Should we rank schools?

Experiment: Finding the reality behind an argument

A colleague recently shared this article about the disagreements about ranking secondary schools in Finland. The prevailing discourse in the US, the UK, and in many parts of the world is that ranking schools is a way to ensure that all schools are excellent. The idea is that competition would set up a system of innovation.“This will unleash the drive, imagination, and energy of competitive free enterprise to revolutionize the education process. The competition will force government schools to improve in order to retain their clientele” (Friedman, 1997, p. 341). The Fins have the opposite view. The article states that competition between schools through a ranking system is seen as detrimental because  “if we started believing some schools were better than others, those schools would attract the best teachers and the most advantaged students. The rest of the schools would see their reputations decline and have a hard time keeping, and recruiting, good teachers. That, in turn, could harm the quality of many schools” (Annala, 2015). The difference between the two views is not the aspiration, it is the assumed reality.

The arguments for competition between schools starts from the “reality” of an antagonistic relationship. This is evident from statements like this; “It is demonstrated that such a market system would unite the goals of educators and families, encourage innovation, and discourage many of the inefficient and educationally irrelevant practices engendered by the public schools system” (Coulson, 1993, p. 9). The author’s reality is that educators and families disagree, schools are old-fashioned and stuck in their ways, and that it is easy to see which parts of schools are useful and which aren’t. The idea that schools can be made “efficient” is also a big clue that he doesn’t view school as a caring process that takes time and effort. To him, it is a mechanistic view of inputs and outputs that can be easily sped up or simplified.

I think that the people of Finland would disagree with that reality and with the assumption that competition would improve schools. “As a Finn, I feel very strongly that everyone should get equal opportunities in life. I believe one good way to try to accomplish that is to have equally good schools available for everyone, and to avoid letting some schools get a better reputation than others” (Annala, 2015). This is a fundamentally different worldview. Interestingly, this quote is from the journalist who led the ranking of Finland’s schools. She disagreed with the premise of doing it, but also felt strongly that questioning the current system was necessary. The Finnish News Agency conducted an in-depth investigation of the appropriate ways to actually rank the secondary schools in Finland and found something shocking; they were all very similar. To authors like Coulson, this probably seems impossible. The top rated schools in the word without competition?! Inconceivable!

In my opinion, this is not a causal question with a simple answer (like competition). The Finnish view here was to not do “harm” to the schools. To ensure that schools are excellent, we need to start with the premise that schools are an extension of our own values, not something we must fight against. We need to take steps to ensure that schools are reflective of society as a whole rather than subject to the disparities within a community. Only by starting at a point of unity can we end at a point of equality. This is not “dumbing down” or “redistributing” but an acknowledgment that instilling inequality will not end in equality. Competition is not the answer, working together is the answer.

In case you are interested in how the US, Finland or another country ranks according to PISA:

OECD all countries

Annala, M. (2015). Why One Journalist Decided to Rank Finland’s Schools. The Atlantic. Retreived from  http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/ranking-high-schools-in-finland/417333/ 

Coulson, A. J. (1994). Human Life, Human Organizations and Education.Education Policy Analysis Archives, 2, 9-48. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v2n9.1994

Friedman, M. (1997). Public Schools: Make Them Private. Education Economics, 5(3), 341-344. doi:10.1080/09645299700000026

The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). (2015). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

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