Scotland must Finnish that myth

Just after the independence referendum was a momentous time to be in that exhausted Chamber of the Scottish Parliament. It marked the first debate not focussed on the constitution for as long as we could remember. And education was finally the centre of attention.

The attainment gap in Scottish state schools is something that the main parties in Scotland care about a lot. Oft-quoted statistics portraying state schools practically next to each other as performing at opposite ends of the attainment spectrum provide the impetus. 

It is true – Scotland’s ‘educational apartheid’ has been described as a ‘national disgrace’. Now Scotland’s First Minister is behind a dangerously vague and impossible Education Bill (pdf) that proposes to outlaw inequality if it receives cross-party support in Holyrood this year.

So closing this ‘gulf’ in performance, to most Scottish politicians, is a worthy goal. And perhaps this remains part of the appeal of the Finnish education system. Its schools are among the most uniform in the world. 

Certainly in 2001, when Finland came to be regarded as an education superpower, its results in the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) made it the most desirable model in the world. 

Of the 41 nations that took part that year, Finland was impressively topping the tables in science, mathematics and reading and competing with the notoriously well-performing Asian nations. Ever since then we have been making the most myopic movements in education reform in order to emulate their achievements.

Indeed, Scotland’s controversial Curriculum for Excellence was largely inspired by the Finnish model. Created in 2004 and implemented in 2010, CfE has been one of these unimaginative, inside-the-box changes in the Scottish schooling sphere. 

To counteract the case made that more school choice and competition between schools is the answer to spreading quality and innovation, the Finnish argument is still made. The correlation between the reforms in Finland and the time of its exemplary PISA results has led to the common conclusion that the reforms caused the success.

In this very debate following the referendum, Kezia Dugdale, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, once more spoke of her visit to Finland and lessons we should still be learning from the country’s example.

Remarkably, until now, nobody has actually scratched beneath the surface of this spiel. The Centre for Policy Studies has just published Real Finnish Lessons (pdf) by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of CMRE. It is the first paper of its kind to take a reasoned and thorough look at the Finnish schooling sensation. 

The first point of note is that performance began declining since those reforms were enacted. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.05.07

What the new analysis tell us is that Finland’s rise accelerated primarily during the old system when the traditionalist, rote-learning pedagogy was at its core. 

While results increased by approximately the equivalent of 23 TIMSS points between 1965 and 1980, they rose a further 32 points in the 1980s. They also increased a further 34 points in the 1990s, but started to level off in the latter part of the decade, and ultimately started to decline in the mid-2000s.

Considering the age of the pupils when they were tested, the strongest gains took place when pupils mostly attended school before the old system was entirely abolished.

Other data, too, supports the general trajectory of rise and decline in international surveys. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.05.44

Here we see that performance improved while male youngsters attended primary—and lower—secondary school before the old system was entirely abolished and began falling when they became exposed to the new one. 

Real Finnish Lessons convincingly shows how Finland’s outcomes are better explained by a detailed examination of its political, social and cultural underpinnings by looking beyond the fashionable explanations in the international media. It concludes that those popular policy-related reasons for its rise to prominence do not stand up to scrutiny and if anything coincide with its slippage.

The current Scottish Government continues to prioritise eliminating inequality while advocating the Finnish school-style characteristics. But it is clear, now, as we still send our education ministers to Finland each year, that we have been following a flawed interpretation of their system. 

In a competitive system schools adopt the methods that work—not fashionable educationalist fads—and the misinterpretation of Finnish data would be much less likely to happen. Choice would see the schools that work spread whatever the orthodoxy of the day says. Unlike in a government-controlled system where well-meaning Progressive ministers can effectively overturn everything without parental consent.

So with increasing evidence in our favour, it is time to consider that steps towards choice, competition and innovation are key.

