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Public-Private Partnerships in School Education – Learning and Insights for India

Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)

Shweta Chaudhry & Aarushi Uboweja

Central Square Foundation; Working Paper

March 2014

Abstract: Public-Private Partnerships can introduce innovation and investment into India’s government school system, which urgently needs to improve the quality of education. Lessons from existing models in India and international efforts at collaboration between the private and public sector show that PPPs have an important role in improving the system.

The complete working paper can be accessed here.

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In Chinese Schools, Disabled Get Shortchanged

Access to education


The New York Times

BEIJING — Mike, 13, lives on the outskirts of Beijing. He is gifted: He plays the piano by ear and, most afternoons, practices singing Italian opera. Yet Mike, whose family has requested that his Chinese name not be used, may never be able to go to university, or even high school, because he is almost completely blind.

Now in junior high, he has no special assistance in class and has to navigate the curriculum by himself. It takes him hours to take exams, trying to see the tests with what little vision he has in one eye. Because of his handicap, he receives no grades. With no grades, he is practically shut out from higher education.

“We are still trying to find a way for him,” said Mike’s mother, who requested anonymity to avoid further discrimination against her son. “Maybe he can go abroad or study art, but it seems there is no way for him to have access to higher education in China.”

China has approximately 85 million people with disabilities, according to the United Nations. Experts in the field, including professors of special education, human-rights officials and lawyers representing the disabled, say that the Chinese government, despite some progress, is not doing enough to ensure that people with disabilities have equitable access to higher education — or really any education at all.

At the end of 2012, more than 90,000 disabled children had no access to schooling, according to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, a quasi- government organization. Between 2008 and 2012, only 35,000 disabled people were enrolled in mainstream higher-education institutions, the organization said. To put that in context, nearly seven million people graduated from college in China in 2013 alone.

“Higher-education discrimination is the tip of the iceberg,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “A lot of students with disabilities face discrimination at the lower levels.”

A 2013 Human Rights Watch report noted that in 2008 the Chinese government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which calls for inclusive education at all levels. Still, the report said, the central government in Beijing “has no clear and consistent strategy to achieve that goal.”

Instead, the government has poured billions of dollars into developing a separate special-education system, from primary-school level to college, for the disabled. These special schools, however, sometimes lack trained teachers, are far from the homes of students, and prevent students from ever crossing back into mainstream education, Human Rights Watch said. The two systems “exist in parallel and rarely interact,” the report said.

Within the special system, students who are blind or deaf are often shunted into vocational schools or colleges that offer training in music, painting, or massage therapy — jobs deemed appropriate for the disabled.

“These options are based stereotypically on what people with disabilities might be good at doing,” said Ms. Wang, of Human Rights Watch. “There are very limited choices, and if they do want to try mainstream education, they face very high barriers.”

Xi Fang, now 40, is an example. Ms Xi, who is deaf, works for a small nonprofit in Shanghai that makes hearing aids. When she was young, she could not pass exams to enter high school, so she quit her studies and worked in a bicycle factory and then for a textile manufacturer. She says that any textbooks she had were much simpler than the standard texts. A local government organization for disabled people told her that the only option she had was to work in a factory that made cheap reproductions of paintings. “If I could hear, I would have wanted to be a doctor,” Ms. Xi said.

To enroll in a university, Human Rights Watch said, all students must take a physical exam in which they must disclose any disabilities. The results of the medical tests are sent directly to universities. In addition, the government has issued a number of guidelines that advise universities on types of disabilities that would render a student unable to complete studies independently. Human Rights Watch says this sends “a clear signal to universities that they can discriminate in admissions on the basis of students’ physical or mental attributes or disabilities.”

There is also a dearth of teachers trained to teach students with physical or learning disabilities, according to Deng Meng, a professor in the Institute of Special Education at Beijing Normal University, one of a handful of Chinese universities that offer special education as a field of study. Professor Deng said the reason was simple: Many college students viewed the field as a career dead end. “We are very much lacking teachers to teach students with disabilities, even in special schools, not to mention regular schools,” he said. “Special education departments at universities, we lack trained teachers too.”

The professor said that learning disabilities were still not widely recognized and that assessment protocols for learning disabilities were virtually nonexistent. Some private schools have been set up for such students, but otherwise few resources are available.

