In a recent ScienceDebate questionnaire response, speechwriters for Candidate Mitt Romney tried to distinguish themselves from speechwriters for President Obama on education(1), and then proceeded to say the exact same thing Candidate Obama said in 2008 about education - that the union system of protecting the teachers who have been around the longest rather than rewarding the ones who are the best is a big mistake.
Basically, Romney believes that science education should be more of a meritocracy - just like science is.  Oddly, scientists in academia, who support the idea of meritocracy in their jobs, disagree with it when they vote on other social issues.  Liberalism is not meritocracy, it is an economically tempered version of freedom and most scientists are liberals. A few, though a lot more in the humanities, are instead progressives and therefore social authoritarian and they have no business in any discussion that does not involve jeering and ridicule.  In science, while progressivism is a cancer, liberalism is essential - you instinctively know that transformative science is not done by being conservative. 

Yet when it comes to raising kids, being conservative is essential; they can't make decisions for themselves, so we don't let them buy cigarettes or raw milk or anything else that could kill them. Those standards are always in flux; when I was a kid you could buy beer at 18 but today it is 21.(2) You can still go to war, you just can't legally have a beer after you shoot at terrorists, because you might hurt someone. Baffling, but evidence that despite what the shrillest kooks on the fringes will claim, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work and we should instead use the cultural tool that matches the goal.  We don't want people starving on the street but penalizing the best students in order to create a zero-defect mentality about the worst is not the way to have a 21st-century science enterprise. 

Some countries embrace both liberalism and conservativism and simply use what works best. Let's talk about one.

Kalevala heroes on wall of Old Student House, Helsinki.  Traditional, and therefore works better than newfangled experiments and union activism. Credit: Shutterstock

In Finland, education is decentralized and primarily under teacher control.  Even the grading metric is customized. Children only take one standardized test, basically at the end of high school.

A program with no accountability, subjective grading and the students don't even wear shoes?  That has to be left wing, right?  No, it's actually right wing, Finland's school culture is what they call 'pedagogical conservatism'. To see why it works we have to go back in time to the period before America became overrun by progressive tinkering and a modern union juggernaut that protects weak teachers at the expense of students, a topic Alex Berezow and I cover in detail in our science education section of Science Left Behind.

By the end of the 19th century, more Americans than ever were getting an education and the overall baseline quality was consistent but it was harder for elites to stand out using that collectivist approach to education.  Enter John Dewey, a progressive full of new ideas about how to make education better - he championed an entirely new structure, with a core tenet that social acclimation was the key benefit of government-controlled education and his ideas were brought on by a desire to nurture the exceptional students.  A contemporary named E.L. Thorndike created a stimulus-response definition of intelligence that lent some science credibility to Dewey's beliefs.

 imagined the human mind as a switchboard with neural bonds connecting stimuli and responses. He believed that students of higher intelligence formed those bonds more quickly than students of lower intellect, and by focusing on thinking rather than teaching facts, the schools would be more easily able to identify the students who matched his idea of intelligence ... With a plan for how elites could stand out from other students, Readin’, Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic gave way to word problems, and vocational programs were created for those with less psychological “connectionism” aptitude. Progressives thereby were nurturing elites and meeting the labor demands of America's burgeoning industrial society.  

(Science Left Behind, pp.182-184)
You read that right; the benevolent paternalism of futuristic progressive education was to find students who did not match a psychologist's 1920s definition of intelligence and train them to be laborers for intellectual elites who did. Sounds dystopian and cynical, right?  It's actually what we have still today.  You can also thank Dewey for the legacy of the modern School Board populated by elected people who know nothing about education, and the lingering patriarchal system where a male superintendent oversees a workforce that is primarily female. 

What has Finland instead done right and why do they embrace conservativism in education? One obvious thing is to disqualify the 'scientization of opinion':
A professional disease among teachers is the tendency to individualize and psychologise
problems. In other words, they look for reasons first of all in their own (or their pupils’ or
principal’s) personalities, and are thereby blind to the factors that define and limit the action possibilities of teachers (and pupils).

