OUTSCORING FINLAND: Script never sleeps!


Interlude—A second-grader asks: “Is it true that Patrick had an operation that made him not ticklish?”

In all our years of truth-squadding, it may have been the best question we’d ever heard anyone ask.

We liked the formal presentation. (“Is it true that...” rather than “Did...”) And we liked one youngster’s instinctive search for the truth.

In this instance, a 7-year-old was fact-checking her older brother, a junior in high school. Out in the living room, he had made an implausible claim to protect himself against group attack from four marauding girls, ages 7 years down to 20 months.

Unconvinced by his assertion, his sister brought her question to their mother, who sat at the adult Thanksgiving table.

“No,” her mother said. Another fact check completed!

We were pleased by the instincts put on display in this instance. Two mornings later, we came face to face with our society’s reigning culture, the culture of adult elites.

A letter appeared in the New York Times, written by an expert from Harvard. As we scanned the letter, we sadly remarked:

Truly, script never sleeps:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (11/30/13): The problem with Common Core is not coddled kids; it is high-stakes testing. And the anxiety that kids feel is not from their parents but rather from their teachers, who fear for their jobs.

We can have high academic standards without high anxiety. In Finland, which is the best performing education system in the world, the first high-stakes test that kids take is the high school matriculation exam, which they have between two and four years to prepare for—their choice—and can retake if they are not satisfied with the results. Kids are assessed continuously in class, and get feedback that urges them to do better, but it is not high stakes. Grades are played down.

If we want Common Core to succeed, we have to dial back the high-stakes testing...
Truly, script never sleeps.

Is Finland is the world’s best performing system? The letter came from Cambridge, Mass. Recalling some of the data we’d posted on Tuesday, we wondered why the writer didn’t designate his own state as the world’s top system:
Average scores, 2011 TIMSS
Grade 8 math, all students

Massachusetts 561
Finland 514
(United States 509)

Grade 8 science, all students
Massachusetts 567
Finland 552
(United States 525)
For all TIMSS data, click here.

Especially given the challenges it faces relative to Finland, why isn’t Massachusetts the top performing system? Beyond that, what makes Finland a higher performer than South Korea, which routinely outscores it?

For the most part, we’d say the answer is this:

Script makes Finland best!

Finland is the world’s top performer! The script gets repeated, again and again, in news reports and op-ed columns—even in featured letters from experts. Among adult journalists and experts, that’s the way our intellectual culture actually works.

(In the letter, the writer adopts a second standard approach. Declaring Finland the world’s greatest system, he selects an educational practice of which he approves. He then attributes Finland’s greatness to that particular practice.)

Finland is the world’s top performer! We only wished that second-grader had come to us two days earlier:

“Is it true that Finland is the highest-performing educational system in the world?”

“Not exactly, no,” we would have said. As we continued to muse, we wondered if some journalist—perhaps some letters editor—will ever pose that simple question in the course of his or her work.

One day later, we got our answer. Reading on-line, we spotted the New York Times list of the year’s best non-fiction books. The Times included a widely ballyhooed tome:
THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD: And How They Got That Way. By Amanda Ripley. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) A look at countries that are outeducating us—Finland, South Korea, Poland—through the eyes of American high school students abroad.
One week earlier, the Washington Post had included that same book on its own list of the year’s best. In the Post, the synopsis went something like this:
By Amanda Ripley (Simon & Schuster)
Following American students as they attend foreign school systems with better test scores than ours, the author leads us into classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea.
Does Poland have better test scores than ours? We’d have to say no, not exactly. Unless you’re typing from script! (Examples below.)

Is The Smartest Kids in the World one of the year’s best books? Remember, we’re talking non-fiction.

Consider this:

Right on page one, the book begins with a sneering claim about the way education reporting has always tended to be “well, kind of soft.” Such reporting has tended to be “brimming with good intentions but not too much evidence,” Amanda Ripley loftily laments.

On page 2, the book’s factual groaners get started. On that page, Ripley makes the largest (and least disguised) misstatement in the history of books. As she does, she offers an obviously bogus story about why she wrote her book.

The scams continue from there, along with a tremendous amount of overall cluelessness. (Ripley has very little background in education.) In truth, you’ll rarely see a book which is more larded with scams, misstatements, omissions and comical groaners.

That said, the book does follow prevailing script! And under current rules of the game, if a book performs that service, all manner of scam is permitted.