“We don’t even know who these students are and what problems they have, and we don’t have the instruments to even analyze what learning disabilities they have,” he said. “There is a long way to go. We have just begun the journey.”

Many Chinese laws include language calling for equal treatment of people with disabilities, including equal access to education. Legal experts, however, say that too often this is empty rhetoric with no teeth, no clear meaning and no means of enforcement.

The laws “look nice, but they only contain big and empty words,” said Huang Rui, a lawyer who helps people with disabilities fight for educational access. “No laws ban disabled students from being enrolled in college, but college administrators give tacit consent that people who are blind or deaf or who have other disabilities cannot go to university.”

Still, Mr. Huang said the situation appeared to be slowly improving. He himself is physically disabled but was able to obtain a law degree.

In April, China’s Education Ministry offered guidance on how to provide the gaokao, the college-entrance examination, in Braille or electronic form to accommodate the blind. Human Rights Watch called this an “important breakthrough.”

The ministry also announced plans to ensure that at least 90 percent of children with visual, hearing, and intellectual disabilities receive primary- and middle-school education by the end of 2016. The plan calls for more investment in infrastructure, teacher training, and curriculum reform. For higher education, the plan calls for universities and colleges to create better conditions for disabled students and to not refuse admission because of disabilities.

The Education Ministry declined interview requests for this article.

Han Yongmei, a director in the department of education and employment of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, which works with the Education Ministry, said the national environment for students with disabilities was getting better. “Laws and regulations are improving, but they take time to implement,” she said. “Considering our situation in China, I think we are doing well.”

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Chile’s Bachelet sends education reform to Congress following street protests demanding change

Finances & Budgets


Fox News

SANTIAGO, Chile –  Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet announced the first stage of her promised education reforms on Monday, proposing an end to state subsidies of for-profit schools — a step toward eventual free university education.

Bachelet said she is answering the call of millions of students who have staged protests since 2011 demanding deep changes in an educational system that fails them with poor-quality public schools and expensive private universities.

“We’re taking the first step toward Chile’s most significant education reform in 50 years,” Bachelet said in announcing the reform package.

“We’re following through with what our students repeatedly said: education is a right, not a privilege.”

The bill heading to Congress on Tuesday would cut subsidies to for-profit schools and forbid government-backed primary schools and kindergartens from rejecting students on the basis of tests or interviews.

Funds instead would go to lower or eliminate the fees parents pay at other institutions.

Still to come is a proposal that would make university education free, a measure that will be sent to Congress later this year.

Critics say policies launched under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet foster social exclusion and inequality.

Schools in Chile were free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools.

Today, Chileans pay a greater share of their incomes for education than any nation surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The student protests began under the 2006-10 presidency of Bachelet, who appeased some students by naming a commission including several of their leaders, and shuffling her Cabinet. But many others were left disappointed.

Bachelet who took office in March, now plans to partly finance her education reform by increasing corporate taxes gradually by 5 percent to raise some 8.2 billion. The tax bill was approved by the lower house last week and will now be debated by the Senate.

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The Federal Government Hasn’t Improved Education After Trying for 50 Years



The Foundry

The federal government has been trying to improve educational outcomes for 50 years, but according to a recent study, we have little to show for it — and in some areas, it is getting worse.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, the goal of which was to help low-income Americans move toward self-sufficiency. Among the measures enacted under Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was the first major federal intervention in education: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.

The anniversary adds context to this month’s release of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) “Report Card,” which detailed the academic achievement levels of high school seniors. The results weren’t promising – which has been true for the last five years the report card assessed and the last 50 years of federal intervention in education.

NAEP provides nationally representative samples of achievement levels of American students and selected demographics, providing an indicator of overall student achievement. The 2013 report revealed that performance in math and reading has stagnated or worsened among America’s 12th grade students and that academic achievement gaps have grown since the last report in 2009.

“[S]tudent achievement at the high school level has been flat in recent years. Just as troubling, achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in response to the report.

