Finnish school (From Smithsonian)
Americans like to think of themselves as valuing personal freedom and equality of opportunity, but also praise individual initiative and personal success. Individualism and entrepreneurism, core American ideals, foster competitiveness. In the ongoing efforts to improve American schools, these values tend to rise to the surface in the measures most often advocated – school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure. So far, the results have not been impressive. In international rankings, including the PISA surveys, US students tend to be at best in the middle of the pack. It may be that marketplace competition which works in the business world doesn’t translate well to schools.
A country that perennially ranks near the top in PISA tests, Finland, like the US an individualist culture, has a quite different approach to education. The small Scandinavian country is an outlier among the countries at the top, which are mostly from collectivistic cultures in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, China). The Finnish approach does not feature school choice — there are no private or charter schools — standardized testing, or teacher accountability. A recent article in the Atlantic on Finnish schools cites one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, on the current buzzword in US education, accountability: “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Teacher performance is monitored by individual schools, mostly by the school principal. Teachers are given a great deal of individual responsibility and design their own testing. All students go to public schools at no cost and all schools have essentially the same financial resources. Ironically, the talk by Sahlberg that is the main source of information in the article was given at Dwight School, a private, for profit secondary school in New York that costs $35,000 a year to attend. Teachers in Finland, as in many cultures, enjoy relatively high pay as well as considerable prestige. That seems to make a difference in the quality of teachers. The irony of the Finnish success story is that in their school reform efforts they did not set out to achieve excellence, but rather wanted to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or family educational levels. There may be a lesson there for US education reformers: real equity rather than more differentiation.
Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel during his recent trip abroad raise interesting questions about the relationship between cultural values and economic success. He compared the much higher per capita income in Israel compared to Palestine: “Culture makes all the difference…and as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” He didn’t enter into any specifics on what cultural differences he had in mind, presumably aspects of the culture that favor industry, frugality, and an entrepreneurial spirit? Or was it individualism (Israel) versus collectivism (Palestine)?
This echoes the discussion that has arisen from President Obama’s comments that successful businesses in the United States were not built exclusively by the business owners, but owed part of their success to the infrastructure created by American tax payers. Objections were quickly raised that business owners created success exclusively through their own initiative and hard work – the triumphant result of unbridled individualism. Reminds me of the hefty debates over Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village” and the criticism of this advocacy of “collectivism”. A particular virulent attack on collectivism comes from the “one government” critics.
Romney’s remarks were criticized in that he didn’t talk about the very unequal opportunities in Israel and Palestine. He was also way off in stating that personal income in Israel is twice that in Palestine: it’s more like 20 to 1. Of course what Romney meant by “success” was exclusively economic prosperity – as a businessman that is understandably his focus. Is the point of his comparison that Palestinians would be well advised to change their cultural values? It would be interesting to see where the Israel and Palestine rank in happiness indices.
Gee, all you need for knowing about other cultures, right on your smart phone. The CultureGPS app allows you to call up one of over 100 countries/regions and have a score displayed on how that culture ranks in terms of Gert Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation. The paid version (25$) allows for comparing the scores of two cultures. In the FAQ on their Web site, they admit that individuals from the target cultures do not necessarily reflect the scores shown, but they don’t mention variations based on region, membership in minority ethnic groups, gender, age, all of which can be significant.
On possible cultural change that might affect the accuracy of the information, the FAQ says that “On principle, culture is very stable” but does admit that catastrophic events might cause some variations. I would categorize culture as dynamic and cultural identity as being influenced these days by so many factors, especially on-line roles and personas, that it is a complex issue. Their disclaimer may point to the real usefulness of the app, namely to drum up business for their training seminars: “The information contained in CultureGPS is intended as a guideline and for creating awareness. Proper use can only be assured when having undertaken one of our intercultural management trainings. Its use by those who have not received such training may result in error.”