We’re not in Finland any more, Vinny!


Notes on our broken discourse: Kevin Drum actually talks about our public schools!

We’re very glad he does. Among liberal pundits within the guild, very few others do.

That said, the American discourse is deeply broken in virtually every area. In virtually every subject area, the discourse is ruled by bogus claims which track to various tribes.

Our public discourse is tribal narrative, pretty much all the way down. Through no particular fault of his own, Drum’s post in praise of New Jersey’s schools helps illustrate that point.

Drum linked to this post by Vikram Bath, which starts from a strong basic point. Quite correctly, Bath rolls his eyes at the cult of Finland, an international cult which has finally entered a state of slight remission.

As he rolls his eyes at Finland, Bath praises the accomplishments of the Massachusetts public schools. Drum agrees with his overall view, but he says New Jersey’s schools may be a better role model.

We’ve criticized the cult of Finland for the past half dozen years or so. (The cult began taking shape around 2002.) We were glad to see Bath challenge this cult, but we were struck by two talking-points which lurked inside his post.

One comes from the world education elite. The other comes from the American education left, such as it is.

Each point is shaky or bogus.

First point: Bath doesn’t seem to be familiar with the apparent problems with Shanghai’s international test scores.

A few years ago, Shanghai became the new darling of the international elite and of the American “education reform” crowd. Within the past year, Tom Loveless has helped explain why Shanghai’s scores must be viewed with skepticism.

That said, the propaganda spread far and wide in just the past few years. Even as he challenges the cult of Finland, Bath doesn’t seem to have heard that there are apparent problems with the new cult of Shanghai.

(Note on Bath’s remark about China: There seem to be problems with Shanghai’s scores which don’t obtain with Hong Kong. Shanghai’s a special case.)

That talking point has come from the corporate “education reform” center. In this passage, Bath advances a bogus talking-point from the education left:
BATH (4/2/14): Rafael Irizarry notes that “Finland has less students living in poverty (3%) than the US (20%).” Additionally, US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland. If anything, it seems they should be learning from us—specifically from US schools with children who aren’t living in relative poverty. Suck on that, Finns. Murica. (The links refer to the 2009 PISA.)
For starters, it’s famously difficult to compare poverty rates from different countries. But the real problem here involves the claim that “US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland” on the PISA.

Variants of that claim have become popular among Ravitch-style liberals in recent years. As we remember saying at Woodstock, some bad stats are going around!

Here’s the problem:

The statistic from which Bath’s claim derives is not a statistic about poverty levels in U.S. schools. It’s a statistic produced by the NCES—a statistic about American schools where fewer than 10 percent of the kids qualify for reduced free or price lunch.

That isn’t a measure of poverty! At present, about half of American students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. When we talk about schools where fewer than ten percent quality, we’re talking about a surprisingly small number of schools in our most upscale neighborhoods.

As such, Bath is comparing the student population from our most elite neighborhoods with the student population from the whole country of Finland. It’s a highly uncertain, flawed comparison. Except for the fact that it makes us feel good, the liberal education crowd should stop passing it around.

No one has trashed the cult of Finland any more than we have. But there are better ways to compare the performance of American students to that of students in Finland. The statistic Bath is citing has been widely misapplied and misunderstood. (He himself is misstating it.) But because it produces a pleasing result, a certain school of education liberals have passed it all around.

As matters stand today, we’re a deeply unintelligent nation with a deeply compromised public discourse. Our journalists are basically hapless. Our professors sleep in the woods.

Within this floundering public culture, bogus talking-points aren’t just for Rush any more. Slowly but surely, we pseudo-liberals have been producing a boatload of bullroar too.

Warning! Test scores from Shanghai should be approached with caution. But the other claim which Bath advanced has come from the funny farm too.

In virtually every subject area, this is how our discourse works. It’s bungled or bogus talking-points pretty much all the way down.


  1. Deeply broken discourse...and it has been for forty years.

  2. Once I tried to correct a mistaken statistic in a colleagues white paper. Because the change wouldn't fit the argument, my correction was ignored. I knew at that point that my colleague was a poor scholar and more interested in partisanship than truth. In an everyday citizen, that might not be much of a criticism, but in an academic it is shameful. Research is supposed to be about uncovering truth and adding to knowledge. It doesn't surprise me to find out another person is human. I do think it is mistaken for Somerby to expect that professors will become public intellectuals and correct mistakes, going against the various agendas of people propagating their made up statistics. They are as human as everyone else.