Secretary Duncan is right. But these results are not merely indicative of our academic health over the last few years; they’re part of a national trend in educational stagnation that has persisted for the last half-century.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

“We have begun a campaign to unlock the full potential of every boy and girl – regardless of his race or his region or his father’s income,” said President Johnson when he signed the ESEA law in 1965. When first enacted, ESEA was 31 pages long and cost $1 billion. By 2002, the seventh reauthorization of ESEA (known as No Child Left Behind) had morphed into a law costing nearly $25 billion annually, containing 60 competitive grant programs and nearly two dozen formula grant programs. Americans have spent $2 trillion on education since the enactment of ESEA.

Considered within that context, the NAEP results are even more troubling.

Federal intervention in education has largely failed to achieve its stated mission of eliminating the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers.

So what do we do?

Where federal intervention has failed, research suggests that school choice has been one of the greatest tools in increasing educational opportunity for all students.

In 2009, Stanford economist Caroline M. Hoxby conducted a multiyear study of New York City charter schools and found that from kindergarten to eighth grade, the students who attended charter schools nearly matched the achievement levels of their peers in suburban communities. She calls this phenomenon the closing of the “Harlem-Scarsdale” achievement gap.

The Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides vouchers to low-income students in the nation’s capital, has shown impressive improvements in educational attainment. In a random assignment evaluation of the program conducted by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf, more than 91 percent of OSP students graduated from high school. That’s 21 percentage points higher than the graduation rate of a control group of students who applied for a scholarship but did not receive one.

More than 90 percent of OSP students enroll in a two-year or four-year college. And over 92 percent of families in the program are satisfied with their children’s scholarships. It’s a testament to the power of school choice.

President Johnson’s Great Society programs have not delivered the educational opportunity they promised. If Americans hope to see improvements in educational performance, we must look toward policies that empower families, not those that grow federal intervention and a distant, unresponsive bureaucracy.

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Brown v. Board of Education at 60

Education, Minority Education


The Huffington Post

Supreme Court decisions are important not only for what they decide but for the reasoning that produces or explains the ultimate result. That is particularly important in iconic decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, decided 60 years ago.

Brown, of course, unanimously held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In reaching that result, it also articulated or relied on other basic principles including that fair educational opportunity is essential to the American Dream, that America should be one nation for all citizens, not separate nations racially divided, and that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time as experience informs and shapes its content.

Yet among the principles central to Brown was the basic American ideal that majorities should be sensitive to the rights, interests and reasonable perceptions of minorities, and that public policies which offend that imperative may be constitutionally offensive even when they formally treat majority and minority citizens the same.

Brown addressed that problem in the context of public education, specifically the practice in some states of providing “separate but equal” public schools for white and black children. Typically, of course, the schools for black children were inferior in tangible respects so they were not only separate but very unequal. But in Brownlower courts had found that some of the racially segregated schools were equal or becoming so in material respects, a finding which forced the Court to consider whether state sponsored separation itself was constitutionally impermissible even when the schools were equal with respect to buildings, curriculum, teacher qualifications and salaries and other measurable criteria.

The Court found that racially segregating children in public schools by itself deprived African-American children of equal educational opportunities. It reached that decision based on its conclusion that racial segregation signaled to African-American children that they were inferiors, outsiders in the American community, and that this message caused them constitutional harm. Indeed, it was widely understood that “separate but equal” was a strategy a white majority imposed to keep blacks apart.

Although some have claimed that Brown stands for the principle that classifying based on race is never permitted (not even to achieve diversity or remedy past discrimination), the Court’s words in that celebrated decision refute that interpretation. The Court characterized the issue for decision as whether racial segregation in public schools “deprive[s] the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities,” not whether racial segregation or racial classification hurt white children or all children. The reason racial segregation was offensive was that separating minority children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” These words and this rationale would have made no sense in 1954 as applied to white children. Brown did not proscribe all racial classifications but simply those that subjugated minorities.

Jim Crow segregation which Brown addressed was not, of course, a product of good faith reasoning. Its message of black inferiority, and of white superiority, were natural consequences of white supremacist thinking.

Yet Brown did not reject majority messages of black inferiority solely when produced by malevolent intent. Instead, the Court articulated a broader principle regarding the rights of racial minorities in America.

In our democratic system, majorities often prevail but subject to various structural arrangements to make law-making difficult. And even when majorities work their will through the legislative process, judicial review constrains majority preference.

Brown suggests that in exercising judicial review it’s often important for courts to consider the impact on minorities of programs majorities impose. It’s not simply that minorities are often subjected to prejudice and are not well-positioned to prevail in the political process, although those factors certainly are important.

