Look to Europe to improve our educational system

Published in The News Tribune, August 29, 2012

Looking to European countries for policy advice these days might seem like an untimely undertaking.  But when it comes to education, Europe is a key place to watch.  And we’d be well advised to not just pay attention, but to climb aboard the same bandwagon that so many European nations are now on.

Over the last several decades many European countries have made great strides in improving their educational systems.  This has been evident not just in international test scores, but also in the growing number of years their students remain in school.  Meanwhile, young adults in the United States today are no more educated than were young adults one or two decades ago; by some measures they are even less educated.  We’re one of the very few countries in the world about which this can be said.

So what is it that European countries have been doing?  They’ve introduced many changes, but I want to single out one you’ll find in countries such as Poland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and England:  the transfer of responsibility and authority from governments – typically the federal or central government – to schools.

School leaders in those countries have been acquiring considerable autonomy over their hiring, curriculum, and budgetary decisions.  This change mostly has been in response to the recognition that central government decision-making over what goes on in a nation’s classrooms isn’t a great idea.  Local knowledge regarding which teachers work best in what class settings, and where resources might be reallocated to create large gains in achievement, is hard to pass upstairs to a complex bureaucracy.  Local leaders who have that knowledge need the autonomy to act on it.  To a surprising extent, European countries have been giving it to them.  And it’s paying off.

If you’re a proponent of local control of schools, stifle those cheers for a few more lines.  What European countries have not done is back down from either their commitment to centrally-fund schools or to setting academic standards at the national level.  In fact England has introduced greater school-level autonomy at the same time as it has expanded the central government’s obligation to fund schools and authority to set academic standards.

European countries are getting two things right.  First, they are reevaluating their educational system by rethinking where responsibility over key aspects of it should lie.  That rethinking has resulted in them expanding the authority of school-level leaders.

But giving schools more independence doesn’t always work.  Without effective external monitoring, many autonomous schools could become hotbeds of waste and inefficiency and followers of fads.  Thus, a second and necessary part of an emerging European model is to couple school autonomy over staffing, budget and curriculum decisions with clear and measurable national expectations of what all kids should know and be able to do.

In America, we’ve avoided both of these things.  We’ve been hanging on to – indeed elaborating on – an evolving system of school, district, state and federal roles and responsibilities that are simply handed down from one year to the next with little attention paid to whether these are best, or if the collective effect is a successful one.

One result is that today America’s schools have limited autonomy because they must comply with countless mandates from local, state and federal governments.  No Child Left Behind is the most well-known example of this; but there are too many other ways in which our school system is burdened by its many and inconsistent masters.

We’ve wound up in a really odd place; school leaders have limited discretion but are more responsible for what discretion they do have.  This is a bit akin to a hypothetical state where Mariners’ General Manager Zduriencik calls inning-by-inning decisions from a booth above the field, but holds Manager Wedge responsible for how things turn out at the end of the game.

Such an arrangement would defy common sense.  So too does the way we distribute decision-making authority, and the responsibility for those decisions, within our nation’s public school system.

It’s not often Americans look abroad for answers to problems here on the home front.  But if we want an educational system worth copying, nowadays that’s one of the best places to look.