New Orleans is the new Finland in Douglas N. Harris’s new book, Charter School City. An obsession with Finland swept through the education policy world in the first years of this century, when that country’s students posted particularly strong results on some international tests. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers flocked to Finland to identify the secret of their success. Most of them returned home trumpeting whatever policy they had already been championing as the “key” to superior performance in Finland. If they opposed testing, they noted Finland’s low reliance on standardized testing. If they favored higher teacher pay and stricter credentialing, they touted Finland’s teacher preparation and compensation policies. If they favored progressive education pedagogy, they focused on the priority Finland gives to the arts and child-centered learning.
In truth, these analysts had no way of isolating which features of the Finnish education system or society might be responsible for that country’s high test scores. All of these policies were in place at the same time, and any of them could have helped, hurt, or had no effect on Finnish results. For all we know, strong test performance there was caused by the type of fish the Finns eat—or it was merely a fluke. Undeterred, those determined to learn from Finland chose to focus on a particular feature and tell a plausible story about how that feature produced Finnish success, as if that were persuasive evidence of a causal effect.