It’s also because most of us are a lot better at seeing the merit of our own views than at understanding the perspectives of people different from ourselves. It’s relatively easy to convince ourselves that our own views are reasonable, even right. It’s harder, often even for people of good will, to see the world through the eyes of those situated differently vis a vis various laws or practices.

That simple fact of human nature makes it likely that majoritarian solutions will often undervalue the just concerns of minorities and may produce arrangements that seem appropriate to majorities but are unfairly hurtful to minorities. Sometimes the harm is deliberately imposed but often it reflects subconscious biases or comes from the failure to understand, rather than from any desire to hurt. America’s mistreatment of African-Americans presents, of course, the most egregious example of discrimination against a minority but instances of this phenomenon have hurt other less powerful groups including those based on gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, alienage and disability.

The 60 years since Brown have brought considerable progress in recognizing, and in trying to remedy, a range of injustices against African-Americans and against other minority groups. Those years have shown that many of these problems are not easily resolved. They also confirm that America has an enormous stake in continuing that quest, not only to fashion a more just society but also one which benefits from the talents of all, not simply those who are privileged. Quite clearly, much remains to be done.

Government and its citizens must continually be sensitive to how majoritarian solutions impact minorities and whether social arrangements send a message that they are lesser members of society, and should act to remedy such affronts. That is one of the implications of a pluralistic society and one of the enduring lessons of Brown.

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The Indian liberal arts renaissance

Higher Education


The Times of India

In the decade to come, the Liberal Arts will undergo a renaissance in India. Why? “Liberal Arts” has meant different things at different times and in different places. In classical Rome, it was a set of elite skills (or “artes”) considered indispensable for all elite free male citizens (or “liberales” ) who — in contrast to women and slaves — were expected to engage in debates on matters of public importance. Over time, the core skills of grammar, rhetoric and logic were supplemented by geometry , arithmetic, music, astronomy, history, poetry, ethics and classical Greek. Until the middle of the 20th century, t h i s remained the d o m i n a n t model of Liberal Arts in the West: social elites were expected to have a broad-based training in many subjects.

In post-Independence India, however, the elitist model of the Liberal Arts has been largely superseded by another vision of education. This vision has its roots in the supposedly more inclusive school system introduced in Britain at the end of World War II, which offered free education to all. A version of this British model was imported to India, where training in a single prestigious vocation — engineering, law, business — became the raison d’etre of most top universities.

In the US, the Liberal Arts model has had a longer life. After World War II the G. I. Bill made education much more widely available to the public at large. A Liberal Arts education was no longer a privilege of the social elite but a universal right.

But how quickly things change! In the US, the sharply escalating cost of education has coincided with demands to make undergraduate programmes more vocationally-oriented. The traditional Liberal Arts curriculum is under pressure as students, often having to pay more than $250,000 for an undergraduate degree, opt early for professional courses of study that, promising to lead to well-paying careers, supposedly justifies such exorbitant fees. By contrast, several new Indian universities, and one or two old ones, have started to offer multi-disciplinary curricula at a fraction of the price charged by their US counterparts. And we can expect many more to follow suit in the years to come.

No matter how high the scores of graduates from supposedly top-notch IITs and IIMs, they often lack the requisite skills of communication and intellectual versatility — the ability to approach a problem from several angles — that employers value. And when job security is no longer a lifetime right and people often have to change fields and adapt their skills many times in their careers, a course of study that offers training for a single vocation seems myopic at best and dangerous at worst.

The old Liberal Arts model of education, with its multi-disciplinary emphasis, suddenly looks relevant again — especially if it is no longer just a privilege of the elites but rather an option for all Indians. Whether this new embrace of Liberal Arts will lead to a democratic flowering of Indian education or yield to the dominant model of single vocational training, only time will tell.

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Education Protects Women From Abuse



The Atlantic

The horrifying kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram was made even more horrifying by the fact that the group specifically targeted the girls for trying to improve their lives. Boko Haram went after the girls for the same reason the Taliban went after Malala Yousafzai: Extremists fear smart women.

“If you want to mire a nation in backwardness, manacle your daughters,” Nick Kristof wrote in a recent column.

