WHERE THE TEST SCORES ARE: Two types of deserving (American) kids!


Final week postponed until Monday:
In this morning's New York Times, we read about two types of kids—two types of American public school students—who pretty much don't exist in Finland.

In David Brooks' column, we read about American kids who are struggling with poverty, with homelessness, perhaps with the absence of parents. Brooks is describing the children he's met at a weekly dinner held at the home of two righteous Gentiles—two people who minister to such kids in Washington, D.C.

"Absolute poverty" and "relative poverty" are quite uncommon in Finland. Children who struggle in the ways Brooks describes are much less common there:
BROOKS (10/18/16): The kids who show up at Kathy and David’s have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand—to a sibling, friend or parent.

It’s anomalous for them to have a bed at home. One 21-year-old woman came to dinner last week and said this was the first time she’d been around a family table since she was 11.


The kids need what all adolescents need: bikes, laptops and a listening heart. “Thank you for seeing the light in me,” one young woman told Kathy after a cry on the couch...

Poverty up close is so much more intricate and unpredictable than the picture of poverty you get from the grand national debates. The kids can project total self-confidence one minute and then slide into utter lostness the next.

The college application process often seems like a shapeless fog to them; nobody’s taught them the concrete steps to move along the way. One young woman lied on her financial aid forms because she didn’t want to admit that her father was dead, her mother was on drugs—how messed up her home life actually was.
American history and social practice have created the social realities with which these public school students must struggle. To Finland's credit, its history and its social practices have been more enlightened than ours.

This means that Finland's schools don't encounter the educational challenges produced by this sort of social dysfunction. For that reason, you can't fly to Finland to find the best way for these challenges to be addressed.

We learn about a different set of challenges in this news report about bilingual education in California, "a state where immigrants now make up roughly 25 percent of the population," a state where "more than 200 languages are spoken."

This country gains a great deal from the courage and the ambition of its many immigrants. But along the way, the children of these immigrants may, on balance, present educational challenges of a type which are rare in Finland, a nation which, for better or worse, has allowed little immigration.

For the most part, you can't fly to Finland and learn how to deal with our nation's educational challenges. Many of our greatest educational challenges don't exist in that small, middle-class, unicultural nation.

Finland never created a brutalized "racial minority." It never spent centuries trying to eliminate literacy from any such group.

For better or worse, it hasn't permitted much immigration, including the types of immigration which may tend to lower test scores. Its children rarely struggle with poverty.

For these reasons, a journalist can't sensibly fly to Finland to learn how to deal with our nation's educational challenges. To illustrate this point, we'll once again show you the data we featured in yesterday's report. Today, though, we'll include a fuller set of American scores, scores which help us understand where, on balance, our challenges lie.

Again, this is the recent international subtest on which American students, in the aggregate, actually scored least well. According to Amanda Ripley, 39 points the PISA scale is regarded as the rough equivalent of one academic year:
Average scores, math literacy, 2012 PISA
Taiwan: 560
South Korea: 554
United States, Asian-American students: 549
Japan: 536
Finland: 519
Canada: 518
Poland: 518
Germany: 514
United States, white students: 506
Australia: 504
France: 495
United Kingdom: 494
Italy: 485
Spain: 484
Russia: 482
United States: 481
United States, Hispanic students: 455
United States, black students: 421

For a fuller set of scores, click here.

On this, our worst of eight subtests on the TIMSS and the PISA, white students in the U.S. seemed to score only 12 weeks behind the miracle kids of Finland. It's silly to regard that as some sort of powerful difference. (On the PISA reading test, the corresponding difference in average scores was only five points.)

Plenty of black and Hispanic kids scored well on the PISA math test. That includes some kids who are struggling with poverty, homelessness and the lack of parental guidance. A lot of kids from immigrant backgrounds scored well on that test, though many others did not.

That said, the horror of those disaggregated American scores shows us where our challenges lie, helps demonstrate the sheer absurdity of those plane rides to Finland. That absurdity will only grow when we show you how kids from two contiguous corners of the United States—Massachusetts and Connecticut—scored on the 2012 PISA as compared to their peers in miraculous Finland, a smaller corner of Europe.

That said, we've decided to postpone the last week of this award-winning series. A lot of journalism from the campaign has been recommending itself, and tomorrow evening will feature the last Clinton-Trump debate.

When our award-winning five-week series is done, we plan to link to all its reports from a single location. This will let readers access all the information they'll never get from our American press corps. We'd like to do our last set of reports as well as we can, without the distractions this week is sure to provide.

For that reason, we'll plan to start our final week of reports, Where the Challenges Are, next Monday. In the meantime, ponder that column by David Brooks, along with that news report from California.

Also, ponder those disaggregated PISA scores. As you do, ask yourself these questions:

Why do we still hear about the wonders of miraculous Finland? Why do journalists keep flying to Finland (and now to Estonia!) to learn how to address our educational challenges, the bulk of which don't exist in that small middle-class land?


  1. Why do they keep flying to Finland? I guess they don't want to fly to California.

  2. Bob returns to Finland regularly. Or to his old posts.

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