Happy Obsession

I always find it ironic if not a little silly when someone (especially someone who’s never taught actual children) suggests that the answer to every question regarding improving American education is to offer prizes or punishments based on standardized test scores. The rationale behind such misguided “motivators” is often a panicked “Our Kids Aren’t Prepared for Their Global Competition!” Put aside for a moment that this statement may or may not be true, the premise is that (1) prizes and punishments will produce higher test scores; and (2) higher test scores will in fact prepare U.S. students to compete globally; and (3) high test scores are the purpose of education.

My point is that these dots do not connect. Yes, indeed, we have global economic competition. Most of the world’s creative thought-work can be done regardless of borders. Writers. Researchers. Architects. Engineers. Designers. It’s not just cheap labor from a foreign factory taking U.S. jobs. More and more folks live in a world where their work can be outsourced, and they want something to offer to that global employer. But I would quickly add that the goal of a good education isn’t solely a better chance for a good job (although I certainly have no problem with our students getting good jobs). The goal of good education is to give our students a better chance at a good life.


Which begs the question; do good scores mean a good life? Asians now occupy the top five slots in PISA Math and Reading rankings. But Google “Singapore” and “Stress”. There are 16 million hits. The New York Times reports that Singapore will stop releasing the names of top-performing students who are often bombarded by offers from companies to endorse commercial products that they can claim boost scores (like chicken soup – I am not making this up) so that panicked parents will rush out and buy. In Hong Kong parents begin the fierce competition to get their children into elite high schools by making sure they get the right test scores in elite kindergartens. Parents are obviously stressed. But there’s a price to be paid by their children for this stress. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University reports that one-third of their students have tried to hurt themselves with almost 14% having experienced suicidal thoughts.

Canada also has consistently scored well in international rankings. But it’s worth noting that they didn’t do it through obsessive test drills, pay-by-test-scores, or a culture of parents distraught over their child’s kindergarten report card. They did it with a systems-approach to the whole child, including fostering safe and accepting schools; physical activity and nutrition; and a program of “open minds, healthy minds” making mental health an education issue.

Our Canadian friends know that school climate impacts academic results, but it also impacts that child’s resilience when things don’t go well; it impacts how that child interacts with others when he’s angry or disappointed; it impacts all the things that it takes to be a successful member of society.

Canadian children are given grade-span tests in elementary, middle and high school, but not for high-stakes. “Standardized tests are only a small portion of the Canadian student’s educational experience and are used with other sources of information to guide how we can further help our students,” says Dawn Imada Chan, a teacher and education consultant from Toronto.

And finally, there’s Finland. Save me your, “Finland isn’t anything like the U.S.” argument. Here’s the thing. They weren’t always where they are. Thirty years ago they decided on a plan. They worked the plan. And the plan had nothing to do with test scores or merit pay or privatized public schools or fast-track teachers. Their secret sauce has three ingredients: (1) Equitable, adequate resources in every school so that every public school is as good as their best public schools; (2) Highly trained, trusted, career professionals; (3) Authority for those trusted professionals to use their professional judgment to collaborate and make instructional decisions best-suited for their students.

But for me, the important part of the Finnish plan is the purpose of the plan, the purpose of education: Building a good society. We talk a good game about public schools being vital to our democracy; to ethical citizens, but the talk doesn’t wash with the “rank, punish, reward” standardized testing cult. I’ve never heard anyone try to argue that higher test scores are essential to a better community. The argument is almost always an economic one. And we know how to build a billionaire. On the Forbes list of Countries by Billionaires, U.S. is number #1 with 536. Canada is #10 with 39. Finland doesn’t make the list.

Finnish educator and author, Pasi Sahlberg, holds his head high because getting rich isn’t the purpose of Finnish education. “Becoming a member of any community means that an individual needs to have adequate interpersonal skills, understanding of different cultures and good understanding of moral responsibilities in life. It’s character and mind that matter in competitive labor markets today, not being among winners in knowledge tests.”


Researchers Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves explain, “The Finns build their future by wedding education to economic development, without sacrificing culture and creativity. They promote a broad and enriching curriculum, rather than obsessing only about literacy and math; they raise standards by lifting the many, rather than pushing a privileged few. And they morally inspire, rather than financially incentivize, a high- status profession.”

I spoke with a Finnish teacher in January during a tour of her school. I had a million questions. She had only one for me. “What do they think all that testing in your country will get you if the students grow up and they aren’t happy with their lives?”

Our global competition does not come in a standardized form. Test scores do tell something. That Hong Kong scores well and their students are suicidal tells us something else. That Canada scores well and it supports mental health services in schools tells something else. That Finland scores well and teachers are given broad decision-making authority to design and deliver instruction with nary a prize nor a punishment nor a standardized test, for that matter, in sight tells something else again.

I don’t mind looking at rankings from time to time. When it tells something. On the 2010 rankings by the Gallup World Poll and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finland was found to be the second Happiest Place on Earth. I’m not making this up. They say it’s their high literacy rate, access to health care, low levels of corruption, little income inequality and healthy work-life balance. In a Post-Standardized-Test World, which I hope we are moving towards with all due and happy speed, maybe this is the ranking worthy of our obsession.

3 Responses to “Happy Obsession”

  1. Ron Moss

    I’m in totally agreement with this. The purpose of education is to provide students with the necessary knowledge, tools, and skills that will allow them to apply these qualities of learning to everyday situations in this world whereby allowing one to have a meaningful and worthwhile quality of life that will be beneficial to oneself and

  2. Glenhelen Smither

    Fabulous! Very well said! Now….how do we get there? How do I help make this change? I’m a Graduation Specialist in a small rural town riddled with mediocrity is the standard. So far I’ve been gathering like-minded people but I get tired of discussion and want action!

  3. David Cuestas

    An excellent education is one that puts the children at the center and values them by acknowledging their culture, their language, their family, and the innate sense of community in all of us. Tests scores play no part in this process. A well rounded education our country comes from knowing and accepting that we are different but that it is our diversity which makes us better. Our education system will not improve til we stop understanding that we are a nation of immigrants but accepting AND believing that it is a great thing! One way to teach, and tests to eliminate creativity and therefore competition, cannot address our students need to accomplishh a successful life.


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