“Finland is Perfect” & Other Myths

The biggest myth that Americans tell about other countries’ schools is that they are perfect. In fact, as with health care, people always complain about their systems—wherever they are. Education is complicated, important and emotional. And no one has achieved bliss. Teachers do not like change—even in South Korea. Native-born parents do not like immigrants moving into their schools—even in Finland.

Why does this matter? Because making schools better is hard—in any language. I think union leader Randi Weingarten knows this even better than I do, and she can be far more creative and collaborative than she gets credit for being. But even she routinely makes fast-and-loose international comparisons that polarize the debate without much concern for accuracy. Here’s an example from the Wall Street Journal:

“A month ago, education ministers and teachers union presidents from the 16 top-performing and improving countries—including Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Brazil and Canada—came to New York to participate in an international conference on public education sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.S. Department of Education. The education leaders of these countries presented with impressive clarity all the methods they are using to improve student learning and strengthen teacher quality….

These countries emphasize teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration. They revere and respect their teachers; they don’t demonize them. Virtually all of them are unionized. In fact, school leaders in these countries work very closely with their unions, and most said they would never introduce changes or legislation without union collaboration.”

Really? Because the South Koreans were not actually at that summit in New York.

Know why? Well, they were invited—but the invitation required that the education minister come with the teacher union leader. And Korea’s education minister and the union leader are not BFF’s right now, despite what we keep saying. So they, um, didn’t come.

Hmmm…not so blissful anymore, right? I mean, even our union leaders and our education secretary came to that summit—and they even sat next to each other. I actually saw Arne Duncan kiss Randi Weingarten on the cheek when they said goodbye! True story! The Koreans should be so lucky.

In real life, if you ask Korean teachers whether their government would ever dare to make changes without union collaboration, they might start laughing at you. In fact, the Korean government recently banned corporal punishment and began evaluating teacher and principal performance more rigorously. Many of the teachers I met last month did not like these changes at all.

Clearly, it’s much better if we can all get along. It is probably the only way to make reform work in schools. But oversimplifying the problem for short-term rhetorical gain does not seem like a path to sustainability.

EducationAmanda Ripley