    In science, we hope that a methodology will protect us from errors inherent to human thought. Journalism used to have a methodology to protect itself too -- such as getting two corroborative sources, revealing conflicts of interest, quoting properly and not plagiarizing, and especially not serving as a mouthpiece by repeating the press releases of various interests without independent investigation and fact checking. None of that seems to happen any more. I don't understand why not.

    In academia, fraud occurs when people place their careers and financial interests ahead of their commitment to uncovering truth. In journalism, I suspect that malpractice similarly occurs when people place their careers and financial interests ahead of their commitment to telling the truth to audiences. Somerby has been saying for years that big money has a corrupting influence on people like Maddow and her colleagues. Why is this not obvious?

  3. Bob continues to misunderstand the point in comparing U.S. schools with fewer than 10% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch with schools in Finland or other high-scoring countries. Yes, yes, ho hum, that is not technically a measure of poverty as such, but it is the measure of the incidence of low income students that we have. The poverty rate, of course, is a subset of that figure.

    The point is not a rah-rah victorious competition between Finnish schools and the schools in mostly middle class or wealthier American neighborhoods. To do that, you would at minimum have to compare the U.S. with Finnish schools with the same or comparable measure of low income students. The point is simply that when you reduce the impact of low income on aggregate test scores, the schools test as well as schools in a country with little poverty and less inequality of income. Any comparison is going to be flawed, but this is one data point that tends to shoot down the cult. That is a perfectly legitimate use for the comparison. So are comparisons with various jurisdictions like Massachusetts.

    Of course, no story about PISA should ever be published without noting that there are other international tests with often different results.

    1. The point isn't only what constitutes low income but that you cannot compare a limited segment of US kids with an average for a whole nation.

    2. It depends on the purpose of your comparison. If there are no schools in Finland with a percentage of students from families with incomes as low as that which in the U.S. qualifies for free or reduced lunch, then the comparison is more apt than you think -- probably more useful from a policy standpoint than the overall U.S. data. What the data does is show how much low income in the U.S. affects the overall data.

      Again, though, the purpose is not to claim our schools are better than Finland's, but it does suggest strongly that they are probably not much different in the results they produce. It's the only data we have, and it's just stupid to keep attacking the people who are trying to use it to make a legitimate point.

    3. As you know, it is not the amount of money that determines low income but the amount of money in relation to the costs of living expenses. There are poor people in Finland and there are immigrants. Comparing the lives of those segments of the two populations is complicated. As Somerby has pointed out, there is not a history of systematic suppression of literacy in Finland independent of poverty or immigration status. But comparing a smaller selected statum of a population against the whole range of people in the other population is not an appropriate comparison. If you are going to compare the upper class students of the US with Finland, you need to compare them against similarly advantaged students in Finland.

      Somerby's point is not about Finland vs US educational excellence. It is about the appropriate and inappropriate use of statistics and especially about the misuse of statistics to support preferred narratives. That IS what is being done by people on both sides of this dispute about education (corporate reformists vs liberals). So, your contention that the people doing this are making a legitimate point perhaps springs from your agreement with their larger claims, not their statistical support for their arguments. This is not a legitimate use of statistics, whatever the merits of the larger point.

      It may annoy you that Somerby harps on this, but his issues are with how people present information in the media, not how Finland teaches its students compared to US approaches. If you don't care about his issues, it makes little sense to come here and tell him he shouldn't care about them either.

    4. "Somerby's point is . . ."

      And once again, a BOBfan provides the Master an invaluable service by explaining his point.

      Too bad Hawking doesn't have such a fan to explain his book to Bob.

    5. urban legend, WTF is wrong with you?

      Somerby's simply correct: the comparison is faulty. We pretend we're comparing American kids not in poverty to Finnish kids, when we're really comparing America's luckiest and richest kids to Finnish kids.

      It's a cheat, plain and simple.

      As for, 6:20PM -- fuck the hell off, douchbag troll.

  4. I wonder does Finland play a role in enticing journalists to overplay it's education standing?

  5. Maybe we're making the wrong comparison, between Finland and America? It's not public education that is so different between the two countries. It's how we deal with, and eradicate, poverty. Perhaps it's not that Finland's schools are superior, and therefore their test scores are higher. Rather, it might be that Finland has a much more equitable society, and oh by the way, that leads to better test scores too. Isn't this what the data are telling us? And, if it is, isn't it also making it obvious that we have to reduce poverty to improve education?