(Alternative title; why finishing schools are better than Finnish schools.)
When left and right-leaning economists agree on something you can usually be pretty sure it’s true. But education is different. Both sides seem to agree that the point of schools is learning academic material, and that test scores tell us something useful about whether schools are successful. That’s wrong, and it’s a particularly unfortunate error by conservative economists, who are supposed to believe in the market test. It’s like saying a Cadillac is better than a Mercedes because it has a bigger engine, even if the Mercedes sells for $10,000 more. Economists are blinded by the fact that they themselves are educators. They are biased.
I’ve often argued that the only reliable test of schools is the market test—which schools are more popular at a given price point. Tyler Cowen linked to a study that obliquely relates to this issue. It shows that South Korean students are the least happy students in the world. Finland’s students are near the bottom, and are the least happy of any Western European country. In contrast, South Korea usually scores at the top of “education rankings” based on test scores, and Finland is often in second place.
It’s interesting to compare Finland with its neighbor Sweden. Based on test scores Sweden has the worst schools in Western Europe, even worse than America’s K-12. Horrible schools. But their students are above average in happiness, far above Finland. What explains that difference?
One reason might be that Sweden has a 100% voucherized school system, so schools have to cater to parents. Now I don’t mean to suggest that schools in Sweden are perfect—Swedes have told me the legacy of the old socialist system hangs on to some extent, and most students still go to state schools. Still, the vouchers are gradually forcing the schools to conform more to customer preferences.
Some might argue that high test scores are needed to produce the sort of highly-skilled workers needed for the modern economy. That’s false, and Sweden proves it. Its workers are more productive than Finnish workers because test scores tell us little about productivity. The girls and boys who will work for Nokia and Eriksson get the math they need in either country. But for the other 98% of students all that useless solving of equations or proofs of triangle relationships is a waste of time, they’ll never need it. (I’m now having to struggles with helping my daughter solve her 9th grade math problems, so perhaps I’m biased.)
Since test scores don’t matter, we should focus on giving students the basics, and otherwise make schooling a more pleasurable experience.
PS. Just to be clear I don’t mean to suggest that test scores are uncorrelated with economic success. They clearly are correlated. But the Swedish/Finnish case suggests that we’ve misinterpreted the causation. Most likely the sort of society that is so obsessed with success that they produce a South Korean-type school system will be successful for other reasons, having to do with cultural attributes.
You certainly need a basic level of education, with extra learning in specialized fields, to run a successful modern economy. Sweden does that. However you don’t need high average test scores. The US, another lowly performer on tests, also has much more productive workers than South Korea.
If you apply my South Korean (causality) reasoning to this article on Shanghai, you will better understand why I think it very unlikely that China ends up stuck in the middle income trap:
Shanghai’s students came top of the global class in maths with an average score of 613 (up from 600 in the last PISA tests in 2010). That was 119 points, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling, above the average and placed Shanghai 25 places above Britain.
. . .
Kong Lingshuai, a professor who has studied Shanghai’s PISA successes, said the secret is mix of “traditional elements and modern elements”.
The “traditional elements” relate to the high expectations of “tiger” parents and a belief instilled in Chinese children from a young age that effort is crucial to gaining a good education.
“Chinese parents pay great attention to their children’s education in the hope that their sons will one day become dragons and their daughter phoenixes,” says Prof Kong, from the College of Education at Shanghai Normal University.
The “modern elements” include Shanghai’s willingness to constantly adapt its curriculum and teaching practices, its focus on improving underachieving schools by pairing them with schools that excel, its openness to foreign ideas and the introduction of performance-related pay.
An obsession with training has also been key, says Prof Kong. From last year new teachers have had to undergo a standardised, one-year training course before starting in the classroom.
Once qualified, they are required to complete at least 240 hours training in their first five years. Teachers are also encouraged to attend each other’s classes in order to promote a culture of idea “sharing, exchanging and positive competition,” Prof Kong added.
Outsiders often dismiss China’s education system as a pressure-cooker-style frenzy of exams that places too much emphasis on rote-learning and does little to stimulate creativity.
But in Shanghai at least that may be starting to change. Authorities are attempting to move away from testing that relies too heavily on memorising facts or figures and some schools are also giving students more time to play, rather than just study.
Gao Xinhong, a Shanghai student who became a minor local celebrity after getting the highest marks in this year’s “gaokao” university entrance exams, said the city’s schooling system was becoming more flexible.
“The greatest part of Shanghai’s education system was that it gave me a broad perspective compared to other Chinese cities. Shanghai’s education is good because it does not treat grades as the only thing for a student,” she said.
Zhu Yi, the father of 10-year-old Amy Zhu, agrees.
“It is much better than before. Schools in Shanghai now focus on the all-round development of students,” said Mr Yi, a 44-year-old sports instructor.
You would never, ever, see that sort of article written about countries that have gotten stuck in the middle income trap.
Shanghai students are far happier than Korean or Finnish students. Korea would do well to loosen up a bit. (And yes I know that Shanghai is a relatively affluent city, not a country, which largely explains its very high ranking.)