A BASIC LACK OF SKILL: President Clinton buys Finland!


Tall tales about a school system: It seems to be the way our minds work. All the great stories are fake!

Even the most famous stories about public fakery turn out to be bogus, fake! In the Washington Post, Kathy Lally reviewed the new book about Catherine the Great:
LALLY (11/20/11): She cried when she quarreled with her lovers and cherished the ones who offered intelligent conversation. She wanted more than a pretty face. The favorite of the favorites was Gregory Potemkin, he who built the supposedly fake "Potemkin" villages to impress her. This, Massie argues, is a myth. The villages were real.

Today, 215 years later, the authorities are still promising enlightenment—now they call it modernization—and their people are still accusing them of building Potemkin villages.
Good lord! Potemkin’s villages were real! Only the story is fake!

Almost all the great stories are fake; it’s one of the basic ways our pitiful minds fail to work. For our money, the biggest fake story in modern times is the tall tale about Finland's schools. We were sad to see Bill Clinton recite the tale in his new book, Back to Work.

Below, we’ll show you what Clinton said about the state of our own nation’s public schools. But in a footnote, he offered this highly familiar story about the schools in Dear Finland:
CLINTON (page 99): One of the most interesting findings of the international student assessments is how well Finland is doing. Though it’s a small country, its students are a diverse lot. Forty-five languages are spoken in Helsinki schools. In the 1990s, Finland’s schools weren’t doing well. Instead of adopting a national testing program, Finland focused on defining excellence in teaching and learning. Every teacher has a master’s degree. Only one in ten applicants gets a teaching job. It’s the most respected, though not the highest-paid, profession. Though they don’t give any domestic tests, students do well on international tests. Only 4 percent of the schools are underperforming, and the country is rated among the very best in innovation and creativity, important twenty-first century skills. In the United States, the approach most like Finland’s is that embraced by the KIPP charter schools. They have also defined excellence in teaching and learning. Based on their test scores and the fact that their poor minority students succeed in college at a higher rate than white students, it works here too.
Oof. After reciting the tale about Finnish schools, he even folds in a familiar tale about the success of KIPP schools.

(For the record, “in the 1990s” may be a typo. The normal recitation of this massaged tale puts the alleged turn-around in the 1970s. Finland's schools were doing quite well by the late 1990s.)

We don’t mean to criticize the KIPP schools, or the schools in Finland. We’ll assume that the Finns do many good things in their high-scoring schools. But in the highlighted passage, Clinton even adopts a new standard hook which has been folded into this corporatist tale. He seems to say that Finland’s schools are highly “diverse”—not unlike our own.

As far as we know, this is utterly bogus. (For cultural reasons, relevant data are a bit hard to come by.) The analysts moped for a good solid day after seeing the president say this.

Are Finland’s students “a diverse lot?” As best we can tell, they are not. Clinton says that forty-five languages are spoken in Helsinki schools; on its own web site, the Helsinki schools set the number at “about 45.” But Helsinki is only one part of Finland, and this is a highly ineffective way of measuring the sort of diversity which may affect a nation’s educational outcomes. How many children speak each of those languages? And how many of those children come from high-literacy backgrounds? (Estonian and Russian are the top foreign lingos in Finland.) And by the way—is 45 a lot of languages for a city’s schools? The New York Times recently discussed the state of the schools in Gotham:
ROBERTS (4/28/10): While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages—far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.
If a student speaks a foreign language, does that make him or her an educational risk? Not necessarily, no. But almost surely, Finland’s schools aren’t anywhere near as “diverse” as that spreading factoid makes them seem. But then, silly fake stories often gain purchase from casual factoids like this.

On the whole, Finland is not a highly diverse nation—quite the contrary. (For a quick sampler, click and scroll. For the most part, those "Swedes" are the so-called "Finnish Swedes." They've been in the country for centuries.) Its immigrants often come from literate backgrounds—and the nation has little poverty. Beyond that, might we compliment the Finns? To their credit, they never decided to spend three centuries trying to stamp out literacy within a whole subset of their population, as our benighted ancestors did—with results which linger on within our public schools. (History’s effects can’t be wished away because we no longer welcome them.) It’s very, very, very silly to compare Finland’s educational outcomes to ours unless you make some modest attempt to “disaggregate” the data—to compare apples to apples within these two student populations, which are highly dissimilar.

But so what? Corporate forces have been pushing this tale for the past decade, helped by undiscerning liberals who seem to enjoy their free plane rides to Finland. For our money, this is the dumbest of all the fake stories which make up the current American song book. Our analysts moped for a good solid day after they saw President Clinton recite it. It’s rare to see Clinton, a very bright person, reciting a tale of this type.

