Leaps of faith: the successful policy without evidence

Finnish schools are among the best in the world, but did not know, and apparently did not want to know it. Ironically, Finns found out that they were actually doing great on education just in 2000 when they participated in PISA – a standardized test given to 15-year-olds on their reading, math and science skills. As this article gathers, it was unexpected. A school principal even said: “I’m still surprised; I didn’t realize we were that good.”

PISA, like many other tools to assess public policies in different topics, seeks to inform countries how well they are doing, and to create a body of knowledge on what makes a difference in the school system. Is it the teacher’s education and training? Is it parental involvement? PISA has also been used as a way of showing the impact of a given program. So one could argue there are many benefits from generating data and evidence on what works in the schooling system. Furthermore, it could be argued that information allows specific countries to monitor and understand their own performance.

But going back to understanding how Finns actually did it: isn’t it all very contradictory?  Finns, do not have standardized test to know how they are performing or to tie it to monetary incentives for teachers or schools. There are no rankings to know which school is doing better and therefore no competition but rather collaboration. So, how did they do it? Isn’t evidence supposed to be a precondition for good policy?

Let’s dig a little deeper. On his book Finnish Lessons Pasi Sahlberg does a great job overviewing the 40-year process of constructing what is now their schooling system. Instead of finding silver bullet solutions, through the traditional measuring and evaluations that we are used to think about when we imagine policy reform, he summarizes reforms in three broad sections (we are talking about decade-long periods):

–          Rethinking the theoretical and methodological foundations

–          Improvement through networking and self-regulated change

–          Enhancing efficiency of structures and administration.

And these different phases certainly involved carrying out research and communicating it widely, but not in the way evidence is constructed. Knowledge was used as a tool for dialogue and consensus-building exercises. As Pasi Sahlberg suggest, Finnish educational researchers were focusing on analyzing the root concepts: knowledge, learning, change, and so on. For instance, some of the books and materials that were aimed at the stakeholders, primarily teachers were: “Conception of Learning” and “How do schools change?” Knowledge-creation was not focused on finding evidence but rather on creating a joint view of education and changing practices from within with some hints from philosophy, psychology and other sciences.

Interestingly the author comment on a variety of international knowledge from the United Stated, Canada and the United Kingdom that was implemented in their schooling system even before they were applied in those countries. As a matter of fact, those countries saw, according to the author, the appearance of regulation and control in their schools much to the opposite of what was going on in Finland.

So, if evidence, in the way “evidence-based policy” suggests, was not the key to success, what was?  What can we learn from this case?

–          Doing it against all odds. Sahlberg touches on this topic just slightly but I think that there is something to be said on the attitude of carrying out policy not to support current evidence but to prove it wrong. Outsiders were skeptic about the Finnish reforms, but internally they had strong convictions on what they wanted to achieve.

–          Knowledge for dialogue and participation. The growing interest on impacting policy and reaching policymakers has made us pay specific attention to how evidence is used by them, but not necessarily by others. This case challenges this notion and strengthens the view that change occurs when many actors discuss the topics and participate actively. Knowledge is essential in this construction.

–          Collaboration, not competition. Evidence regarding quality of schools presented as rankings or grades tends to create incentives for competition and not collaboration. The same happens with other evidence-based approaches to measuring performance, efficiency among different organizations or territories. Even tough competition can be a good incentive for improvement, so can collaboration. Is there any way evidence-based policies can promote both?

–          First shared-goals, then evidence. As I have discussed previously, situations where there is little agreement on norms and values are rough terrains for evidence. Following the previous point, without shared goals and vision evidence could be used to divide the positions even further rather than to build consensus.

On a conversation about Finnish schools with Danish teachers, they cautioned me on trying to take their reforms somewhere else. Even them – that have a largely homogeneous culture – see with skepticism the possibility to replicate the Finnish system. This is not surprising since what is worth noting is how Finns did it: they did not copy any model.