Den Dolda läroplanen [The hidden curriculum] (Broady, 1987) translation by Hannu Simola, University of Helsinki, Finland
That's right, they treat education as an issue and do not make it about individuals.  No fluff about how it takes perfect teachers or that children have ADD or bad parents or anything else, teachers have to perform in their job, which is teaching.  Finland does not use education studies or test results as hammers in their culture war, to create new rules for governance and reasons for union control. By focusing on making the system the best possible, and not being handcuffed by tenure-based rules on who gets to teach, Finland achieves more parity than the US today, where we clearly see "have" and "have nots".

The American education system instead uses under-performing schools to claim that more money will solve the problem, or advocate hiring more employees to replace the ones who quit out of frustration with a flawed system. We could learn another lesson from the Finns.  Finland has also cast off its agrarian school year mentality. Who insists that the patriarchal, be-home-to-plant-crops-during-the-summer school year of 1860 remain in effect even today?  Education unions, not parents. People forget that teachers only work 180 days per year (and that is being generous - California schools have dozens of 'minimum' and 'super-minimum' days designed to make sure the school gets a whole day of funding though no kids are being taught) while most Americans work 240 - that is two solid months of extra vacation time.  On a per-hour basis, teachers are paid quite well but student scores suffer in a legacy system no one in education wants to change; instead, when it is time for funding, unions note how 'low' the salaries are.

Finland was among the last countries in Europe to establish compulsory education, they did not create a government system until 1921. The people there were so conservative 80% of the public was against it and yet now teaching is a prestigious profession; because you can fire bad teachers and not simply lay off  the new, enthusiastic ones. Competition, a meritocracy, has made teaching a high-class career where the best and brightest gather.

In Finland, education is conservative and traditional yet collectivist, there is no focus on 'nurturing the individual' or framing education through social justice issues.  To American progressives, it's almost like a Pink Floyd song, except all the people complaining about being 'Another Brick In The Wall' failed to realize that subjective, ever-changing cultural engineering is actually a lousy way to teach.  Then those same people will note how poorly American students due on international standardized tests compared to Finland.

So Finland is a right wing, capitalist nation?  Absolutely not, they are as collectivist as it gets economically too.  But they are not hampered by the simplistic left and right modes we get in modern American politics.  They can be collectivist about money and individualist about letting teachers have control and firing bad ones; they are collectivist about students being the priority, not teacher unions, and the result is a better education overall.  Liberal about economics, conservative about students.

And it works. Because no society should embrace a giant tent when it comes to diverse issues; that mediocrity is why this presidential election we have a choice between two really underwhelming candidates yet 40% of people on each side refuse to vote any other way.


The Finnish Miracle by Hank Pellissier,

School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity Improving school leadership by:Andrew Hargreaves, Rapporteur Gábor Halász, Beatriz Pont

The Finnish miracle of PISA: historical and sociological remarks on teaching and teacher education by Hannu Simola, Comparative Education Vol. 41, No. 4, November 2005, pp. 455–470


(1) Not to be too hard on the guy, since others have done it already, but Pres. Obama really phoned  in these responses.  His handlers know science academia is in the bag for him and acted like they could barely be bothered whereas someone in the Romney campy really took some time.  It won't matter, of course, ScienceDebate did not change a single vote among the science community and wouldn't have even if Obama had no bothered to answer at all. As I noted in Do Democrats Really Care About Science?, this is why scientists are not treated like a legitimate constituency but could be again some day. They just need to vote on their core issues and stop adapting to any issue Democrats roll out and tell them to accept.

(2) Changes don't always get more social authoritarian. When I was a child, the speed limit was 55 MPH, now it is generally 65.  Why did society suddenly stop caring about kids dying at 56 MPH and up? "It's for the children" thinking only goes so far on long road trips. California, at least, has bolstered social authoritarianism about kids in other ways; the next round of 'child seat' laws could have teenagers required to use them.