Clinton’s overview: For the record, this is Clinton’s overview of our own public schools. He refers to a study involving 33 developed nations:
CLINTON (page 99): On comparative tests, U.S. students ranked sixteenth in science, twenty-second in math. Our high school graduation rate is eighteenth, as the next chart shows. Our problems in kindergarten through twelfth-grade education are well known. In elementary school, our kids match up pretty well with others. By the eighth grade, there’s a pretty wide gap between our students and those in the highest scoring countries. By the eleventh grade, the gap has grown into a chasm. Though our best students continue to do reasonably well compared with other nations’ best students, we also have a higher percentage of low-performing students than they do.
The study from which Clinton is working records U.S. scores in math and science. It omits the corresponding score in reading, where American students scored twelfth out of 33, their best comparative score.

For the record: In a wide array of ways, those “highest scoring countries” are not a great deal like our own. “We have a higher percentage of low-performing students than they do?” Does anyone really fail to grasp some of the basic reasons for this state of affairs?

For our money, this is Clinton’s least felicitous statement: “Our problems in kindergarten through twelfth-grade education are well known.” In fact, the state of our problems—and our successes—are very poorly known. To wit:

Again, we will guess that President Clinton has never heard that black fourth-graders are now scoring higher in math than their white counterparts did in 1992. Is that “problem” well-known? On its face, that represents an enormous success. But thanks to corporatist control of your nation’s facts, the American people haven’t heard it. We will guess that President Clinton has never heard that fact either.

One final comment: You really can’t discuss this topic without discussing the various chunks of our student population. Putting that another way, you can’t discuss this topic without discussing our brutal racial history, whose effects live on today in our “achievement gaps.” Without discussing our ciurrent immigration policy, which brings many delightful, deserving, low-literacy children to our schools—so that corporate entities can pay low wages and everyone else can get cheap lawn care. If those NAEP scores can be believed, some very strong gains have been recorded—gains we aren’t allowed to discuss. But on average, our black kids still trail our white kids—and this represents a very unique historical circumstance, one which can’t be matched in Finland, no matter how much fun it is to spend a week in that happiest land.

We love to pretend that our racial history simply doesn’t exist. It’s only black kids, after all! Why bother being forthright about them, or their life situations? It’s disappointing to see that even Bill Clinton wants to wipe away the facts which explain the real shape of our educational struggle. We're sorry, but the problems which still exist in Little Rock’s schools can't be reviewed in Helsinki's.

According to the NAEP, our black kids have come a long way—but you aren’t allowed to know that. And there’s nothing in Finland which lets us know how to proceed with this struggle.

On the other hand, all the great stories are fake! We love to concoct these Potemkin tales and repeat them to one another.


  1. Gramm–Leach–Bliley was passed under the assumption that banks, if left unregulated, would never do something so stupid as to destroy the global financial system. Oops.

    NAFTA was supposed to enrich everyone in the US. Clinton said specifically that it would lead to "more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace." Oops.

    DADT was supposed to be a compromise between a sane military policy and former military policy. It lead to more LGB people being drummed out of the military than ever before. Oops.

    Clinton was treated badly by Republicans and the press, as well as establishment liberals. But that doesn't mean he hasn't shown himself quite willing to swallow and spew neoliberal horse-shit.

    He's like Bill Gates - rich, smart, but fundamentally doesn't care about others any more than they can add to his legacy.

  2. Alex Blaze is right. Bill Clinton is as capable of furthering dangerous neoliberal crap as anyone out there, and during his two terms as well as since then has repeatedly done so. That doesn't mean he didn't accomplish some important things as president, but he is a notorious neoliberal, and the attacks on public education are part of the neoliberal program.

    Every fact contrary to the neoliberal story about public education is as effective as a whisper into a heavy wind: it dissipates faster than you can issue it. They. Don't. Care. Not just about black children or hispanic kids or even white children. They don't care about children or education, but about implementing their fantasies as policy and leaving everyone to pick up the pieces.

    We've been doing this with Gramm-Leach-Bliley, NAFTA, DADT, Welfare Reform, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary, and so many more Clintonian gifts, and unfortunately, once this crap gets written into law, it's like moving the Rock of Gibraltar an inch or two to overturn it.

  3. We spent a week in Helsinki a few years ago (I know, one week doesn't make me an expert). We were living in St. Petersburg at the time, and I had to go outside Russia to renew my visa, so it was not a very organized trip and we basically wandered around a lot. During that week, we met only 2 people (literally) who did not speak English. And the English was generally fluent, at least within the conversations we had. We also found out that Finland has 2 official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and that most people there speak both fluently. Finnish is from Slavic roots, and is a very different language from Swedish (not to mention English).
    One thing that all the US people extolling Finnish schools ignore is something basic to the Finnish government, which was clearly stated in the narration on a tour bus: the narration said that Finland's accomplishments in education, public health, quality of life, etc., were the direct result of Finland's "welfare state." Yes, they used the words "welfare state." So the next time someone praises Finland to the detriment of the USA, point out to them that if they want Finland's schools, then they need to emulate Finland's welfare state.

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