More Serious Friday Nordic Blogging

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Writing in Newsweek, Obama education adviser Linda Darling-Hammond talks about lessons from Finland and she wasn’t even on my recent education policy junket to Finland. Dana Goldstein was on said junket and also writes about education policy lessons from Finland for The American Prospect.

For my own part, visiting Finland mostly confirms things that I think we already knew about education. But what’s interesting about visiting a prosperous, egalitarian social democracy with a high level of education is less that it teaches us things we didn’t know, but that it shows that certain kind of theoretical constructs we all understand can be realized in practice. I think if you asked just about anyone “would our school achievement be better if the child poverty rate were dramatically lower?” they would say that it would. Similarly, if you ask if school achievement would be more even if school funding were even, they would say that it would. And if you asked if providing higher-quality early childhood education more broadly would enhance achievement, everyone would say yes. And if you asked what would happen if we drastically increased the number of people who want to be teachers, such that slots in teacher training programs were highly competitive, people would tell you that student achievement would improve. And if you asked people whether higher levels of educational attainment would boost prosperity, people would tell you yes. And if you asked whether more equal education outcomes would lead to a more even distribution of income, they would tell you it would. And if you asked whether a more even distribution of income would lead to more even education outcomes, people would tell you it would.

But even though I don’t think anyone would really dispute any of that, we don’t just do that stuff. Instead, we’re trapped in a frustrating circle of passive acceptance of the idea that we just have to live in a country where public services are ill-funded and poorly delivered. And it’s not just that conservatives block reforms — progressives have let their horizons slip incredibly low. A country that once built transcontinental railroads and sent people to the moon has decided that for some reason it’d just be impossible to solve our current social problems. And when you point out to people that there are countries where the political system has taken decisive action to tackle these challenges, people kind of shrug and observe that the United States is very big. Which is true. But the country was also big years ago when we were building the world’s first mass literacy society. Indeed, it used to be considered advantageous to the United States that we were so big and people used to wonder whether small countries weren’t just inherently stuck in poverty.

The truth of the matter, however, isn’t that our problems couldn’t be solved it’s that we’re not seriously trying. And we’ve developed a political culture in which that’s considered okay.