Kristof listed some of the better-known positive externalities of having an educated female population: Fewer children, and thus less risk of a “youth bulge” and, later, civil war. Not to mention a more skilled labor force and a stronger economy.

But a new report suggests that the benefit of girls’ schooling extends even further—that it has a protective effect against domestic violence, rape, and child marriage.

“No place is less safe for a woman than her own home,” reads a World Bank report released this week. Roughly 30 percent of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners, and across 33 developing countries surveyed by the organization, nearly one-third of women said they could not refuse sex with their partner.

Share of Women Who Have Experienced Physical or Sexual Violence by an Intimate Partner

“Yes, it’s normal, being beaten, yelled at. If you tell [anyone], your peers will ask you, is this your first time to be beaten? Some of us are used to it, just like the way we are used to eating ugali,” one Tanzanian woman said in a World Bank focus group.

To make matters worse, one in three women said they thought wife-beating was justifiable, and women who condoned domestic violence were more likely to experience it.

Change in the Percent of Women Who Believe a Husband Is Justified in Beating His Wife if She …

But the Bank also found that better-educated women were more likely to not be sexually or physically abused. Each additional year of schooling was associated with a 1-percent increase in their ability to refuse sex with their partner.

“The strongest correlate of women’s sexual autonomy in a relationship is her level of education,” the report notes. “Overall, 87 percent of women with a higher education say they can refuse sex. Women with some or completed secondary education have an 11 and 36 percent lower risk of violence, respectively, compared with women with no education.”

One of the most lasting, damaging impacts of the Boko Haram kidnapping could be making Nigerian girls nervous about attending class. According to recent interviews with some of the escaped girls, when the group arrived at the school in northern Nigeria, they were shouting, “We are Boko Haram. We will burn your school. You shall not do school again. You shall do Islamic school.”

Of course, it’s also crucial to change social norms and laws in countries with high levels of domestic violence, and working with men’s groups can go a long way as well. But since female education seems to inoculate societies against misogyny, it’s both unsurprising and heartbreaking that Boko Haram would target classrooms.

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India needs an education strategy


Meeta Sengupta

India stands at a cusp today between two governments. The previous one has been serving the nation for the past ten years the new one will hopefully get a mandate strong enough to stand for the next five.

As we stand on this platform between the old and the new (regardless of which party comes back to power, though by now it seems to be fairly clear) it is a time to call for change.

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education. For each of these I can hear critics harrumphing. I agree, not enough has been done. Progress has been painfully slow. In many cases the slow progress has been a boon because the direction chosen was so obviously flawed. A generation has lost many chances. The current one must not be let down.

The good news is that much of the thinking and debating has been done for years. There are clear opinions and choices on most institutional and policy issues. The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Other issues that always get pushed under the carpet are also acknowledged as being awkward – Foreign Direct Investment in education, private sector provision of primary education, the mess that the current community college model presents (when the answer is obvious to some of us) and of course the very troublesome issue of apprenticeships that falls somewhere in the gaps between the ministries of Human Resource Development and Labour. Many of the issues that need to be sorted out are ideological – tradition pulls policy towards treating it as a public good. Pragmatism and resource constraints, and dare I say it – common sense too – negates that view. At the same time one realises that the current structures, behemoths as they are may be flawed, but are the only vehicles for the distribution of the new national policies. These knots will have to be cut before the new government can begin to make meaningful progress.

Of course, some changes are easier than they look, such as the RTE Act that has been attacked by many. It is enough to acknowledge the RTE 2.0 movement that is ready to move past recriminations and chart a path to better education for all. The RTE comes with fundamental flaws that cannot be allowed to continue into the future but has clearly established the principle of social engineering via education policy. Where it fails is in arrogating private property to the state, in discriminating against the majority institutions and in creating a distrust of government aid. These flaws will only strengthen the suspicion that government wants to play big brother and nanny – a creepy thought at best. The RTE itself has many flaws such as the emphasis on input based criteria rather than on value addition during the school year (though activists cry out for output based norms for schools). Many flaws have been patched over, but fundamentally it remains a noble thought that seems to be designed for flaws to show up in operation.

The new government has all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place. They have all been tagged and sorted too. Now it is up to them to create a the picture that they believe will built a better future for the nation. It is time for a national action plan. What India needs is a National Education Strategy.

