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Education policy has been a pet topic of mine, even if I haven’t mentioned it on this blog. The Atlantic writes an interesting analysis of the Finnish model, which has become rather fashionable in education policy circles of late.

Basically, the article says the Finnish focussed on giving every student an identical experience – having no private/public divide, by providing equal services to everyone like individualised counselling, free lunches etc. What was the result? The Finns top the PISA league tables (international standardised tests that allow comparisons between educational performance in different countries)

Without knowing too much about the Finnish system, isn’t this just a result of simple math? If the American system selects the very brightest kids and gives them the best training to the detriment of the less bright then the rules of mathematics tell us that we should expect lower test scores compared to Finland which seeks to improve every child. For example, if we start with an 80% average grade for two countries, and in America the smartest 20% are trained so well they achieve a 100% mark whilst the mediocre students keep the same mark, the average mark will drift upwards by a tiny bit to 84%. Whereas, in Finland, if every child’s mark goes up by 5% then obviously the average will rise to 85%. And yet, it would be a miracle if the US could get an entire 20% of its population to score perfectly in such standardised tests.

To put it more simply, two factors will keep the US from performing better in the rankings. The improvement of marks in the smart students is diluted by the lack of improvement in mediocre students, whilst any improvement in the average Finn translates into a direct improvement in their PISA scores. Furthermore, there is a ceiling on what smart students can achieve – noone can achieve a 110% mark.

So the question ceases for a while to be a practical question and becomes a moral question. Do we want to ensure equity of education to every child? Or do we want to ensure the smartest kids can reach their full potential?

We cannot divorce practicalities from our analysis. My example assumed the top-performing students were ‘the smartest’, but the American  education system doesn’t favour the smart. It favours the rich and the lucky. Even in Australia and Britain, with their selective public schools, standardised entry tests are only a rough proxy for true intelligence. On the other hand, society only requires its future adults to have a minimum level of knowledge. Every society must have its janitors as well as its professionals. (Again, the moral question arises – Shakespeare is no more useful to an investment banker than a janitor). And a failure to perfectly identify the smartest students doesn’t mean we should abandon the quest to give the smartest students the best opportunities to foster their learning.

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