December 7, 2004

Will the international debates ever be Finnish'd?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD')s Programme for International Student Assessment just released Problem Solving for Tomorrow's World - First Measures of Cross Curricular Competencies from PISA 2003. According to the latest international comparison, the highest-achieving 15-year-olds in problem-focused math appear to be those from the western rim of the Pacific and Finland. So, of course, the stories will start to ask what Finland is doing right. And then will follow consternation about why we're not doing what Finland is doing, or maybe counterarguments about why Finland is not comparable to the United States.

As an historian, this falls into a fairly typical pattern from the last few decades: an international comparison shows U.S. students performing in the middle of the pack, and then we wring our hands about what's wrong, what our competitors are doing right, why we're not like them, and so forth. But it goes back further. Horace Mann's seventh school report in 1844 reported on his trip to Prussian schools, discussing how advanced they were and how little they humiliated pupils. The implication, of course, was that Massachusetts schools were barbaric in comparison with the best European schools. (Lawrence Cremin edited a set of those reports in Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Man, which is still in print.) And then came the counter-arguments from Boston schoolmasters and others. Why should we trust the comments of this person who had never been a teacher, who thought that a European monarchy was the best comparison for American democracy, and who didn't understand the need for academic and social discipline and order as a foundation for social order?

More recently, the launch of Sputnik in 1957 gelled a set of views on education that had been building for the prior decade (that it should be helping to fight the Cold War, and that the federal government had an important role in promoting advanced teaching in math and science, among other areas). The international comparisons are interesting, but it's the response inside a country that is the Rorschach test of educational politics. How anxious are we about our national identity? How much are we looking inside or outside the country? Whether this most recent report sinks or splashes will tell us quite a bit about ourselves—and I mean our national education politics, not just the school system.

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Posted in Random comments on December 7, 2004 9:41 AM |