Getting Ripped: How illiterate were they?


Finland’s largely illiterate kids in the summer of 64: In her ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley describes miraculous Finland’s amazing advances in the realm of public education.

More specifically, she talks about Finland’s astonishing rise in international test scores. Yesterday, we showed you the full-paragraph quotes. Here’s the story according to Ripley:

“Until fairly recently,” Finland was “a largely illiterate farming and logging nation.” Change came within a single generation. Without pausing for breath, the country rocketed from the bottom of the world all the way to the top.

That story is thrilling, but is it accurate? We’d have to say it is not.

For starters, let’s note Ripley’s lack of attribution. Her book includes 35 pages of endnotes. But none of the passages we posted yesterday are sourced in any way.

The following passage includes some specific claims. In her endnotes, these highlighted claims aren’t sourced:
RIPLEY (page 7): Meanwhile, the Finns themselves offered vague explanations for their success. Education, I was told, had always been valued in Finland, going back hundreds of years. That explained it. But, then, why did only 10 percent of children finish high school in Finland in the 1950s? Why were there huge gaps between what urban and rural kids knew and could do in Finland in the 1960s? Back then, Finland’s passion for education had seemed rather uneven. What had happened?
Are those claims accurate? In her endnotes, Ripley provides no sources for these claims. We’ve been hunting on-line for some time, and we can’t find backing for these statements.

On the other hand, we did find this account from Statistics Finland, the Finnish’s government official site. Note the highlighted claim about historical literacy:
STATISTICS FINLAND: The educational level of Finland's population has risen steadily during the nine decades of independence [i.e., since 1917]. In the early years of independence, the challenge was to guarantee primary school education to all children. After the wars [of the 1940s] it became more common for children to go to middle and upper secondary general school, and as from the 1960s also tertiary level education expanded rapidly.


The Compulsory School Attendance Act was enacted soon after Finland gained its independence, and it entered into force in 1921. Compulsory education came to apply to all children aged 7 to 13, that is, compulsory schooling consisted of a primary school with 6 grades.

Gradually the Compulsory School Attendance Act extended primary education to cover the entire age group. In 1920 some 70 per cent of 15-year-olds were literate. The number of pupils in primary school started to rise quickly after the Act entered into force. Halfway through the 1930s, around 90 per cent of the 7 to 15-year-olds received schooling. Gradually education reached all children of statutory school age.
According to Statistics Finland, “70 per cent of 15-year-olds were literate” all the way back in 1920. That may not be accurate, of course. Beyond that, “literacy” can be defined in various ways.

But the OECD offers this account of Finland’s history with international testing. This account comes straight from the folk who administer the PISA:
OECD/PISA PRODUCTS: Prior to 2000 Finland rarely appeared on anyone’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems. This is partly explained by the fact that while Finland has always done well on international tests of literacy, its performance in five different international mathematics or science assessments between 1962 and 1999 never rose above average. But it was also because Finland’s path to education reform and improvement has been slow and steady, proceeding gradually over the past four decades.
This account seems to understate Finland’s past performance in math (see below). But even according to this account, Finland seems to have been average in math as far back as 1962—and the country “has always done well on international tests of literacy.”

If this is true, when did Finland “rocket from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath?” That’s the claim Ripley advances on page 2 of her book.

Ripley refers to a chart of international test scores as she makes this assertion. When was Finland at “the bottom of the world,” if the OECD claims are true?

This is the goofiest part of Ripley’s portrait. As we noted a few weeks ago, the actual chart on page 3 of her book doesn’t seem to jibe with the description she offers on page 2. On that chart, Finland seems to be recording above-average test scores all the way back through the 1960s, when the chart begins.

Over the weekend, we finally found one of the apparent sources for that chart. It was the First International Math Survey (FIMS), a set of tests a dozen nations took in 1964.

Finland was not at the bottom of the world in 1964. On the FIMS, Finland finished fourth among the twelve nations, scoring above the twelve nations’ average. The United States finished eleventh.

Two years ago, Kevin Drum posted a chart of scores from the FIMS, sourcing his post to us. In the meantime, we had forgotten about the FIMS. To see Drum’s chart, click this.

Why does Ripley make the claims which are sprinkled through her book? When was Finland “at the bottom of the world?” When was it “largely illiterate?”

