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May 1, 2013

Cleaning Up the Education Mess

What the United States can learn from Singapore, Canada and Finland

Sami Simula has something to say about his experiences with the U.S. education system. His two children, in first and fourth grades in Texas, are spending too much time in school, he says. And they are being assigned overly complex tasks.

“My first-grader has a science class,” says Simula, a Ph.D. physicist and president of the U.S. branch of Finland-based Okmetic Oyj, which makes silicon wafers for micro-electro mechanical systems. “Last night, my fourth-grader said she had to answer lots of questions about cardiovascular disease.”

Longer school hours and more science instruction are popular ideas in America’s current debate about education reform, as is the notion that education should be focused more on giving students useful, employable skills, rather than just an understanding of Shakespeare. But from the metals industry to Silicon Valley, a common complaint is that American schools are graduating students who can’t read, write or do math at levels high enough to make them worth hiring.

Simula’s entire formal education, from first grade through his doctorate degree, was in Finland, a nation that far outranks the United States in international measures of education achievement by students in primary and secondary grades. Finnish students spend fewer hours in school than do children in any other industrialized country. But a formal emphasis on science and mathematics did not become part of Finland’s K–12 education reform until the 1990s.

The supply of and demand for brainpower knows no geographic boundaries. Americans are competing with other nations, from giant China to tiny Finland, that are doing a better job of equipping their young people for careers and lives in a knowledge-based, Internet-linked global economy. Simula’s homeland has a population of 5.4 million, about the size of Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses Chicago. “We have forests, and we have brains. We can’t afford to waste any talent,” he says.

Surveys of national education achievement show less than superior performance by American children. Although a few states, most notably Massachusetts, boast high student achievement scores, a widening achievement gap in America is pushing down the nation’s average scores.

“Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, are often used to suggest that we fail badly. But kids who are in affluent states from families that are not in poverty do as well as kids anywhere in the world,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and author of The Flat World and Education. “Particularly in reading, our top-performing states would knock the socks off of any country, but we have this problem of growing inequality.”

 

By the Numbers

The United States ranked 17th in reading attainment and 34th in math among the 65 nations and Chinese provinces in the PISA’s report, published in 2010, based on reading, math and science performance by 15-year-olds.

With equal urgency, conservative and liberal critics of education policy in America cite the PISA report and similar international surveys. Many use the rankings to advance their pet theories, but don’t ask a simple question: What are the higher-ranked nations doing? The answer begins with the three things Finland, Singapore and Ontario, Canada—all with similar population sizes to major metropolitan areas in the United States—aren’t doing:

  • They do not have an education governance structure like America’s 16,000 school districts that impedes comprehensive, large-scale solutions and obscures responsibility. 
  • Unlike the United States, they do not use an assortment of uncoordinated teacher training programs. 
  • They do not support piecemeal approaches, such as charter schools operated by not-for-profit or for-profit organizations, diverting resources that could go to a common public system for all students. 

Finland, Singapore and Ontario began concerted education reform efforts three decades ago. Setting aside the differences among them, broad lessons for the United States can be learned:

  • Make clear, in terms of political power and accountability, who is in charge of educating young people. State and local autonomy may work better than a national solution, but parents and voters need to know who’s responsible.
  • Craft the purpose and agenda for education reform to get support from parents, educators, business leaders and voters. Economic growth, which means higher incomes and better jobs, is a primary purpose stressed by all successful education system reformers.
  • Equalize education—including resources, curriculum and accountability—across all income, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Skew special resources toward the poor, not the rich.
  • In business terminology, think of education as a supply chain or value chain. There’s no point, for example, in merely testing students to evaluate teacher performance if the system tolerates weak standards for selecting, training and motivating teachers.
  • Elevate the teaching career in social status, training and compensation. Recruit top-performing young people into teaching careers and give them reasons to stay. Then rely on the professionalism of career classroom teachers.
  • Most important, expect change to occur over many years, not just through the next election cycle.

Certain reforms that work well in top-performing education systems are difficult, but not impossible, to apply in the United States, says Vivien Stewart, senior education adviser at the Asia Society, a New York, New York-based non-profit founded in 1956 that promotes cooperation between Asia and the United States. School systems around the world are beginning to agree on the primary problems to be solved, she says. For example, no education reformer disputes, in theory, the need to generate the best possible workforce of teachers and school leaders. Singapore and Finland, both highly regarded for the quality of their teachers and administrators, have strict national controls, including high admission and graduation requirements, at their teacher education institutions.

By contrast, K–12 school districts in America have no control over the colleges, universities and other training institutions that supply them with teachers and school administrators, even though local school boards are deemed responsible for educating young people. The result should not be a surprise.

“We should be more selective,” says Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “But the big public universities that prepare our teachers don’t particularly want to reform, because teacher education programs are cash cows. In this country, we prepare twice as many teachers as we need each year. A lot of them are being subsidized with taxpayer money. We have a pretty broken system.” 

