FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: Black kids beat Finland!


Part 4—Disaggregation and more: American students did surprisingly well on last year’s international tests.

That is especially true in reading, where American fourth-graders, the only grade tested, pretty much kicked the ass of the world. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/12.

Why was this performance “surprising?” Let us count two ways:

In part, the performance may seem surprising because so much effort has been made, in recent years, to denigrate American teachers, students and schools. Everybody knows this script—and this script was extended in last week’s reporting about the new test scores.

To its credit, USA Today broke the mold, focusing on some of our students' surprising success. But in the New York Times, the AP and the Washington Post, gloom and doom prevailed again, just as it has been scripted.

American students did surprisingly well. The American people weren’t told.

That said, there’s a second reason why some of these scores may be a bit surprising. For our money, the news report in the Washington Post tilted toward the requisite gloom. But early in the Post’s report, an American educational expert made an apt observation.

Jack Buckley is the keeper of our education statistics. Down beneath the Post's gloomy headline, this is what Buckley said:
LAYTON (12/11/12): U.S. still trails Asia in student test scores


Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said the results leave him "optimistic" about the United States' performance, particularly given that many higher-performing nations do not deal with the same wide range of student and family income, backgrounds and language ability.

"We have a large and diverse population of kids to educate, and I think these results show that we're doing pretty well," Buckley told reporters Monday.
Are American schools “doing pretty well?” That is a matter of judgment. But as Buckley delicately said, U.S. schools confront some demographic challenges which may not exist in other nations—including some of the nations the press corps lauds for their educational greatness.

The press loves to praise certain nations! In the New York Times, Motoko Rich leavened her frequently hapless report with a tip of the cap to one educational god:
RICH (12/11/12): Students in Finland, which is often held up as a model education system for its teacher preparation and its relative absence of high-stakes testing, outperformed American students on all the exams. But students in countries with intense testing cultures also exceeded American students. ''Some of the high-performing math and science countries have extremely rigorous testing regimes,'' Mr. Buckley said.
Rich was certainly right on one point. In the past decade, Finland has relentlessly been “held up as a model education system”—but not just because of its teacher prep and its lack of high-stakes testing.

Duh. Relentlessly, Finland has been held up as an educational model because of its high test scores. Instantly, Rich extended that very theme in this passage. Sticking to the mandated script, she noted that students in Finland “outperformed American students on all the exams,” while failing to note how narrow the differences were between the two warring nations.

Relentlessly and remarkably dumbly, Finland has been praised for its high test scores for at least a decade now. Relentlessly, American “journalists” and “educational experts” have responded in an embarrassing fashion:

Relentlessly, they have taken the junket to Finland! While living it up in Helsinki, they have dumbly pondered the reasons behind the nation’s high scores.

Why have Finland’s students scored so well on international tests? In part, we will assume that Finland has some very good schools and a lot of very good teachers. But duh:

In line with Buckley's cautious remarks, Finland is a small, middle-class, unicultural nation. For better or worse, it has very few immigrants, especially those from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.

Beyond that, Finland didn’t spend four hundred years as the United States once did—working to eliminate literacy in one large swath of its population.

In this country, our benighted ancestors worked for centuries to eliminate literacy among Americans of African descent. For another hundred years after that, blacks were saddled with defiantly lesser educational services.

We hate to be the ones to break the news, but a nation can’t spend four hundred years behaving that way without creating an educational challenge—a literacy deficit within the brutalized sub-population. Match that with our high rates of immigration—throw in our poverty rates for good measure—and you have a taste of the demographic challenges to which Buckley referred.

Finland doesn’t have that! Finland’s schools don’t serve a large number of delightful, deserving kids from low-literacy, low-income, second-language immigrant backgrounds. To Finland’s credit, its schools don’t contain large numbers of children whose forebears were denied the right to literacy for hundreds of years. Because of these demographic differences, it has always been amazingly silly when American journalists jet off to Helsinki, eager to learn how Finland’s schools achieve such terrific test scores.

As we’ve long told you, there’s nothing so dumb that our press corps won’t do it. Journalists have made this clear as they've fawned about Finland's test scores.

(Please note: None of this is meant as a criticism of Finland. That said, Finland does deserve criticism for the way its education ministers have played along with this rank international nonsense.)

For the past decade, our journalists have expressed amazement at Finland’s high test scores. And how sad:

Last year, Finland outscored the U.S. on these international tests—but it managed to do so just barely. In reaction, the Post, the Times and the AP worked to keep readers from knowing that fact.

How close did American students come to matching Finland on these tests? Start with this:

Several American states took these tests as independent entities. In quite a few cases, students in various states outscored the students of Finland.

Demographically, some of these states are a bit like Finland; their students proceeded to kick Finland’s keister. But so what? The Post and the Times avoided telling you that, sometimes in comical fashion, as we will show you tomorrow.

After “disaggregation,” things get even more interesting. In Massachusetts, black students outscored Finland in eighth-grade math—and yes, you read that correctly:

In Massachusetts, black eighth-graders, on their own, outscored the eighth-graders of Finland! That is just astounding good news, and it went unreported.

Black eighth-graders outscored Finland! As we’ll show you below, “disaggregation” was even more striking when performed on the national scale. But first, let’s return to the basics:

Finland’s students did “outperform American students on all the exams,” just as the New York Times said. Or did they? In fourth-grade math and eighth-grade math, the two nations’ average scores were so close that they are listed as “not measurably different” in the official NCES reports overseen by Buckley.

