Finland and Poland—Home of the American Dream


Leap of Reason Update: June 2014

Last week, Mario posted “Healthcare as Harbinger” on the Markets for Good website. The article spells out our view that healthcare is an ideal field to watch if you’re hungry for insights into raising the performance of your organization. Today, we want to put forth another field nonprofit leaders should be studying: Education. In Finland and Poland.

It’s widely known that students in Finland and Poland are among the highest scorers on international tests. For those looking for an eminently readable explanation of why, check out the book The Smartest Kids in the World. Journalist Amanda Ripley follows three American exchange students who decide to attend high school in Finland, Poland, and South Korea. Their experiences speak volumes about what a performance culture looks like, how decision-makers can foster a performance culture, and why the United States consistently flunks the performance-culture test.

Finland, Poland, and South Korea have taken different routes to achieving high performance. South Korea’s cutthroat, Darwinian approach—”Hunger Games of the mind,” as one student aptly describes it—is not something we’d want anyone to replicate. But all three countries have a clear commonality that leaders across different countries, sectors, and fields can learn from: they focus on rigor above all else. Ripley discovered that the three countries created “a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true…. In every case, that [culture] had been borne out of crisis: economic imperatives that had focused the national mind in a way that good intentions never would. That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else.”

It will not surprise you that the second-most important driver of performance in all three countries was a relentless focus on talent. “Their teachers … were highly educated, well-trained, and carefully chosen,” Ripley writes. “They had enough autonomy to do serious work; that meant they had a better chance of adapting and changing along with their students and the economy.”

Perhaps the most provocative part of the book is its challenge to key tenets of the education-reform agenda in the U.S. For example: “The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added analysis…. That approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved.” Unfortunately, we don’t have good evidence that either will happen.

The Smartest Kids in the World will make you smarter about the complex challenges of U.S. education reform, and its lessons about rigor and talent are relevant for all of us who aspire to create social change.

And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • Measuring Success Founder Sacha Litman pushes back on USC Professor Gary Wexler‘s argument that data “may be killing some very good ideas that are badly needed in this changing world.” In “Can Innovators Be Data-Driven?,” Litman argues that data, used with wisdom, is not just compatible with innovation but necessary for advancing it. We like his core argument: “Innovation will always be risky, and we can best fortify ourselves against that risk by acquiring as much knowledge and insight as we can in advance.”
  • Many other writers thinkers and doers provide strong data points for the case that data can promote, rather than hinder, innovation. For example, in “Turning the ‘Pay for Success’ Promise into Performance,” MDRC President Gordon Berlin explains that the success or failure of innovative financing mechanisms like Social Impact Bonds will pivot, in part, on whether we can generate high-quality data on the costs and benefits of social interventions. MDRC recently shared lessons on how to do this well, based on its work on New York City’s Social Impact Bond for reducing recidivism among Rikers Island inmates.
  • In the SSIR article “Big Data for Social Innovation,” Kevin Desouza and Kendra Smith of Arizona State University (the innovative school that just announced a major education partnership with Starbucks) make the argument that a major impediment to innovation is not that we use data too much but far too little. They provide multiple examples of social-sector initiatives—from agriculture to hunger, epidemiology to crime—that could be supercharged if we were to aggregate data from multiple sources and then invest in analyzing, visualizing, and making the data widely accessible to those working on the same challenges. “Globally, the world’s actors are making efforts to use open data and big data to develop solutions to social problems in innovative and collaborate ways. Progress is being made, but the chasm must still be crossed.”
  • In the New York Times Fixes blog, David Bornstein provides another example of data helping to fuel innovation. He profiles the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which has gotten far less attention than it deserves for getting the country on track to end chronic homelessness. One of the campaign’s key lessons: “Gather good data and use it for improvement every day…. The idea of coming up with a policy, rolling it out on a large scale and, after several years, conducting a major evaluation to see if it worked is like a baseball team playing five seasons and discovering after 810 games that they need better pitching.”
  • Our hats are off to Johns Hopkins Professor Lester Salamon and the 30 other scholars and practitioners who joined forces with Oxford University Press to produce New Frontiers of Philanthropy: A Guide to the New Actors and Tools Reshaping Global Philanthropy and Social Investing. The book, which had to pass through Oxford’s painstaking peer-review process, is first rate in every way. It will have a big influence on the training of nonprofit managers, business leaders, corporate social responsibility officers, and public policy experts around the world. As Mario said in the preface he contributed, “This kind of painstaking mapping is a prerequisite for channeling energies, avoiding reinvention, and building a true field capable of solving—not just salving—wicked problems.”
  • Felicitaciones to Cynthia Figueroa and her all-star, high-performance team at Congreso de Latinos Unidos for being named National Council of La Raza’s 2014 Affiliate of the Year. This award follows Congreso’s recent recognition as one of the Top 25 Hispanic Nonprofits in the Nation and a Top Workplace in the Philadelphia Region.
  • Finally, we want to share a brief video, featuring Warren Buffett and Mario’s dear friend Steve Denning, from last week’s Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy. The video shows Steve accepting the Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy Award on behalf of Chuck Feeney, one of Steve and Mario’s (as well as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’s) greatest heroes. In the early 1980s, Mr. Feeney secretly committed nearly all of his and his family’s wealth to what became known as The Atlantic Philanthropies. By the time the foundation spends down its assets in 2016, its giving will be in excess of $7.5 billion.

    Mario had the privilege of meeting Mr. Feeney in 1983, when Mr. Feeney’s investment firm, General Atlantic, made the business Mario co-founded its second investment. Mr. Feeney created General Atlantic for two reasons: to provide other entrepreneurs the opportunity that he had had to build a successful business, and to increase his ability to give back. Through his philanthropy, investment philosophies, and life choices, Mr. Feeney has been an incredible role model, with an almost incomprehensible level of humility as well as an unwavering focus on leadership and demonstrable outcomes. No one is more deserving of the Forbes award.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:


Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is Chairman of the Morino Institute, Co-Founder and Founding Chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

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