Wrong on Education

About the only thing Republicans and Democrats have agreed on is educational policy…and they’re both wrong.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a bipartisan effort and Obama’s Race to the Top legislation is, in many ways, NCLB 2.0. At the core of each legislation is the improvement of education by applying a business model focusing on measurement, accountability, and competition. Both legislations emphasize (a) specifying curricular standards, (b) holding teachers accountable to such standards with standardized test scores, (c) rewarding or punishing teachers and schools based on these test scores, and (d) increasing competition between schools. This business model sounds like a fairly logical approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

“What is wrong with the business model?” you ask. “The business model has transformed Western society. Why can’t it transform education?” To this I reply, “It’s the wrong business model.”


The top-down, incentive driven, individualistic business model works great for many companies, but it is becoming a relic of the past for today’s innovative businesses. Companies of the future, such as Google, have realized that great things happen when you stop being so controlling and give workers a sense of autonomy and ownership. The potential to create is a deep motivator. As many small business owners will attest, what drives them is not so much the money (although this is important) but the opportunity to build something. The motivation here is more intrinsic than extrinsic. It is the inherent satisfaction that comes from being part of something special, creating something new, and making a difference in the world. This is the kind of motivation that makes remarkable things happen and this is the type of motivation that gets squashed when the wrong business model is applied to education.

Conservatives have argued that over-regulation of the business world can have a detrimental effect on innovation and productivity. Their arguments particularly apply to the nature of small business. Too many regulations, arbitrary regulations, and misguided regulations erode the autonomy of small business owners. Too much top-down control eventually undermines the intrinsic motivation of small business owners and the life of the business begins to fade away.

What conservatives have largely failed to realize is that these same principles apply to education. By jumping on the bandwagon to dictate standards, obsessively measure teachers, force teachers to compete, and control teacher actions with external mandates and incentives, they have eroded teachers’ autonomy, undermined their intrinsic motivation, and helped take the life out of education. Liberals are equally at fault as they have advocated the same policies. The conservative argument for deregulation is sorely missing in considerations of educational policy.

The conservative argument for deregulation is sorely missing in considerations of educational policy.


These opinions are not just my own ramblings. Michael Fullan is one of the world’s leading experts on educational change. His conclusion? We’re focusing on the wrong drivers of educational change.

In a well-known paper titled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform (http://michaelfullan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/13396088160.pdf), Fullan argues that countries have been quick to choose the wrong drivers or strategies for bringing about change. These wrong drivers include (1) accountability (vs. capacity building), (2) individual teacher quality (vs. group solutions), (3) technology (vs. instruction), and (4) fragmented strategies (vs. systemic strategies). The first two are the pillars of the wrong business model. Although it seems logical to focus on accountability and improving individual teachers, “no system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by leading with accountability” (p. 9) and “no nation has got better by focusing on individual teachers as the driver” (p. 10).

I should clarify that Fullan is not against accountability and individual teacher quality. Rather, he notes that these can be a valuable part of the reform system as long as they are not used as the drivers of the reform: “I need to be clear here. The four ‘wrong drivers’ are not forever wrong. They are just badly placed as lead drivers” (p. 5). He means they cannot have dominance in a system. If issues of capacity building (i.e., development of skill, knowledge, resources), teacher collaboration, pedagogy, and “systemness” are dominant, then (and only then) can accountability and a focus on individual teacher quality serve a useful function.

Why doesn’t accountability work as a driver? Because a focus on standards and tests for accountability purposes undermines the autonomy of teachers and the creative energy that comes from an autonomous environment. Fullan explains, “The net result of excessive testing is that, instead of teachers being swept up to ride waves of successful reform, they will be crushed by a veritable tsunami of standards and assessments…Moreover the current standards-assessment imposition is so great that it will end up squelching any possibility that the higher-order skills (which require engagement and ingenuity) will be accomplished” (p. 9).

What’s wrong with focusing on individual teacher quality? Because we then focus on rewarding the good teachers and punishing the bad teachers while ignoring the fact that real change in a system requires a change in culture and a change in culture comes from collaborative efforts. Fullan comments, “The fallacy–to which the US, with its ‘rugged individual’ traditions, is particularly susceptible–is that success does not come from ad hoc individuals beavering away but rather from strategies that leverage the group” (p. 10). Develop a collaborative culture, focus on capacity building instead of individual rewards and punishments, put trust in teachers instead of regulations, and the rest will follow.


“Nice theory,” you say, “but show me a country that has achieved excellence by focusing on such things as collaboration, capacity building, and trust.” OK. Finland. Finland redesigned its educational system over the last 30 years. Accountability and standardized tests were minimized. So was competition between teachers and schools. The results? Finland has now become one of the top-performing nations on International comparisons—with the least amount of disparity between students. That’s right, Finland is one of the highest performing and most equitable nations. All this despite the fact that they don’t care much about standardized testing, don’t give homework, and have less instructional hours and school days than almost all the other comparison nations (in contrast to, like, Japan that has more hours and more school days plus Saturday school for many students). Finland simply does what it does well. How did it get there?

If anyone knows anything about Finnish education, it’s Pasi Sahlberg. He’s been a key part of the Finnish education system and an influential Finnish scholar. His recently updated book, Finnish Lessons 2.0 (http://pasisahlberg.com/finnish-lessons/about-finnish-lessons), provides an informative and inspiring account of Finland’s transformation from educational mediocrity to excellence. A prominent theme throughout his book is that Finland’s educational system represents a stark contrast to the Global Educational Reform Movements (GERMs) that are based on such principles as standardized curriculums, test-based accountability and control, and market-oriented reform strategies. Pasi comments, “The main message of this book is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to educational professions” (p. 5).

In Finland, teachers are given are large degree of autonomy and responsibility in the schools. They help design the curriculums and assessments. In fact, they were involved in creating the current Finnish system and there is a large degree of ownership of the system by Finnish teachers. The teachers are also well prepared (all are required to have a masters degree) and well supported. Teaching hours per teacher are among the lowest of all developed nations (nearly half that of the US), which allows more time for collaboration and leadership.

Pasi writes, “The Finish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation—not choice and competition—can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement” (p. 9).

The US is not Finland and it would be naïve to believe that the Finnish model could simply be transplanted to the US. On the other hand, there is a lot we could learn from the Finnish model and it just might save us from our current GERM infection.