Part 2—One different world: Why do students in miraculous Finland top the world in reading and math on international tests?
Correction! Miraculous Finland’s very good students don’t always top the world. Let’s recall what happened in 2011 on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), one of the three (3) major international tests in which the developed nations take part.
You heard it! There are three major international testing programs (3), not just one (1).
What happened on the 2011 TIMSS in both grades tested (grades 4 and 8)? Demographic warts and all, American students matched the miraculous Finns in math! And hold on! It gets even better!
Finland is a small, homogeneous, middle-class country. (We don’t mean that as a criticism.) Its population is 5.4 million. That means it’s even smaller than Massachusetts, population 6.6 million.
There’s nothing wrong with being a small, homogeneous, middle-class country. Indeed, back in 2010, Newsweek and the Daily Beast announced that they had judged Finland to be the overall Best Country in the World. (Best large country? Japan.)
That said, Finland wasn’t best in math on the 2011 TIMSS. Massachusetts took part in the testing as if it were a stand-alone nation—and at both grade levels, its students massively outscored the Finns in math!
Indeed, despite the achievement gaps which still obtain in this country, black kids in Massachusetts outscored the Finns in math that year. That was a very strong performance. But how strange! This news doesn’t appear in Amanda Ripley’s 230-page, ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World.
Ripley wrote 230 pages, but she doesn’t mention the TIMSS! A cynic would say there’s a reason for that. People who like to trash American schools disappear the TIMSS and the PIRLS, international tests on which American students tend to score fairly well. They only discuss the slightly offbeat Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), on which American students tend to score more poorly.
So it goes in the talented Ripley’s rather scam-ridden book. In all those 230 pages, there was no room to let us know how American students did on the TIMSS or the PIRLS. We only heard about the PISA, whose most recent scores date to 2009.
In this way, ideological worker bees like Ripley work to turn the American public into The Dumbest Adults in the World.
Is Ripley an ideologue herself? We’ll guess the answer is basically no. But for today, let’s return to the (very good) students in less than miraculous Finland.
Why do students in Finland score so well, as a general matter, on international tests?
According to Ripley’s book, Finland’s students don’t exhaust themselves in all-night, every-night tutoring sessions, the way South Korea’s high-scoring students do. Kids in Finland get high test scores, but they don’t live like that, in a “hamster wheel” educational culture.
Why do Finland’s kids score do high? Seeking the reasons for their success, Ripley repeats Standard Memorized Elite Explanations concerning the apparent high caliber of Finland’s teachers.
Do Finnish kids get high test scores because their teachers were top students in high school who then received demanding training in college? Ripley advances this standard account without ever quite explaining how she knows it’s true.
It certainly could be true. But is it true? If so, how much of Finland’s success can be explained this way?
We don’t know, but we have an excuse. We’ve read Ripley’s book!
Ripley repeats the Standard Official Approved Explanation for Finland’s high test scores. She even pretends that Finland is working miracles with its immigrant kids, although it’s clear that she knows she’s giving a false impression.
(There's a word for Ripley's presentation about Finland's immigrant students. That word is “inexcusable.” For our post on this topic, click here.)
We’ll assume that Finland does have very good teachers. That said, is there any other possible explanation for the country’s high test scores, which don’t always top the world?
A bit of background:
Finland became the toast of the world when its students scored high on the first PISA testing in 2000. Scores were released in December 2001. Before long, faddish explanations for Finnish success were being recited by worker bees, hamsters and journalist drones all through the “developed” world.
Some of these faddish explanations may have been tied to some actual evidence. For the most part, though, the Ripleys did what they always do—they began repeating what they were told by the world’s most powerful people.
In 2002, the late Gerald Bracey penned a profile of Finland for the Phi Delta Kappan. Bracey, an education researcher, was never real big on fads.
In his profile, Bracey described the shock which ran through the German press when German kids performed poorly on the first PISA, scoring behind the United States and a wide range of other nations. We’re struck by several parts of his portrait of Finnish culture, in which he quoted the observations of a Swiss journalist.
We’re especially struck by that journalist's portrait of Finland's culture of literacy:
BRACEY (11/1/02): Shocked by the U.S. and impressed by Japan, European nations fell all over themselves in Finn worship. According to the Geneva paper Le Temps, the Finnish system is "a dream come true." The paper reported, "For six weeks, German delegations have been going weekly to Finland to visit Finnish schools and teachers." (At the time, the results had only been out six weeks.)On this first pass at the Finnish miracle, the Swiss reporter Modoux noted that Finland was quite homogeneous. Beyond that, were Finns really “the greatest devourers of newspapers in the world,” as Modoux reported? Was it true that public libraries in Finnish towns “are always full?”
Le Temps sent one of its reporters, Francois Modoux, to check things out. Modoux found that the Finns spend a lot of money on schools, that schools in poor communities get more money, and that classes are small (under 20). He also noted that, despite the presence of a Swedish minority and of Lapps in the north, Finland is quite homogeneous. Unlike Americans, Finns appear to have taken the concept of "no child left behind" to heart, providing much individualized attention to students who are having difficulty, even to those referred to by the head of one school as "the impossible cases." There is no tracking in the "basic school," which all students attend for nine years.
Finns assess students a lot, but the Ministry of Education practices “positive discrimination.” That is, schools with high test scores lose resources while those that score lower gain. "It's certainly very frustrating," said one school head, "but it's also a challenge. We have to innovate to keep our scores [high] with fewer resources."