In a post-2012-election speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said an overhaul of teacher training is on his second-term to-do list. Existing teacher education programs “are part of the problem,” he said at a meeting of state education officials in November 2012, and that he may propose financial carrots and sticks for reforming teacher education schools in the style of his Race to the Top program for incentivizing America’s primary and secondary schools. 

 

Finland Speaks

Twenty years ago, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer traveled to Finland and called the locals “brooding” and “melancholy.” Today, Finns are animated by the celebrity status of their education system. PISA analysts called Finland “a major international leader in education…. Finnish schools have become a kind of tourist destination, with hundreds of educators and policymakers annually traveling to Helsinki to try to learn the secret of their success.”

Yet a 2010 assessment of global education systems by consultant McKinsey & Co., titled “How the World’s Most Improved Schools Systems Keep Getting Better,” didn’t bother looking at Finland. In a brief endnote, the report’s editors explained, “Only Finland so far has reached ‘excellence’ globally, though several systems studied here are well advanced along the journey towards it.”

Systematic reform began in 1968, with national legislation to create a comprehensive system with a uniform core curriculum for all students from first to ninth grade. The nation abolished its parallel public/private systems in favor of public education paid for by taxpayers. Teachers are required to obtain at least a master’s degree from one of eight national universities. In return, teachers and principals came to enjoy autonomy in their schools, as the core national curriculum became more flexible over time.

A major factor in shaping classroom activities has been demand from the nation’s knowledge-based companies, led by smartphone leader Nokia Oyj, for employees who think creatively, collaborate and take intellectual risks, rather than learn by rote or study for a test. The private sector has no ownership stake in the education system, per se, but plays a major supporting role.

“We do not fund normal curriculum activities, but something pedagogically more challenging, new and exciting, like gaming in education or the use of computers in exams,” says Mervi Sibakov, spokeswoman for the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation in Helsinki. The foundation “promotes educational activities at all levels, from first grade to universities.”

Today, education in Finland has become its own industry. In 2011, as the nation was sliding into its first annual trade deficit in 20 years, the government, in collaboration with more than 70 Finnish companies and universities, unveiled a tailored education solution called “Future Learning Finland.” Together they sold education consulting services and computer-based learning tools, with brand names such as 10Monkeys, Sanako, Fronter and WordDive Ltd, to customers in Santiago, Chile; Moscow, Russia; and Algiers, Algeria.

The secret of Finland’s ranking is a national system of highly respected career teachers working in largely independent public schools, where students learn by undertaking a variety of experiences, says Sami Hamala, an adviser to the Future Learning Project and senior consultant to the Finland Trade Center in the Finnish embassy in Washington, D.C. “You learn by doing.” 

Upgrading teacher education is a better place to start than pushing for quick gains in standardized student test scores, which has so far been the primary tactic in the United States, Humala says. But it’s not a popular answer “for any politician to invest in teacher education to improve the system, if it takes longer than the politician will have in office,” he says. It takes several years to graduate under a reformed curriculum, and an additional several years for results to be seen in the classroom. “I don’t see it working [in the United States] for decades,” Humala predicts. 

 

Singapore Evolves

With a population of 5.3 million, Singapore is similar in size to Finland. But, unlike Finland, Singapore is a melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities and religions. It took authoritarian but pragmatic government rule to create a national identity and basic civil order out of potential chaos after Singapore’s founding as an independent nation in 1965. 

The country’s drive to compete in the global technology-driven economy forced leaders to supplement basic, universal education with smarter education. Total central government planning no longer worked, says Stewart of the Asia Society.

“The late 1990s saw us transitioning into a knowledge-based economy,” education minister Heng Swee Keat told a conference in Washington, D.C., last year. “Our focus shifted to developing a broader range of skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, and to devolving more autonomy to our schools to encourage innovation and cater to a wider variety of interests and aptitudes in our students.”

New high schools offering special curricula sprang up. And school choice did not mean offering parents competition among schools based on student test scores, but variety in school curriculum offerings, Stewart says. “They want to get away from this notion that there is just one measure of talent. The institutes for technical education are some of the best in the world. Every course is connected to industry apprenticeships.”

 

Canada Collaborates

Canada’s climb to the upper levels of international student achievement rankings in the last 10 years is a local story. There is no national department of education. Ever-changing provincial politics are the main drivers of Canada’s education policy. As Canada’s largest province, with a population of 12.8 million, educators closely monitor Ontario’s politics.

From 2003 to this past February, the Liberal Party (considered the moderate party between New Democrats on the left and Progressive Conservatives on the right) controlled the local government and implemented an array of programs to improve student performance by spending more and empowering teachers. Premier Dalton McGuinty had campaigned on the promise of becoming the “education premier.” His tenure shows how distinct political leadership can yield positive reform, even in Ontario’s highly structured, complex education system where teacher union membership is required by law. No one in Ontario doubted McGuinty was in charge.