“Is it true that Patrick had an operation that made him not ticklish?”

No, his mother said.

A second-grader had asked for the truth. When she gets older, she may see that experts in the world of elites prefer to defer to the script.

Tomorrow: Outscoring Finland, part 3

Poland outscores the U.S.: In 2011, Poland participated in the TIMSS (Grade 4 only). These are the scores which emerged:
Average scores, 2011 TIMSS
Grade 4 math, all students

United States 541
Poland 486

Grade 4 science, all students
United States 544
Poland 506
In The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley uses results from the 2007 TIMSS to declare that Minnesota is a world-class performer in math. She doesn’t tell you that Massachusetts outscored miraculous Finland on the 2011 TIMSS, by a rather substantial margin.

As we noted last Tuesday, five other states, including Minnesota, outscored Finland in math that year, out of nine states in all. These facts don’t appear in that book, one of the best of the year.

Ripley doesn’t include Poland’s scores from that, the most recent TIMSS session. That’s how the modern “journalist” works when typing from script.

Typing from script, and thereby producing The Most Lauded Book in the World!


  1. Excellent analysis, clear and precise.

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  3. Is it really the case that Finnish students go through school without high stakes testing? E.g., I assume they're grouped homogeneously in upper years. If so, I assume that some tests are used to place a student.

    I personally believe in the value of high stakes testing. There are some people who will study for the joy of learning. These special people may not need testing. But, I think most of us benefit from the discipline of preparing for a test.

    BTW note that testing is particularly beneficial to minorities, because it eliminates the impact of personal prejudice.

  4. Testing is part of learning. Cognitive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated that practice at retrieval of learned information has more value than studying it again. When they say high stakes testing they are talking about testing used to determine school district funding, teacher salaries, and for students, admission to college. Because so much depends on that kind of testing, there are increased incentives for cheating, added stress placed on teachers certainly and transmitted to students (who don't know where the tension may be coming from). There is little educational benefit to that kind of testing because there is no feedback to the student about performance, especially not the kind of timely feedback that promotes learning. It is being done for administrative purposes. Because it takes time away from instruction, it can impair learning. So, David, it is important to differentiate between the kinds of purposes of tests, and how they are administered (with feedback or not). When these kinds of tests are not linked back to specific students, there is no benefit in overcoming prejudice because the teachers do not know how specific students performed -- just how the school did as a whole, and how some strata of students performed.

  5. Tests do have a pedagogical function and as I understand it Finnish students take as many tests as students in any other country. These are tests on the subject matter covered, designed by their teachers.

    This is not the same as high stakes tests designed by for profit contractors, that are used to assess the school and the teacher, such as no child left behind. Nor is it the same as a one-time high stakes test that can determine their entire future, what school they go to and what career choice they make.


    Note: Amanda Ripley erroneously and misleadingly calls the Finnish "matriculation" exam, a high school "graduation exam". It is a university entrance exam, and it may be taken again and again. (I doubt there is a fee to take it, but don't know for sure). In any case, there is no high school graduation exam in Finland, there is rather, a leaving certificate.

    Note, also, that high school is not compulsory in Finland. It begins in what corresponds to 11th grade in this country and lasts three years, or four if necessary, and so is more like our community college. Ripley obscures the fact that Finnish high school students are a self selected bunch with academic interests. Students who are not academically inclined can elect to go to well-funded vocational schools without fear of stigma. There are also provisions for changing track if one wishes (in accordance with European Union recommendations, so that people are not stuck for life with a decision they made or which was made for them when they were young). E

  6. "In this instance, a 7-year-old was fact-checking her older brother, a junior in high school. Out in the living room, he had made an implausible claim to protect himself against group attack from four marauding girls, ages 7 years down to 20 months."

    Sooo. Freaking. Cute.

  7. http://www.ed.gov/news/media-advisories/us-education-secretary-discuss-programme-international-student-assessment-resu

    "U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will participate in the PISA Day release event at 10 a.m. at the Newseum, in Washington, D.C. where he will join OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría to discuss the implications of the 2012 PISA results for American students and students internationally. In addition to delivering remarks, the two Secretaries will participate in an interview and then a panel discussion led by Amanda Ripley, author of "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way." The panel discussion will include students who have spent an extended period of time studying in both the United States and in one of the high-performing or rapidly-improving countries identified in the PISA. "

  8. I love it when a 20-month old marauds.