Be Wary of Edu-Tourism!

Yesterday I noted that Finland is seeing declines in reading, math, and science achievement. For anyone unfamiliar with education policy debates in the U.S., you might wonder why I was paying special attention to a Nordic nation with a population about the size of South Carolina.

But for those who do pay attention to American education politics, you probably weren’t fazed by the Finland coverage. After all, Finland’s education policies have been given an inordinate amount of attention since they scored near the top of international achievement tests about a decade ago. “What would Finland do?” prompted a cottage industry of commentators about how we could copy whatever it was that Finland was doing and then, as a result, improve our own results.

But this was sloppy thinking. As Pat Wolf pointed out in the tweet below, researchers call this “selection on the dependent variable.” That is, you can’t just look at what the high performers are doing and try to copy them. Making policy prescriptions that way can easily confuse correlation with causation, and you can’t tell what really caused an outcome just by looking at what activities were completed.

Put another way, were Finland’s results caused by their ethnically homogenous student body, their low teacher turnover and high bar to entry to the teaching profession, their school choice policies, their high-stakes standardized test given to high school seniors, their national curriculum, or something else? We don’t know! But that didn’t stop advocates from championing these ideas, or arguing that Finland was successful without some common reform ideas espoused here in the States.

I’m afraid we’re already starting to see this same “edu-tourism” in the wake of the recent NAEP results. Mississippi and DC stood out as two places that bucked the national trends, but it’s hard to say what caused those positive results. Instead of visiting those places and looking backward at what practices make them special, we should be consulting research on the specific policies those places have attempted. For example, we should pay much more attention to the empirical evidence on DCPS’ teacher evaluation program than on any policy prescriptions coming out of the NAEP results.

I don’t want to bash Finland, but I do hope Finland’s recent decline will serve as a cautionary tale. And no, I don’t mean trying to diagnose why Finland’s scores are now declining. That would be the exact same mistake but in the opposite direction! No, I mean that we should stop trying to identify policy prescriptions by blindly copying high performers.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

Latest Edu-Reads

“…ignoring the stop arm of a school bus is incredibly dangerous because children often cross the street as they are entering or exiting the bus.” That’s Alex Spurrier on school bus safety.

Lisette Partelow on what to make of the decline in teacher preparation enrollment.

Doug Webber has a cool tool to compare lifetime earnings by college major.

This Kalyn Belsha article for Chalkbeat is a sobering reminder of the fecklessness in our education sector. The Trump Administration killed off a $12 million competitive grant program to support school integration efforts out of spite and instead spread that money to undefined state school improvement efforts. That does not sound like a good use of money.

But the districts also didn’t follow through! Belsha leads with the example of the Austin, TX school district, which outlined a detailed case for why they needed to integrate their school district and how they planned to do it. But when the program was canceled they let those plans dropt. They were in line to win $1.5 million, which is peanuts to a school district the size of Austin. The Austin schools budget was about $1.4 billion that same year, so we’re talking about 0.1 percent of their budget. Austin was by no means the only district to drop their integration efforts, but there’s a lesson here when even tiny sums of money would have changed district behavior, and it says something about the importance of competitive grants to spur action…

The latest PISA results are out and they are not good… for Finland! The OECD described their trajectory as “steadily negative” and found declines in reading, math, and science. Worse, they concluded that Finland’s decline in reading and science “was particularly noticeable amongst the lowest-achieving students.”

The trends here in the United States are nothing to brag about either–they’re mainly flat over time–but we’re holding steady in a middle pack alongside Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

This is a lovely personal essay on overconfidence by Jason Zweig. Coming from a rural background in 1977, Advanced Placement tests played a role in teaching Zweig a helpful lesson in humility.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

Latest Edu-News

Juvenile justice schools are intended to be places of rehabilitation, but we lack even basic data about how many students are enrolled there, let alone how those students are doing. Plus, as Hailly Korman, Max Marchitello, and Alexander Brand show in this new deck, the data we do have suggests those students lack access to courses they would need to graduate.

A new CREDO study finds that Denver students, especially black and Hispanic students, are making much faster gains than their peers throughout the rest of the state of Colorado.

Similarly, schools in New Orleans improved much faster than the rest of Louisiana from about 2006 through 2013, and a new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans finds that essentially all of the improvements were, “due to the state regularly closing or taking over low-performing schools and opening new higher performing charters.”

Katrina Boone on the power of culture-based education for Native students.

The latest Education Next survey results are out. It’s a well-done longitudinal survey with lots of findings to unpack, on things as varied as school spending, teacher pay, different forms of school choice, etc.

Only 6 schools districts have applied for the Student-Centered Funding Pilot created under ESSA, and only one, Puerto Rico, has been approved to implement it this school year.

Finland update.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman