Is the New York Times as smart as a third grader in Finland?


Welcome to the idiocracy, worship-of-Finland edition: Some may think we exaggerate about the New York Times’ terminal dumbness.

Sorry. On Tuesday, in the New York edition, the paper published its latest worship-of-Finland education report. Jenny Anderson wrote the piece—and no, we really aren’t making this up. This is the way she started:
ANDERSON (12/13/11): Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: “Who here wants to be a teacher?”

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up—one a little reluctantly.

“In my country, that would be 25 percent of people,” Dr. Sahlberg said. “And,” he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, “it would be more like this.”
Welcome to the idiocracy! What more can we say?

Let’s make sure we understand the innumeracy put on display here:

Sahlberg asked a group of fifteen students if they want to be teachers. Two of the fifteen said they did; that works out to 13.3 percent. (Never mind how we got that.) In Finland, 25 percent would have raised their hands, Sahlberg savvily said.

By all accounts, teaching is a higher prestige job in Finland than in the U.S. But Sahlberg was working with an “N” of 15; that is a very small number. Only a highly innumerate person draws conclusions from “samples” like this.

But so what! In the innumerate New York Times, this formed the opening hook. Anderson’s editor didn’t seem to see that this didn’t make much sense, especially in a report about basic reading and math skills.

Finland has scored very well on international tests. For this reason, a long list of people have said unintelligent things about the Finnish public school miracle. Finland may do many things well in its schools; it may do many things very well. But to her credit, Anderson managed to cite a few of the problems with comparing the Finnish experience to ours:
ANDERSON: Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population—5 percent are foreign-born—and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City’s but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York’s 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish and usually English. (Patrick F. Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learned on his own pilgrimage to Finland was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.)

“There are things they do right,” said Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, “but I’m not sure how many lessons we get are portable.” Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was “totally deified” and “blown out of proportion.”
Finland isn’t like the U.S.! It’s a middle-class, homogeneous nation; its schools don’t face a lot of the educational challenges our schools confront over here. And oh by the way: At no point did Anderson make any attempt to compare apples to apples. If we compare middle-class kids in each of the countries, how well does the U.S. do as compared to Finland?

Given the differences in the cultures, almost anyone would wonder. Last Friday, David Sirota became the latest progressive to suggest that American students stack up quite well in this kind of comparison (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/12/11). But sadly, this is the New York Times. It didn’t occur to Anderson, or to her editor, to seek out such data.

The Times is almost impossibly dumb, a fact it puts on display every day. Increasingly, so are various U.S. elites. The U.S. is sinking beneath the waves.

The Times helps show us the problem.

For what it's worth: For what it's worth, it's our impression that Sirota put an overly rosy glow on the performance of non-poverty U.S. students. But he didn't link to any data. It didn't seem to occur to Anderson that she might do such a thing.

This is the way elites now work, failing America-style.


  1. "If we compare middle-class kids in each of the countries, how well does the U.S. do as compared to Finland?"

    White middle-class children do very well next to Finland. But although you claim the that Left gave up on black kids years ago, it's actually the "gap" which is the obsession amongst the elites. No one is worried about white kids, but the Gap is practically a national obsession -- particularly the New York Times.

  2. I waited an extra day to post this . I admit to the misguided pursuit of an anticipated pleasure , perhaps found in reading an irrepressibly spontaneous , light and frothy delight received . This then rather than the mechanical grey analysis of the gray lady's genetic inability to separate unlimited chaff from rare matter . I am not now nor have I ever been a resident of Mudville .
    The address of this sunny December/11/2011 contribution is - - with a straightforward query , Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It? , by Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske , as its challenging headline .
    The Times notes that -
    Helen F. Ladd is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke. Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, is the author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.”
    Into every scold a little sunshine must fall , is my responsibility .