Battle against the union blob

It is not surprising that teaching unions are objecting to the proposed 2% pay rise for England’s top teachers. Unions have long protested against performance-based pay for teachers and now they pose another barrier to the School Teachers Review Body. In the STRB’s latest submission (pdfto the government, highlighted is the need for a wages increase to encourage the desired competition in the teaching profession.

Arguments against pay incentives are that they encourage ‘teaching to the test’ and orchestrated cheating by teachers and schools. Performance gains are accepted to exist but said to be short-lived. While the long-term benefits, they say, are non-existent and there may even be damage done in the long-run.

But the latest research examining their impact on pupils demonstrates the opposite as being true. Pay for performance schemes are becoming increasingly implemented and contemplated in many developed and developing countries and have re-emerged at the top of the policy agenda in the U.S. They are not just a brilliant way of distinguishing the strivers from the shirkers in schooling systems. Such schemes are reaping good long-term labour market outcomes, too.

Research (pdf) published last month by Victor Lavy looks at a study conducted a decade and a half ago in Israel to determine if there are improvements to future education enrolment, earnings and probability of claiming unemployment benefits. 

The study is the first of its kind to follow students from high-school to adulthood to examine the impact of a teachers’ pay for performance scheme on long-run life outcomes. It found:

A decade after the end of the intervention, treated students are 4.3 percentage points more likely to enrol in a university and to complete an additional 0.17 years of university schooling, a 60 percent increase relative to the control group mean. The road to higher university enrolment and completed years of schooling was paved by the overall improvement in high school matriculation outcomes due to the teachers’ intervention.

So merit-based pay actually improves students’ lifetime well-being, judging by school attainment, annual earnings and welfare-dependency, as well as recognising the hardworking, high-flying teachers and making it a more attractive profession.

If we could achieve a similar flexibility in what the best teachers can be paid in the UK, like proposed in the STRB’s report, it would mitigate the pressures being faced by schools experiencing increasingly competitive graduate labour markets, tightening budgets and demographics driving up pupil numbers.

A difficulty in recruiting NQTs and experienced classroom teachers in this country has been identified by head teacher unions. A key cause being that salary progression is faster for able graduates in other professions, with the opportunity to reach higher levels of earning as their careers progress, than for the teaching profession.

Ideologically-driven unions are the main enemy of change as they still make it difficult to get rid of timeserving teachers and are hostile to the ambitious reformers in schools and policy-making. It is time to start thinking about the market value of teachers’ talents and penetrate the dogmatic ‘blob’ that the old hat education establishment represents.

Teachers unions are bad for kids

Though everyone typically sees unions as being mainly for the benefit of their members, teachers’ unions use a lot of pro-student rhetoric and often come across fairly angelic. They probably do have only the kids’ interests at mind, but a new paper suggests that their existence doesn’t necessarily benefit those kids.

Data comparing students’ outcomes to teacher unionisation has until recently been fairly lacking. But according to the new study published last month, duty-to-bargain laws (which  mean employers need to work with unions) lead to significantly worse labour market outcomes for students in schools subject to them.

Previous research has shown us that teacher collective bargaining laws increase teacher union membership and increase the likelihood that a school district unionises for the purpose of collective bargaining—i.e. they achieve their direct goals. But looking into the effect on the kids has been hampered by a lack of information liking people’s outcomes and the time that duty-to-bargain laws were passed.

This new study, conducted in the US by Michael F. Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, takes the timing of the passing of the duty-to-bargain laws between 1969 and 1987 and links them with long run educational and labour market outcomes among 35-49 year olds in 2005-2012, i.e. those subject to them..

What they found was that men subject to increased unionisation work less hours as adults and earn less. There is also evidence of a small decline in educational attainment for men and a long-run negative effect on labour supply for women that is equal in magnitude to that of men.

Of course, some of the kids tin this paper were subject to a vastly different educational environment than exists today, so we can’t necessarily extrapolate to the UK. Nonetheless the general finding is quite plausible, and should contribute to policy debates around increasing or reducing the role of collective bargaining in the education sector.

