Governance Matters

Why is the U.S. getting its butt kicked by other countries’ education systems? Amanda Ripley’s fine new book ultimately attributes most of the difference to culture, values, and priorities. She says, in effect, that we’ve got “the schools we deserve,” to borrow the title of a fine old book written by Diane Ravitch (back in the day!). True enough. But tucked away in Ripley’s pages are also a number of examples of how those other lands—her examples are Finland, South Korea and Poland—organize and govern their education systems, and these are illuminating, too, as well as being more actionable in the policy realm.

Poland, for example, a country understandably allergic to strong central governments, reformed its education system after 1997 in part by empowering school principals to make teacher-hiring decisions. And Finland shut down its inferior ed schools! In Ripley’s words,

Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States….[Then] the Finnish government did something…that has never happened in the United States or most other countries. The Finns rebooted their teacher training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous. As part of a broader reform of higher education, the government shuttered the smaller schools and moved teacher preparation into the more respected universities. It was a bold reform, and not without controversy.

Our states could do that, too. They already have the authority—and the big new Flexner-style study by the National Council on Teacher Quality begins to provide them with the basis for Solomonic decisions. But governance isn’t just about powers that sit unused on a shelf of law-books. It’s also about the will to exercise those powers and the fortitude to live with the consequences of “bold reform” that is “not without controversy.”

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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