“Strategies to Achieve 80% Accuracy in Education Decision-Making”

This season, Tim Daly wrote an excellent retrospective on the Finland education craze of the early 2000s, labeling it the “greatest hype bubble in the history of global education.” He explains how the promotion of the Finnish miracle became a “cottage industry,” bolstered by savvy PR and funded jaunts “arranged and covered by the Finnish government.” Reporters, advocates, policymakers, teachers, and philanthropists dutifully traveled abroad to uncover Finland’s secret.

The actual nature of that secret remained somewhat elusive. Union leaders believed it was the absence of testing. Analysts found insights on teacher selection and training. Some argued it was about progressive social policies. Despite that, Finnish experts offered ambiguous “revelations,” like, “Our ethos is that what we desire for our own children, we also desire for other people’s children: If those other children falter, we’ve all failed.” Nonetheless, the lack of substance and clarity didn’t seem to matter. The key takeaway was: Finnish schools are exemplary. Hooray! We should emulate that.

Then, the facade started to crumble. In 2012, Finland’s PISA scores began to lose their sheen. By 2023, Finland had transformed into a cautionary tale, characterized by drastic declines in academic achievement. And all the admirers who had enthusiastically imbibed their Finnish lessons swiftly moved on to new objects of fascination.

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Having always harbored doubts about the Finland trend, I found my conversation with Daly particularly enlightening as he crafted his article. I had previously expressed my skepticism during a visit to Helsinki, emphasizing my skepticism towards the entire fervent industry of international comparisons.” I remarked:

Using PISA or TIMSS results as the sole metric of school quality (in Finland or elsewhere) presents the same conundrum as using NCLB-type exams to assert that schools in a serene, leafy suburb are superior to those in a turbulent city filled with fractured families. There are myriad factors at play, and only the reckless would proclaim [they comprehend everything based on a testing snapshot].

However, I cannot claim excessive foresight. Over time, I’ve realized that it’s a safe bet that any educational reform craze will display preliminary promise and eventually flounder. While Daly elucidates that no one truly comprehends the cause of Finland’s celebrated ascent and abrupt descent, the general trend is rather predictable. We seize upon initial findings wherever we encounter them, assuming we’ve finally cracked the code. And then, invariably, we learn that we haven’t.

The fascination with Finland and numerous other education trends—from teacher assessment to School Improvement Grants—is less about certainty that we’ve found the solution and more about a yearning for hopeful ideas, models, and initiatives. Years ago, I noted that the tale of “stone soup” offers insights into educational enhancement. Pilot programs often receive dedicated leadership, philanthropic funds, expert guidance, contract exemptions, teacher support, and the like. Early outcomes seem promising. Enthusiastic imitators then attempt to expand the “innovation” devoid of those components. They end up with unsatisfactory results, spectators lament the “implementation issues,” and everyone moves on to the next big thing. Daly’s assessment of Finland was so poignant, partly because it’s exceedingly rare for anyone in education to pause the cyclical hype long enough to conduct an investigation.

The bottom line is that, if you bet against the enduring success of any given educational reform or innovation, you’ll typically be correct at least 80% of the time. Indeed, if you could gamble on such matters at Vegas sportsbooks, education skeptics would be laughing all the way to the bank.

Thus, a crucial but often neglected question for me is this: Considering the historical track record, why is it so effortless to find enthusiasts eager to embrace each novel reform trend?

It appears that there are many incentives for hopping on board—even if the endeavor ultimately fails—and scant rewards for abstaining. Embracing the promise of the latest trend entails standing shoulder-to-shoulder with enthusiastic backers, vendors, experts, and educational leaders certain that this time, we’ll get it right.

TED talks and conference speeches abound with these pioneers and visionaries. Organizations and publications bestow accolades upon “innovators,” “change-makers,” and “leaders to learn from”—not on the cynics and doubters. The keynote speakers and honorees garner acclaim, funding, and professional opportunities. And if the new idea ultimately falls short, it hardly matters. By then, the celebrated individuals have become established education luminaries or moved on to the next new thing.

Oh, and remember that marketing of the Finnish miracle I mentioned earlier? That type of promotion was far from unique to Finland. Visits to trendy schools or pilot initiatives resembling dog-and-pony shows are a familiar ritual for educators, advocates, and policymakers. And don’t overlook all those “presented by” and “sponsored by” tags in your preferred education publication, showcasing the leaders and change-makers spearheading these endeavors.

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Betting against the latest trend means forfeiting these opportunities. It entails alienating the funders seeking to back innovators, not pessimists. It involves being shunned by the educators, advocates, and policymakers growing impatient with your failure to grasp why this reform endeavor is distinct. Having been ostracized over time by numerous irate backers and former allies, I can attest that this is far from enjoyable. Additionally, it tends to be detrimental to one’s career advancement and employability.

And crucially: even when skeptics are eventually proven right, there’s no payoff.

There are no rewards, keynote speeches, funds, or vindication for those who doubted the Finnish miracle. Or the ineffective $8 billion School Improvement Grant program. Or the disappointing teacher evaluation wave. Instead, everyone moves on to a fresh cause or new professional prospects. Foundation staff and advocacy officials turn over, and the newcomers prefer focusing on the future—not rehashing someone else’s past efforts.

There are benefits to jumping on the bandwagon, even if it leads to disappointment. And there are consequences for declining a ride, even if skepticism turns out to be justified. I long ago concluded that this disparity elucidates much of education’s susceptibility to passing trends. The query is whether there’s anything we can do about it—apart from convincing Vegas to start taking bets on each new educational fad that emerges.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

The post How to Be Right 80% of the Time in Education appeared first on Education Next.

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