How to Be Right 80% of the Time in Education

The problem is, it’s more rewarding to be wrong

Opposing Team Football Fan Boos When Home Team Scores

This winter, Tim Daly penned a terrific retrospective on the Finland edu-craze of the early 2000s, terming it the “greatest hype bubble in the history of international education.” He recounts how selling the Finnish miracle became a “cottage industry,” nudged along by savvy PR and junkets “organized and paid for by the Finnish government.” Journalists, advocates, policymakers, educators, and philanthropists dutifully trekked abroad to learn Finland’s secret.

Just what that secret entailed was never quite clear. Union leaders thought it was the dearth of testing. Wonks saw lessons for teacher selection and preparation. Some insisted it was about progressive social policies. Meanwhile, Finnish experts offered dubious “insights,” like, “Our ethic is that what we want for our own children we also want for other people’s children: If those other children fail, we’ve all failed.” But the vapidity and ambiguity didn’t really matter. The takeaway was: Finnish schools good. Yay! We need to do that.

Then the wheels started to come off. In 2012, Finland’s PISA results started to lose their luster. By 2023, Finland had become a cautionary tale, marked by staggering declines in academic performance. And all the fanboys and fangirls who had once so earnestly imbibed their Finnish lessons moved on to new objects of fascination.

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As someone who’d always been skeptical of the Finland fad, I enjoyed talking to Daly as he wrote his piece. After all, as I’d written way back when, I came away from a visit to Helsinki “mostly reminded why I have so little faith in the whole breathless industry of international comparisons.” I noted:

Using PISA or TIMSS results to judge school quality (in Finland or anywhere else) poses the exact same problem as using NCLB-style tests to conclude that schools in a bucolic, leafy suburb are “better” than those in a chaotic city rife with broken families. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and only the foolhardy would insist [they know exactly what that is based on a testing snapshot].

But I can’t claim too much credit for prescience. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s a safe bet that any given education reform craze will show initial promise and then ultimately disappoint. While Daly makes clear that no one really knows what caused Finland’s celebrated rise and precipitous fall, the general pattern is pretty typical. We seize on initial results wherever we find them, concluding we’ve finally got things figured out. And then invariably we discover we don’t.

The appetite for Finland and so many other edu-crazes—from teacher evaluation to School Improvement Grants—is due less to confidence that we’ve found the answer than to a hunger for promising concepts, models, and programs. Years ago, I observed that the parable of “stone soup” is instructive when it comes to school improvement. Pilot efforts tend to enjoy committed leadership, philanthropic dollars, expert handholding, contract waivers, teacher buy-in, and so on. Early results are promising. Eager imitators then try to scale the “innovation” absent any of that stuff. They wind up with disappointing results, onlookers lament the “implementation problems,” and everyone moves on to the new new thing. Daly’s Finland take was so compelling, in part, because it’s so rare for anyone in education to interrupt the spin cycle long enough to do an autopsy.

The upshot is that, if you bet against the long-term success of any given school reform or educational innovation, you’ll generally be right at least 80% of the time. Hell, if you could bet on this stuff at Vegas sportsbooks, edu-skeptics would be laughing all the way to the bank.

So, for me, a crucial but oft-ignored question is this one: Given the track record, why is it so easy to find enthusiasts eager to leap aboard each new reform train?

Well, it turns out that there are a lot of rewards for jumping on board—even if the train is headed off the rails—and precious few rewards for refusing to do so. Embracing the promise of the new new thing means lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with enthusiastic funders, vendors, experts, and school and system leaders confident that this time we’re going to get it right.

TED talks and conference keynotes are filled with these pioneers and visionaries. Organizations and publications hand out awards to “innovators,” “difference-makers,” and “leaders to learn from”—not the naysayers and skeptics. The keynoters and honorees garner acclaim, funding, and professional opportunities. And it doesn’t much matter if the new new thing ultimately disappoints. By that time, the fêted have become established edu-celebrities or moved on to the new new new thing.

Oh, and remember that marketing of the Finnish miracle I mentioned a moment ago? That sort of thing was hardly unique to Finland. Dog-and-pony visits to trendy schools or pilot programs are a familiar rite for educators, advocates, and policymakers. And don’t forget to notice all those “presented by” and “sponsored by” tags in your favorite education publication, profiling the leaders and difference-makers leading these efforts.

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Betting against the new new thing means missing out on all these opportunities. It means alienating the funders who want to support innovators, not worrywarts. It means getting ostracized by the educators, advocates, and policymakers who get frustrated that you don’t understand why this reform effort is different. Having been dropped over the years by more than a few irate funders and one-time allies, I can testify that this is no fun at all. It also tends to be lousy for one’s career prospects and employability.

And crucially: even when skeptics are ultimately proven right, it’s not like there’s a payoff.

There are no rewards, keynotes, funds, or any vindication for those who doubted the Finnish miracle. Or the $8 billion ineffectual School Improvement Grant program. Or the disappointing teacher evaluation boom. Instead, everyone moves on to a new cause or new professional opportunities. Foundation staff and advocacy officials turn over, and the new folks want to focus on what’s ahead—not on re-litigating somebody else’s past efforts.

There are rewards for hopping on the bandwagon, even when doing so is a mistake. And there are costs for refusing a ride, even when skepticism turns out to be justified. I long ago concluded that this asymmetry explains much of education’s susceptibility to faddishness. The question is whether there’s anything we might do about it—short of getting Vegas to start taking action on each new edu-fad that comes down the pike.

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

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