Finland doesn't pay its teachers particularly well, but it does hold them in high esteem, and the profession attracts some of the ablest people. Teachers-to-be have considerable training, which stresses, according to Modoux, "didactics and pedagogy." Here's how he characterized what he saw:
“In the homeland of Nokia, the tremendous popularity of the mobile phone and the computer have not taken away the pleasure of reading. The Finns remain the greatest devourers of newspapers in the world, and their town public libraries, set up even within the village schools or in the local district, are always full. In addition to reading, [information technology] holds no mysteries for young Finns: at school they have an e-mail address which they know how to send messages from; they learn how to create their own Web page and are trained 'to learn to learn' by using the Net. Early exposure to several foreign languages (from the third grade) is the other strong point. Bilingualism is highly valued in all public places, and employees [serving the public] can get by in English.”
Was it true that “the pleasure of reading” was part of Finnish culture, as Modoux suggested? Was it true that this pleasure was hanging on in Finland, in a way which made Finnish culture perhaps a bit distinctive?
We don’t know the answers to those questions. But is it possible that Finland, a small, homogeneous, middle-class country, simply has a stronger tradition of literacy than other nations which are larger and more complex? And by the way:
Might this regional culture explain why Finland “holds its teachers in high esteem?” Might this explain why the teaching profession is able to “attract some of the ablest people” in Finland?
We don’t know the answers. But this takes us back to the graphic with which Ripley opens her book, a graphic she grossly mischaracterizes in accordance with Standard Establishment Narratives which must always be pushed.
The graphic appears on page 3 of Ripley’s book. Quite plainly, it shows Finnish students leading the world on international tests all the way back in the 1960s, long before the ballyhooed reforms which are supposed to explain the country’s current strong performance.
Sticking to established scripts, Ripley says on page 2, while describing the graphic, that miraculous Finland “rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath.”
Plainly, that isn’t what the graphic shows. But the claim makes Ripley’s story better, a pattern which appears again and again all through her scam-friendly book.
Finland’s kids don’t drive themselves crazy in hagwons every night. But Bracey’s profile makes us wonder if a pre-existing culture might help explain the small country’s educational success. And by the way: The homogeneity of Finland’s population may help explain other parts of Bracey’s portrait, whose basic elements Ripley largely repeats in her book.
Why do the Finns give extra money to schools which are getting lower scores? Could it be because of Finland’s homogeneity—because those schools are full of Finnish kids?
Beyond that, could that generosity reflect Finland’s tradition of middle-class literacy? Could it reflect the fact that Finnish kids who are “having difficulty” in school simply aren’t that far behind, can’t be seen as lost causes?
Homogeneity can be like that! Based on the graphic Ripley presents, Finnish kids are scoring higher today than they were in the 1960s, but they were always high scorers. Does this homogeneous country simply have a strong traditional culture of literacy? In the ethnic and tribal sense, could you call it “a family tradition?”
Finnish kids grow up in a homogeneous, middle-class culture. Here in this country, many kids don’t grow up that way at all. Compared to the way many American kids grow up, Finland represents a bit of a different world.
Let's get a bit more granular. In our country, many black kids grow up in a different world. True to the diktats of her handlers, Ripley is eager to disappear those deserving all-American children, whose test scores have gotten much better in recent decades, a fact Ripley forgets to cite.
Remember Ralph Ellison? Well, Ripley renders those children invisible! Tomorrow, we’ll consider various parts of their worlds, and we’ll look at their average test scores on the glorious PISA.
A visit to The Best Country: Is Finland really the overall Best Country in the World?
Such rankings are silly, of course. But does this small, homogeneous country have an unusually literate culture? In a later portrait of Finland in the Phi Delta Kappan, Bracey mused about another unusual part of Finnish culture:
BRACEY (5/1/03): As I reported here in November 2002, convoys of educators are moving north to Finland, Europe's highest-scoring nation in PISA...These educator pilgrims are seeking explanations for the successes of the Finns. Mostly, I see the reasons as a combination of good early childhood education, small classes, respected teachers, and a true dedication to an ethos of "no child left behind."When he mused this way, did Bracey know whereof he spoke? We have no idea. That said, you won’t hear the Ripleys musing this way. This isn’t what they’ve been told to repeat by their nation’s elites and swells.
Now, I offer another factor: music. The research link is indirect and no doubt would not pass the U.S. Department of Education's criterion of being "scientifically based," but there is a link. As reported here in February 2001, there is research to indicate that music—especially playing music (as opposed to just listening)—has cognitive benefits in other areas, including reading, mathematics, and spatial intelligence. Finland has 50,000 students studying music professionally. That's roughly one out of every 25 Finns between the ages of 6 and 18. Finland fields 31 symphony orchestras. For the U.S. to be on par with the Finns, we would need 2.8 million professional music students and 1,700 orchestras. We do have 1,200, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League (www.symphony.org). I don't know how many students are deeply involved in studying music.
But whatever the numbers are, music isn't the unifying force in our nation that it is in Finland. Talk to Finns about the importance of music, and the conversation comes down to one word: Sibelius. Composer Jean Sibelius led the struggle to free Finland from Russian rule and Swedish cultural dominance. His intense first two symphonies reflect this struggle, as does his stirring nationalist composition, Finlandia.
According to Leif Segerstam, conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, Sibelius left this legacy: "Music is our national language...." Not only that. Thirty years ago, the Finns decided to devote considerable tax revenue to music education. And it has paid off. Finnish conductors hold positions in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Toronto, Brussels, London, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo. At lower levels, "choosing to play a violin instead of becoming a cross-country ski racer does not mark you as a dweeb." Tell people about this when they want to cut school music programs to make way for tests in reading and math.
That said, is it possible that small, homogeneous Finland simply has a highly literate regional culture, a culture which is passed on in the home? Cultures differ all over the world. Could it be that the culture of small, homogeneous Finland is just a bit brighter than most?