Finland’s largely illiterate kids in the summer of 64: In her ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley describes miraculous Finland’s amazing advances in the realm of public education.
More specifically, she talks about Finland’s astonishing rise in international test scores. Yesterday, we showed you the full-paragraph quotes. Here’s the story according to Ripley:
“Until fairly recently,” Finland was “a largely illiterate farming and logging nation.” Change came within a single generation. Without pausing for breath, the country rocketed from the bottom of the world all the way to the top.
That story is thrilling, but is it accurate? We’d have to say it is not.
For starters, let’s note Ripley’s lack of attribution. Her book includes 35 pages of endnotes. But none of the passages we posted yesterday are sourced in any way.
The following passage includes some specific claims. In her endnotes, these highlighted claims aren’t sourced:
RIPLEY (page 7): Meanwhile, the Finns themselves offered vague explanations for their success. Education, I was told, had always been valued in Finland, going back hundreds of years. That explained it. But, then, why did only 10 percent of children finish high school in Finland in the 1950s? Why were there huge gaps between what urban and rural kids knew and could do in Finland in the 1960s? Back then, Finland’s passion for education had seemed rather uneven. What had happened?Are those claims accurate? In her endnotes, Ripley provides no sources for these claims. We’ve been hunting on-line for some time, and we can’t find backing for these statements.
On the other hand, we did find this account from Statistics Finland, the Finnish’s government official site. Note the highlighted claim about historical literacy:
STATISTICS FINLAND: The educational level of Finland's population has risen steadily during the nine decades of independence [i.e., since 1917]. In the early years of independence, the challenge was to guarantee primary school education to all children. After the wars [of the 1940s] it became more common for children to go to middle and upper secondary general school, and as from the 1960s also tertiary level education expanded rapidly.According to Statistics Finland, “70 per cent of 15-year-olds were literate” all the way back in 1920. That may not be accurate, of course. Beyond that, “literacy” can be defined in various ways.
The Compulsory School Attendance Act was enacted soon after Finland gained its independence, and it entered into force in 1921. Compulsory education came to apply to all children aged 7 to 13, that is, compulsory schooling consisted of a primary school with 6 grades.
Gradually the Compulsory School Attendance Act extended primary education to cover the entire age group. In 1920 some 70 per cent of 15-year-olds were literate. The number of pupils in primary school started to rise quickly after the Act entered into force. Halfway through the 1930s, around 90 per cent of the 7 to 15-year-olds received schooling. Gradually education reached all children of statutory school age.
But the OECD offers this account of Finland’s history with international testing. This account comes straight from the folk who administer the PISA:
OECD/PISA PRODUCTS: Prior to 2000 Finland rarely appeared on anyone’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems. This is partly explained by the fact that while Finland has always done well on international tests of literacy, its performance in five different international mathematics or science assessments between 1962 and 1999 never rose above average. But it was also because Finland’s path to education reform and improvement has been slow and steady, proceeding gradually over the past four decades.This account seems to understate Finland’s past performance in math (see below). But even according to this account, Finland seems to have been average in math as far back as 1962—and the country “has always done well on international tests of literacy.”
If this is true, when did Finland “rocket from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath?” That’s the claim Ripley advances on page 2 of her book.
Ripley refers to a chart of international test scores as she makes this assertion. When was Finland at “the bottom of the world,” if the OECD claims are true?
This is the goofiest part of Ripley’s portrait. As we noted a few weeks ago, the actual chart on page 3 of her book doesn’t seem to jibe with the description she offers on page 2. On that chart, Finland seems to be recording above-average test scores all the way back through the 1960s, when the chart begins.
Over the weekend, we finally found one of the apparent sources for that chart. It was the First International Math Survey (FIMS), a set of tests a dozen nations took in 1964.
Finland was not at the bottom of the world in 1964. On the FIMS, Finland finished fourth among the twelve nations, scoring above the twelve nations’ average. The United States finished eleventh.
Two years ago, Kevin Drum posted a chart of scores from the FIMS, sourcing his post to us. In the meantime, we had forgotten about the FIMS. To see Drum’s chart, click this.
Why does Ripley make the claims which are sprinkled through her book? When was Finland “at the bottom of the world?” When was it “largely illiterate?”
In fairness, it may all depend on what the meaning of “largely” is! People who want to tell thrilling tales will sometimes use slippery words:
RIPLEY (page 39): Then [Kim] read that Finland had the smartest kids in the world. Could that be right? Teenagers in Finland did less homework than Americans, but scored at the top of the world on international tests, which was weird, since Finland had been until fairly recently a largely illiterate farming and logging nation.What does it mean to be largely illiterate? How recently is fairly recently?
As Ed McMahon might have said to Johnny, “How illiterate were they?” Not gigantically illiterate, it would possibly seem.
In her ballyhooed book, Ripley tells a thoroughly standardized tale about miraculous Finland. Journalists have been typing this memorized tale ever since Finland topped the world on the first PISA.
Those scores were released in 2001. From that time to this, journalists have taken the free trip to Finland, then typed up the standard tale.
Ripley seems to have made this standardized tale more thrilling. There’s a term we’d apply to her story:
Major parts of her thrilling story strike us as being “untrue.”