This blog was originally posted in The Times of India.


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Private Schools for the Poor – Education Where no one Expects It

Private schools

Author: James Tooley

Education Next Vol. 5 No. 4

Fall 2005

Abstract:  The accepted wisdom is that private schools serve the privileged; everyone else, especially the poor, requires public school. The poor, so this logic goes, need government assistance if they are to get a good education, which helps explain why, in the United States, many school choice enthusiasts believe that the only way the poor can get the education they deserve is through vouchers or charter schools, proxies for those better private or independent schools, paid for with public funds.

But if we reflect on these beliefs in a foreign context and observe low-income families in underprivileged and developing countries, we find these assumptions lacking: the poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.

The full research piece can be accessed here.

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America’s dangerous education myth: Why it isn’t the best anti-poverty program




If you’ve followed the education reform debate in this country, the Finland story should be familiar by now. Almost as if engaged in an elaborate troll, Finland has apparently organized its educational system in exactly the opposite way as the reform movement here claims is necessary. The reformers say we need longer school days, but the Finns have short ones. The reformers say we need extensive standardized testing, but the Finns have almost none. The reformers say we need to keep a close leash on teachers, but the Finns give their teachers considerable freedom. Despite all of these pedagogical mistakes, the Finns consistently find themselves at the top of the international education scoreboard.

Normally, the suggested lesson of the Finland story is that the education reformers’ proposals are at minimum unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive. Whether this lesson actually falls out of the Finland story is the subject of hotly contested arguments that are insufferably boring. However, flying under the radar of these Finland debates is a much less contestable and interesting lesson: Education cannot deliver economic equality.

If ever there was an opportunity to show that education can fix inequality and poverty, Finland is it. The children come into its education system with the lowest poverty rates in the world. In addition to its overall excellence, Finland’s education system is also extremely egalitarian in the way that it instructs its pupils. There are almost no private schools, college is free, and an ethos of total inclusion seems to reign. It is the closest thing to the liberal education utopia as you will probably ever find.

Despite all of this, Finnish economic inequality and poverty is still quite high, at least when you look at the market distribution of income. In 2010, Finland’s market poverty rate (defined as those with incomes below 50 percent of the median income) was 32.2 percent. By comparison, the United States’ market poverty was actually lower at 28.4 percent. When it comes to overall inequality, Finland’s Gini coefficient in 2010 was 0.479. This was only slightly lower than the U.S.’ Gini coefficient, which stood at 0.499.

Education boosters bizarrely think that providing everyone a high-quality education will somehow magically result in them all having good-paying jobs. But, as Finland shows, this turns out not to be true. Apparently, it’s not possible for everyone to simultaneously hold jobs as well-paid upper-class professionals because at least some people have to actually do real work. A modern economy requires a whole army of lesser-skilled jobs that just don’t pay that well and the necessity of those jobs doesn’t go away simply because people are well-educated.

The reason Finland’s ultimate distribution of income is so equal is not because its great education system has made everyone receive high paychecks (an impossible task), but because Finland has put in place distributive policies that make sure its national income is shared broadly. In 2010, Finland’s tax level was 42.5 percent of its GDP, which was nearly double the tax level of the U.S. By strategically spreading that tax money around through a host of cash transfer and benefit programs, Finland’s high market poverty rate of 32.2 percent fell to just 7.3 percent. Its child poverty rate, which Finland focuses extra attention on, fell down to 3.9 percent. Overall economic inequality took a similar dive.

The real lesson that the Finland story teaches us is not the one about pedagogical techniques that draws so much fierce debate. Rather, it’s a lesson about what very successful pedagogy and excellent education can actually do for a society. Good education can make your society well-educated and more productive, but it cannot generate a labor market in which everyone works a high-paying job. It cannot ensure that market income is distributed evenly or adequately. It cannot even come remotely close to doing those things.

The upshot of this lesson is that the fixation on education as a solution to poverty, inequality or any other distributional problem is totally wrongheaded. Good and equitable education is a huge plus for all sorts of things, but it doesn’t create an egalitarian society. Those who say it will – a group that includes reformers and their opponents – have no idea what they are talking about and, through their ignorant distractions, help sow the seeds of never-ending stratification and low-end material insecurity.

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