After repeated teacher strikes under the previous Progressive Conservative government, no classroom days were lost to strikes in the eight years McGuinty’s party held the majority.

“He took over a highly demoralized [education] workforce, but a well-qualified workforce,” says Rhonda Kimberley-Young, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation. “He made a big financial investment in education.” Per-pupil grants to local school boards from the province—the principal funding source for education—climbed 45% during McGuinty’s tenure. McGuinty set benchmarks for student achievement in reading and math. The main benchmark was to get 75% of third-grade students achieving third-grade reading and math standards. “If they found that the schools were not performing as they might like, those schools got extra resources,” she remembers. “In the States, if I read about a school underperforming, I am likely to read that school is going to be closed. Here, if a school wasn’t doing as well, it didn’t get less. It got more.” 

In addition to more money, McGuinty’s administration collaborated with teachers, administrators and school boards to a greater degree than previous governments controlled by the New Democratic Party or the Progressive Conservatives. “It was a bit overwhelming at first. After years of no dialogue, we were meeting all the time,” Kimberley-Young recalls. “There had been more of a team approach than ever has been typical here. They were very heavy into consultation.”

McGuinty targeted the high school dropout problem with programs aimed at motivating high school students who were unlikely to go to college. The “crown jewel” is a program called the Specialist High Skills Major, which since 2006 has offered high school juniors and seniors at all ability levels credits for working outside their schools in internship-style programs, says Mary Jean Gallagher, chief student achievement officer in Ontario’s ministry of education. Currently, 38,000 students, including university-bound students and those likely to enter the workforce after graduation, are enrolled. Nineteen business and industrial sectors participate.

“We are pretty enthusiastic about it,” Gallagher says. “It’s a way of saying that high school should be a place where we value all of the destinations that are important to our communities.”

Trevor McKay, machine shop manager at Big Drum Precision Machining & Automation Inc., a $2.5-million annual sales customs parts maker in Ontario, says he’s hired three of the five students who completed internships under the Specialist High Skills Major.

“These guys want to learn,” he says. “They are focused on tool-and-die general machining. You don’t have to hold their hands. These days, it’s kind of hard to find young guys who are excited about machining.”

 

Moving Forward in America

In the United States, superior education and high-performing students can be found in public and private schools alike. Particular programs are being applied to fix particular problems. California, for example, has reduced high school dropout rates through Linked Learning, a school-industry collaboration for high school students similar to Canada’s Specialist High Skills Major.

In targeted interventions, troubled schools are being taken over or challenged by charter schools, which are operated within a public school system but by people who are not employed by the school district. For example, 25 of Chicago’s 681 public schools are staffed and operated by a not-for-profit organization called the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). The organization was founded in 2001 by venture capitalist Martin Koldyke to turn around subpar education in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Koldyke is a veteran of education reform in Chicago and founder of the city’s Golden Apple Awards for teachers.

In a strategy that emulates successful education in nations such as Finland and Singapore, the AUSL runs its own teacher training program, which has graduated more than 500 teachers with master’s degrees in the last 10 years. Costs of the program are paid for by private contributions to the AUSL, amounting to about $60,000 per teacher.

“My interest centers on poor urban kids,” Koldyke says. “When we started the AUSL, we wanted to carefully train selected men and women [as teachers] and place them in failed urban schools. We wanted to take over an entire school and replace the faculty with men and women whom we trained.” He won the support of Duncan, the then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools and now the U.S. education secretary.

Based on student scores on the 2012 Illinois Achievement Test, average scores at the Academy’s schools were nearly equal (93%) to the citywide average. Before Academy intervention, students were 25% below average.

But none of the Academy’s efforts or similar ad-hoc responses to underperforming Illinois schools have moved the needle on the state’s wide gap between funding for rich and poor school districts. A 2010 analysis by researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center in New Jersey labeled Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina “low-effort, regressive states” that maintain wide funding gaps.

Closing the funding equity gap is one of the first steps taken by countries that rank high in the PISA survey. The secret of top-ranking performance by a nation is not based on particular programs or heroic accomplishments by a few schools and teachers, but rather in an education system that comprises all teachers, schools, students and the community, says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in New York, New York.

Don’t ask what pedagogical techniques might be transferred from Finland, Singapore or Ontario, he says—instead, ask what kind of comprehensive, equitable education system is necessary for all students. “As we’ve looked at these top-performing countries over almost 25 years, what we see is a redefinition of a purpose of their education system,” he says.


Bill Barnhart, a Chicago-based financial writer, was a business editor and columnist for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. He is the author of MSCI’s 100th anniversary history, “Links in the Long Chain.