In eighth-grade math, Finland’s students averaged 514 on the TIMSS scale; American students averaged 509. (NCES: “Not measurably different.”) In Massachusetts, black kids averaged 516! (The state’s white students averaged 572, a score which blew Finland away.)

In fourth-grade math, the two nation’s scores were also quite close. Finland averaged 545 on the TIMSS scale, the U.S. averaged 541. (NCES: “Not measurably different.”)

The performances here were very close; our demographically-challenged student population played to a virtual tie with middle-class, ballyhooed Finland. In other areas, Finland outperformed the U.S. by somewhat wider margins, though in fourth-grade reading (the only grade that was tested in reading), the scores were again rather close. (Students in Florida, the only state tested on its own in this subject, outscored the Finns by one point.)

In our view, U.S. students did surprisingly well as compared to the heralded Finns. Puckishly, USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor noted this surprising good news early in their news reports. In so doing, we thought these papers displayed good news judgment, given the endless fawning in the American press about the rattiness of our own schools and the vast greatness of schools in Finland.

That said, silence prevailed in the Post and the Times and in the Associated Press. And no one told readers what occurs when you “disaggregate” the American test scores. More specifically, no one reported another bit of surprising news:

No one reported that white students in the U.S. matched or outperformed Finland on all five of last year’s tests.

Should we “disaggregate” scores in this way? Should we review the scores of America’s white students on their own?

Well actually, yes, we pretty much should, for certain limited purposes:

You see, Finland doesn’t have a large subset of its student population which features a lot of delightful immigrant kids from low-literacy, low-income backgrounds. And Finland doesn’t have a student population whose forebears were systematically denied literacy for three or four hundred years.

As Buckley politely noted, a country like Finland doesn’t have population subsets like ours. If you compare U.S. white students to students in Finland, you are starting to look at the way these nations’ schools perform with kids from the majority population—in the American context, with kids whose ancestors weren’t brutalized and denied literacy for centuries, with kids who aren’t recent arrivals.

For those who want to understand the actual way our schools seem to work, it’s worth noting what happens on these tests if we compare our majority population to Finland's population. This is what you find:

On four of last year’s five tests, white students in the U.S. outscored students in Finland. Our schools still struggle with beautiful kids who have no counterpart in Finland. But if we compare likes to likes, you get results like these:
Finland and the U.S., the TIMSS and the PIRLS
Grade 4 reading, PIRLS 2011:
United States, white students 575
Finland 568
United States, all students 556

Grade 4 math, TIMSS 2011:
United States, white students 559
Finland 545
United States, all students 541

Grade 8 math, TIMSS 2011:
United States, white students 530
Finland 514
United States, all students 509
The next time you hear “educational experts” describe the greatness of Finland’s schools, remember: White kids in the United States largely outscored Finland on these international tests.

Our schools still do less well with deserving students who have no counterparts in Finland, although those kids’ test scores have been improving on both the TIMSS and the PIRLS. But you can’t learn how to help such kids by taking the junket to Finland.

There are no similar kids in Finland. You can’t find their equivalents there.

Finland deserves a lot of credit for not having been historically crazy in the way our country has been. But you can’t learn how to address our challenges by flying off to Finland. Our challenges don’t exist there.

In many case, entire states took these tests last year; in many cases (though not all), these states outperformed Finland. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the scores from those states. And we’ll look at the way the Washington Post kept you from knowing what those states did—kept you from knowing that quite a few states ran up better test scores than Finland.

Within an obedient mainstream press, you’re not encouraged to know such things. A gloomy script has been set in stone—and our nation's biggest newspapers work to Keep Script Alive.

Tomorrow: States outscore Finland! Some comical work in the Post


  1. This is an educational service by TDH in exposing this bias against our own schools and teachers. It's knee-jerk reactionism to say things are going to hell and it used to be better while ignoring real signs of progress. This thoughtless, groundless negativism towards our educational system is mostly a way for the elite to denigrate any government-based program that is succeeding.

  2. These are fabulous posts, I am deeply grateful.


  3. I love this blog. TDH reminds me a little of "Poor Richard's Almanac." The author's keen perspective is crucial to my understanding of current events and finding hope.

  4. Excellent work, Bob. I erred in not examining most of the American single-state results in my blog,


  5. I think you've made some great points about the US results not being properly recognised.

    However, I should point out that 30 years ago Finland had child poverty rates similar to the US. One of the changes they made to their education system was to give all kids equity of access. Nowadays, Finland has a very low child poverty rate (although it's gone up a bit with the recession).

    That's about the opposite of the American system where school funding is highly variable, there is choice but there is not enough info for people to tell what they are choosing and kids without interested parents get no choice at all.

    My suspicion would be that the variance on the Finnish scores would be way smaller than the US scores.

  6. I just found out about this site. Thank you for this post. One terrible problem with comparing these test scores between nations is that it makes people think that the purpose of education is to score well on multiple choice tests. Although I understand the need for objective measures between countries, it is dangerous to put so much blind faith in these tests.

    If these tests were perfectly valid, then why don't employers just ask applicants to share their ACT or SAT score? Well, it's because we know that these tests reflect just 1 part of a person's intellect. There are many, many other things that are important. K-12 education also has many, many other things that are important than just test scores.

  7. Terrific article! It should be circulated among all the mainstream media still tied to yesterday's scripts about how badly American students are doing.

    BTW, got a great howl from your Donate button, "FOR SUGGESTIBLE READERS"!


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