In fairness, it may all depend on what the meaning of “largely” is! People who want to tell thrilling tales will sometimes use slippery words:
RIPLEY (page 39): Then [Kim] read that Finland had the smartest kids in the world. Could that be right? Teenagers in Finland did less homework than Americans, but scored at the top of the world on international tests, which was weird, since Finland had been until fairly recently a largely illiterate farming and logging nation.
What does it mean to be largely illiterate? How recently is fairly recently?

As Ed McMahon might have said to Johnny, “How illiterate were they?” Not gigantically illiterate, it would possibly seem.

In her ballyhooed book, Ripley tells a thoroughly standardized tale about miraculous Finland. Journalists have been typing this memorized tale ever since Finland topped the world on the first PISA.

Those scores were released in 2001. From that time to this, journalists have taken the free trip to Finland, then typed up the standard tale.

Ripley seems to have made this standardized tale more thrilling. There’s a term we’d apply to her story:

Major parts of her thrilling story strike us as being “untrue.”


  1. So, just by compelling all Finnish kids to go to school, they achieved near universal literacy? All they needed was access to schools and education.

    We certainly have universal access to education in the US today. Here in New Jersey, we are spending anywhere from 20% to 70% more on education for the low income school district kids than the other kids in the state. Lots of blah, blah, blah about education for "inner city" kids and billionaire Zuckerberg making a big show of himself giving $100 million to Newark (over how many years? How much given thus far?) while the taxpayers of the state spend $1 billion every year on Newark schools.

    If only the money went to schools and kids where it had more impact or to other public purposes. A family of 4 kids in Asbury Park, NJ is costing state taxpayers $120,000/year just for the schools. That family is still "living in poverty." Its an absurdity.

    1. I know! Let's eat them. How many people would a family of 4 kids in Asbury Park feed, do you suppose?

    2. deadrat,
      If there is a God, the people who supported the giant waste of public funds of inner city education in New Jersey will answer to all the people who were desperately waiting for cures for horrible illnesses. Its a big sin that we are throwing money down this bottomless pit.

    3. If God loved you, deadrat, he'd tell you to get off the internet.

  2. A real explanation would include the role of women, who from the first played a role in creating a humane and enlightened society. I understand that Finnish women contributed in drafting the Finnish constitution when that country became independent of Sweden and Russia. (They were educated Swedish women btw.) According to wikipedia: Ellen

  3. According to wikipedia: The Parliament Act in 1906 established the unicameral parliament of Finland and both women and men were given the right to vote and stand for election. Thus Finnish women became the first in the world to have unrestricted rights both to vote and to stand for parliament. In elections the next year, 19 female MPs, first ones in the world, were elected and women have continued to play a central role in the nation's politics ever since. Miina Sillanpää, a key figure in the worker's movement, became the first female minister in 1926.
    Finland's first female President Tarja Halonen was voted into office in 2000 and for a second term in 2006. Since the 2011 parliamentary election, women's representation stands at 42,5%. In 2003 Anneli Jäätteenmäki became the first female Prime Minister of Finland, and in 2007 Matti Vanhanen's second cabinet made history as for the first time there were more women than men in the cabinet of Finland. [E]

  4. Amanda Ripley is just a glorified advertising copywriter. [E]

  5. Well, since you have yet to refute anything a critic of this site has offered, it may indeed be important for you
    to try and pretend you have the intelligence you lack by pretending to be someone else.

  6. Having grown up in the forties in a Midwestern rural community, it is easy to see why Finland is successful. As a child, I was surrounded by farmers and residents of small towns, many of whom had eighth-grade educations but were very literate in reading, math, or any applied science that affected their world. ( For example, one of my uncles with that eighth-grade education, was asked by John Deere to work for them as a consultant for their farm products. He chose to stay on the farm.)
    From about 1955 on, the children of these Midwestern "hicks" have become judges, doctors, professors, engineers, teachers, and very successful business persons. I suspect that Finland, like middle America, always had an underlying culture of literacy in many areas, a literacy that blossomed with peace and prosperity. That Midwestern culture, like Finland's, was and remains quite homogenous to this day, and has little in common with urban poverty, Appalachia, or Southern rural culture. Our task is to educate all American kids, not just the ones who come from Beaver Cleaver's home town.

  7. Midwestern farmers (many of Scandinavian origin) had a culture of intelligent cooperation. For example, they formed associations to protect themselves from the predatory landgrabs that were routine in the South, where small landowners tended to get swallowed up by plantations, banks, and agribusiness. In the Mid-West, the medium-sized farm was allowed to flourish. [E]

  8. What I am saying is that these arrangements and tendencies were the result of political decisions not intrinsic character. [e]

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