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A map of the world

Since the PISA-results bomb dropped last December, myriad reports have been released, op-eds written, and dinner conversations had comparing the American education system to high-achieving OECD nations. Some of them have been pretty smart. Others have been reasonably vapid, if well-intentioned. And almost all seem compelled to hail Finland. If only our system could be more Scandinavian, they croon.

Absolutely there are some elements of the Finnish system that should be lauded and emulated (their rigorous teacher training and constant loop of peer-feedback are big ones for me). But turning our schools into a United States of Finland will no sooner skyrocket our children's achievement than adopting whole-hog the policies of South Korea (with its strict, albeit slackening test-based culture) or even Poland or South Africa (which have been marking sharp gains in student achievement since stepping from the shadows of the Soviet Union and apartheid, respectively.

Thing is, there is no perfect system. And touting one in its entirety blinds us from some important points regarding international comparisons and takeaways.

Here is what we should be considering:

The Devil is in the details:

Sweeping comparisons of entire education systems make for explosive headlines and engaging reading (and fun ?what if? or ?if only? games). But when it comes...


Here's one for you:

    Rosa Parks : Civil Rights Movement ::? _________ : Current Education Reform Movement

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="203" caption="Photo by ElvertBarnes"][/caption]

It's a trick question (er, analogy). We don't have one. We don't have a sweet little old lady, smartly chosen by the movement to be our rallying point. We don't have an ever-perfect individual, or even one who can be deified as such.

Instead, the reform movement is spearheaded and kept running by myriad ?real? people, all with their own strengths?and their own imperfections. Take Michelle Rhee?who, for better or worse?has come to personify the reform movement; she's a spitfire. She's passionate and intelligent and has proven herself to be (through Students First) a fantastic mobilizer. But, she can also be abrasive and has been known to trample collaboration in her race to improved teacher quality.

Yet, I wonder: Is that really a bad thing? Do we need a Rosa Parks for this generation's civil-rights movement? I don't think we do. I think our real people, who make real mistakes, are exactly what the doctor prescribed.

Yet, as the fallout from Paul Tough's recent New York Times Magazine article painfully shows, reformers are reticent to accept this Rx. For those who haven't yet read the article, Tough raised some tough questions about the ?no excuses? culture of the reform movement. Notably: How can reformers claim to embrace a ?no excuses? (no excuses for...


Over the past decade, Detroit's population has declined by 25 percent. Since its heyday in 1950, the city has contracted by about 40 percent. (It now sits at about 700,000, making it the 18th most populous city in the country.) Coupled with this exodus is a gang of usual social ills (some causes of the flight, others caused, or exacerbated, by it)?emptied buildings lead to urban decay, companies having difficulty attracting talent leave in search of stronger human-capital pipelines, idle and disaffected youth turn to street gangs for income and worth.

And the schools suffer. In Detroit (though this problem isn't unique to Motown), school buildings are only filled to half-capacity. Parents who can have plucked up their children and quickly deposited them in neighboring suburban districts with more resources and better teachers.

Couple these general issues with the particulars that ravage Detroit Public Schools?a long history of corruption among city officials, abysmal student achievement (just look at the latest fourth-grade NAEP results), a steadfast and ridiculously antiquated system (including a hell-bent teacher union)?and you've got the ultimate dog's breakfast.

And things just don't seem to be getting better. Of course, this isn't for a lack of trying. You've got to praise Teach For America, which has recently pushed its way back into Detroit after a union-forced seven year hiatus. Kudos should also go out to the work the Skillman Foundation is doing on the ground in the city, as well as to the...