Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

The Myth of Education Marketplace

Today education policymakers and politicians around the world face a twin challenge. Schools should do more with less, and at the same time, education systems should score higher in international education league tables. As a consequence, governments are looking for education policies and reform models from better performing countries, often by employing fashionable ideas, such as corporate management models, to catch up the leading pack.

We should be careful, however, when borrowing educational ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Furthermore, policymakers should also be aware of myths about what is behind the success of these education systems.

Common beliefs why some countries have better schools than others maintain that there the best and the brightest young people become teachers; students and teachers are required to work harder; and computers are better used in teaching and learning. As a consequence, race to higher position in global education rankings has led many countries to focus more on schools’ test results as a valid proof of success.

But to do that is to define successful education too strictly. The quality of an education system is more than high academic test scores. In a successful education system, the gap between low- and high-achieving students is narrow, student’s family background is not the sole determinant of achievement, and resources are used wisely. Most successful education systems today have designed intelligent policies of whole-system improvement – to pursuit academic excellence and equity of education simultaneously.

The argument for more market-based solutions to improve the quality of schooling ignores a growing pool of globally comparable data and academic research on good pedagogy, school improvement, and high-performing education systems. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which coordinates the influential PISA study, makes this clear. In its most recent reports on the 2012 PISA study, the OECD draws the following lessons for enhancing the performance of education systems: (1) school choice for parents and competition between schools over enrolment are not related to better system performance; (2) school autonomy over curricula and assessment appears to improve performance; (3) the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall quality, and (4) computers do not improve students results.

This evidence from across OECD countries indicates that market-based education policies are not the best way to improve a country’s educational performance. Similar conclusion is repeated in research on the U.S. states, Chile, Australia and Sweden where market solutions have been experimented in large-scale school reforms. Why then are market-based education policies so persistent in today’s education world? One reason is that with the expanding pool of studies funded by various interest groups, it is easy to cherry-pick the evidence that supports any chosen policy direction. By manufacturing information deliberately, any decision-maker can claim his or her policies ‘evidence-based’ and justify favourable ideas.

What governments need to get right is the big picture for the educational landscape of their nation. Better education for all our children is not going to be a result of borrowing wrong policies from other countries or managing education system like businesses. What we need now instead is to have schools where curiosity, engagement and talent can be truly discovered and nurtured. The evidence is clear – so should be the road ahead.

Published in the publication for the G20 Summit in Istanbul, Nov 2015