International comparisons of school systems have become a sport, maybe not so universally engaging as the Olympics, but still of high interest to policy makers in education. There are many reasons to question the assumptions behind these comparisons and the way that they are carried out. Nevertheless, they give a rough indication of how school systems are doing in relative to one another.
For example, OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that the best performing countries do much better than the worst. Moreover, the same countries are perennial leaders: Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea. But there may be a flaw as serious as any Olympics scandal—a case of cheating!
Laat year, McKinsey, a major consulting company, asked “why?”—why do some school systems produce students who regularly perform so well on international tests? They issued a report: How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top.
There were a number of interesting findings. One was that Finland, which regularly tops the list, has largely dispensed with national examinations. They have no formal reviews and keep the results of informal audits confidential. They devote their school days to teaching and learning.
Meanwhile, the US is on an ever-expanding testing binge. A study from QED found that over a quarter of teachers report spending more than an hour a day preparing students for standardized tests. Nearly half of teachers believe standardized tests negatively impact student learning. More than three-quarters of teachers report being evaluated based on student test scores, even though they rank this as the least effective method.
An increasing percentage of class time is now spent testing students. A much bigger portion is spent preparing for the tests. And to a large extent the entire curriculum has been devoted to testing in just reading and basic mathematics.
The net result is that US students don’t have the same opportunity to learn that students in Finland have. While Finnish students engage in critical thinking, reasoning, arts, science, history, and much more, ours in the US spend time being tested or drilling on basic skills to prepare for the test.
So, my question is: Is it fair to compare Finnish and US schools? Of course, Finnish students can do better if they spend more time learning. But isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t they have to be tested just as much? Shouldn’t the teachers and principals there be subject to the same score-driven evaluations? Shouldn’t their curriculum be restricted just like ours?
International comparisons make no sense if Finland is allowed to maintain a system built around highly-qualified, well-supported teachers (as McKinsey shows), a full curriculum, and a valuing of learning, while the US requires its schools to dumb-down to the misleadingly named “No Child Left Behind.” Let’s level the playing field and make it equally hard for Finnish students to learn!
Tom Chapin’s Not on the Test offers a musical version of this argument.