The Right and Wrong Ways to Learn Policy Lessons from Other Countries

Back in the mid-1990s, I was often told that Americans had no interest in what other countries were doing policy-wise. As a result, it was purportedly futile to study policy using international evidence. Ignoring that warning, I wrote a book about education around the world, back to ancient times.

Whether or not the warning was valid at the time, there is now a great deal of interest in other nations’ education policies. Well… in one nation’s in particular: Finland’s. In that country, we are often told, every child is a Socrates—except for the ones who are Jane Austens or Hedy Lamarrs—and this is due, we are told, to one or more of its current education policies (the claimer gets to pick which ones).

A recent op-ed at not only jumps on this Emulate Fantastic Finland bandwagon, it also purports to use the Finnish example to critique “market-based” education policies in general.

Here’s the main problem with the movement that proclaims “Country X is doing well educationally, so let’s emulate its education system!”: there are a lot of factors outside the classroom that affect educational outcomes, and that differ among countries—culture, resources in the home, etc.—and so it’s difficult to know to what extent a given nation’s performance is due to those factors or to its education policies. Fortunately, there’s a technique that not only circumvents this problem, it turns it to our advantage:

Comparing different sorts of school systems within nations. A study that compares public and private schools within India, for example, or that looks at the effects of private sector competition in Sweden on overall outcomes, eliminates international differences as a factor.  Still, the results of such studies, taken individually, have limited generalizability.

But what if we repeat this sort of comparison scores of times in a dozen or more very different countries and we find similar results occurring over and over again? If a particular approach to organizing and funding schools consistently outperforms other approaches across widely varying circumstances, we can be fairly confident that the observed pattern is the result of the system itself and not simply an accident of circumstance, because, although the circumstances will have varied from place to place, the results will have remained consistent. That is the technique I applied in a review of the worldwide research on public, private, and truly market-like school systems. As I found, It is the most market-like systems that consistently did the best job of serving families across 7 different outcome measures used by researchers.

Perhaps most ironically for the “Emulate Finland” crowd, Finland has been slipping in the rankings on the PISA test in recent years. Moreover, Finland never performed quite so well on the TIMSS international test and has been declining on it as well. And, as will be revealed in a forthcoming paper by Gabriel Sahlgren, the introduction of the most celebrated Finnish education policies does not support the view that they aided its rise on the PISA test, due to their timing.