helsinki and Oulu analyses pisa data from 2012 and 2015, finding that children in schools which gave pupils more freedom to direct their own learning had lower scores in maths and science. Those from poor and migrant families suffered the most. Eschewing the possibility of a happy midpoint between reading from a textbook and leaving children to their own devices, schools have continued to experiment in the years since. A wave of new institutions are being built without classrooms. A new curriculum, which began to be introduced in 2016, encourages lessons without defined subjects.
So now what? Are we to adopt the Finnish system of 1996? Why not the South Korean or Singaporean system?
In my view, we put far too much weight on test scores. In many East Asian countries there is a relentless drive to get high test scores, in order to get into top schools. Kids are deprived of a real childhood. That’s even affecting the US system to some extent. This competition for top schools is a sort of “arms race” with little societal benefit. Bryan Caplan has shown that much of education covers topics with little practical value.
I’d like to see the educational system focus more on entertainment and less on rote memorization. More importantly, I’d like to see us reduce the importance of education by cutting back on public spending and ending occupational licensing requirements that force workers to get credentials of little value for the career they plan to pursue.
We could save lots of money by eliminating public schools and replacing them with a voucher system at roughly half the cost per pupil. Let private schools take these vouchers and engage in non-price competition for students. Those who want something “better” can purchase gold-plated schooling out of their own pockets.