If future research in this field continues to make the negative relationship apparent, we may be ever closer to exposing how teaching unions lower educational standards by supporting the timeservers over the strivers in the teaching profession.

More evidence that all schools should be free schools

Free schools raise standards – not just in the schools themselves, but in the traditional state schools in their neighbourhood.

That is according to a new report from the think tank Policy Exchange. And it should come as no surprise. That is exactly what happened in Sweden, after it reformed its education system in 1991 and allowed charities, faiths, voluntary groups and private companies to open schools rather like the UK’s free schools.

Schools that are independently run but still supported by taxpayers – and paid by results, basically in proportion to the number of pupils they attract – are better motivated to think more deeply about the education they provide and how they provide it. Despite the fact that free schools are still highly regulated – much more so than their counterparts in Sweden – that is exactly what they do. So they stimulate other, unreformed, schools in two ways. First, they provide a model for what is achievable. Second, local state schools realise that they have to improve if they are to continue to attract pupils and justify their own existence. Simple really.

People make two arguments against free schools. First, they say that they are more selective than other schools and so it is not surprising that they get better results because they get more able pupils from generally better-off, better-educated parents. But look at another country, the United States, with its so-called charter schools. Often, these have been set up in the least promising areas, inner-city areas rife with drugs and violence, where all or nearly all pupils are from generally poor, minority families. The uplift in performance, though, is startling. Many of these schools are set up by parents, or parents and teachers, precisely because the existing government-run schools are do depressingly and young-life-ruiningly dismal. but those concerned local people make their schools secure places to learn, ban drugs and tolerate ‘no excuses’. And you know what? The children shine.

The other objection is that free schools in the UK are wasteful because they are often set up in places where there are already spare places in traditional state schools. Indeed: rather like the case in those American cities I have just mentioned. Setting up a new, different, better-motivated school in an area where there are only ‘sink’ schools is no waste: it is one of the most cost-effective things you could do. Preventing better schools from setting up is rather like preventing better restaurants from opening up when there are still spare tables in the local greasy-spoon.

The government says it will create another 500 free schools. Frankly, we should turn every school in the country into a free school.

Peer effects: they exist but they’re not very big

One reason parents try and get their kids into ‘good’ schools is that they have better teachers, facilities and so on. Another is that the other students are also high achievers and this is believed to feed into their own children’s achievement—via less disruptiveness, an environment more conducive to scholarly activity, and so on.

A paper newly published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics tests the size of these effects on achievement by looking at the random component of sorting that occurs when most British children transition from primary to secondary school at age 11.

“Peer Effects: Evidence from Secondary School Transition in England” (up-to-date gated version, full working paper pdf), by Stephen Gibbons and Shqiponja Telhaj, finds that although having brighter peers raises someone’s grades a bit, the effect size is very small.

Our general finding is that school-level peer effects exist, but they are small in magnitude: a one standard deviation increase in the mean ks2 primary school scores of secondary schoolmates is associated with a 0.03 standard deviation increase in student achievement in secondary school ks3 achievement.

These peer effects originate in characteristics of secondary school peers that were already evident in their achievements at age 7, and family background issues such as low income and English being second language, rather than academic progression during the later years of primary schooling preceding secondary school entry.

This finding suggests a rather limited role for peer effects in amplifying the effects of educational interventions (e.g. social multiplier effects as in Glaeser Sacerdote and Scheinkman 2003), unless these interventions occur very early on in life. Our results show only limited heterogeneity across student demographic types.

But the paper does go on to say that because school has very little impact on student outcomes, we should probably see this as a relatively large effect in that context. And that peer groups might matter for lots of other things besides achievement (“physical safety, emotional security, familiarity, life-time friendship networks, or simply exclusivity”) so parents aren’t necessarily crazy to aim for ‘better’ peers for their kids.