Fair to good or good to great?

Finland boasts “low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests,” writes writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Education Gadfly. Should reformers abandon standards and accountability in favor of “few top-down regulations, broad teacher autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability?” Finland’s real lessons aren’t that simple, she writes.

Moving a system from fair to good performance calls for different strategies than moving from good to great, concludes a November 2010 McKinsey study, How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.

. . . systems moving from poor to fair rely far more heavily on policies that “tightly control teaching and learning processes from the center because minimizing variation across classrooms and schools is the core driver of performance improvement at this level.” Systems seeking to progress from good to great, by contrast, “provide only loose guidelines on teaching and learning processes because peer-led creativity and innovation inside schools becomes the core driver for raising performance at this level.”

Finland’s education reform started with “more than two decades of tightly controlled, centrally driven education reform that systematically adjusted curriculum, pedagogy, teacher preparation, and accountability,” Porter-Magee writes. Only after top-down reform moved Finland from poor to good did leaders loosen up.

Yes, Finnish educators now enjoy broad autonomy over curriculum and instruction, and schools are largely self-governed. But this happened only after decades of reform aimed at raising standards for both students and teachers and ensuring that teachers had the capacity to thrive under a more decentralized system.

The Finns committed to their reforms over many years, Porter-Magee writes. Americans need to find our own solutions, starting by deciding whether we’re starting at poor, fair or good.

Trapped in Mediocrity by economist Katherine Baird, is subtitled “why our schools aren’t world-class and what we can do about it.”