WHERE THE TEST SCORES ARE: We've heard this phone call a thousand times!


Part 1 in this series

Part 2—All hail glorious Finland: Last Saturday morning, we journeyed to the Washington suburbs to attend a bat mitzvah.

The father of the daughter in question happens to work for C-Span. By happenstance, we listened to a back-to-school segment on C-Span radio as we trundled along.

Eventually, C-Span's capable Ylan Mui threw the phones open for general comment. After roughly fifteen minutes, a caller gave the standard speech about Finland's wonderful schools.

The caller made some general remarks, then turned to the schools in Finland. Over the course of the past dozen years, this speech has become quite familiar:
CALLER FROM MISSISSIPPI (9/3/16): ...By the way, I'm a William F. Buckley conservative. It would take your older audience to, part of your audience, to understand that.

I did a quick little research just to find out where in the world is, are schools very successful academically, science, math, reading. And the one that really rose to the top was Finland. And again, for my conservative brethren, I'm looking over the horizon, you know we go with what works. And I'm just broadbrushing some things here about Finland.

And this is kind of my public school experiences, you feel like you're being warehoused. Finland emphasizes play. It's just interesting that that's part of their, just the way they operate.

They actually don't have very much homework, and it's just—I encourage everybody to just google Finland's education system and look at what works. And the school day is shorter.

And again, I look at— You have young people who have a lot of energy amd they're being put in these warehouses for, you know, great lengths of time. And they have energy, and that's where you need dynamic presentation and teaching in the school. And then the kids need to be set free.

But again, our system is oriented this way, where you're holding them for a set number of hours, and it's to make the machine work.

MUI: All right, that's Edwin from Jackson, Missippi. And we did show an article on air just now, I believe it's from Smithsonian.com, Why are Finland's Schools Successful, that looks a little bit deeper into that issue.
For videotape of the full exchange, click here, then move to 16:40.

In this case, the caller identified himself as a conservative. That said, praise for Finland's wonderful schools is now a standard part of American public school discourse. Such praise is heard on all sides of the aisle, accompanied by invidious comparisons to our own floundering schools.

For ourselves, we have nothing derogatory to say about Finland's schools. As far as we know, Finland—a small, middle-class, unicultural country—does run excellent schools where children are being well treated.

That said, why do so many people feel they know so much about Finland's schools? In large part, it's because of news reports like the one Mui cited.

Good lord! C-Span's alert producers had already shown the Smithsonian Magazine article, even as the caller from Mississippi spoke. The piece had appeared five years ago, in September 2011, as a bit of a back-to-school "special report."

The piece was written by LynNell Hancock. Similar articles have appeared in the American press over the course of the past dozen years. These articles, and the discussions they've engendered, have established Finland as a virtual miracle nation within the American discourse, though only with reference to its public schools.

(We've never seen a discussion of Finland's low-cost national health care system. Dear readers, neither have you!)

As these articles typically do, Hancock lavishly praised the greatness of Finland's schools. As reporters often do, she began her piece with a heart-warming anecdote.

Another near-miracle had occurred! Headlines included:
HANCOCK (9/11): Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?

The country's achievements in education have other nations, especially the United States, doing their homework

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators—including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist—convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year-olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”
Let's assume every word is true. Let's assume Louhivuori did wonderful things for this deserving child.

The story remains an anecdote. On its own, it can't help us evaluate Finland's nationwide system of schools. Beyond that, it can't tell us what our big, sprawling continental nation might hope to learn from the operation of little Finland's schools.

Despite these facts, Hancock seemed willing to jump. "This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success," she said as she continued. Here's the fuller passage:
HANCOCK (continuing directly): This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education.
Hancock was sweeping with her praise, both for Finland's "staggering record of success" and for the nation's teachers. As these articles typically do, she quickly contrasted Finnish schooling with "America’s troubled public schools."

For the record, Hancock made one small apparent misstatement. In fact, Finland had become "an unlikely hot topic" in American journalism long before the controversial 2010 film she cited.

Indeed, the fact that director Davis Guggenheim mentioned Finland in his film reflected the discourse surrounding that nation's schools ever since some test results appeared in 2001. Hancock thumb-nailed the history here:
HANCOCK: The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”
Results from that inaugural PISA made Finland a subject of wide discussion. In this country, it produced a succession of news reports like Hancock's Smithsonian Magazine piece, in which Finland's apparent success was contrasted with this country's floundering efforts. Often, these articles feature fulsome words of self-praise from Finnish education officials, even as writers praise the Finns, as Hancock did, for "a distinct absence of chest-thumping among the famously reticent Finns."

Let's repeat an earlier statement, while adding a small qualifier. We have (almost) nothing derogatory to say about Finland's schools.
As far as we know, Finland—a small, middle-class, unicultural country—does run excellent schools. We do think its education officials have tended to encourage journalists to overstate the case concerning its excellent schools. In turn, American journalists have strongly tended to overstate in pursuit of a new standard narrative.

In the course of all this coverage, the notion that Finland runs miracle schools has wormed its way into the heads of a wide range of Americans. C-Span's caller from Mississippi was a William F. Buckley conservative. But you'll hear people from many persuasions praise those miraculous Finnish schools, which are so much better than ours.

If we've heard that phone call once, we've heard that phone call a thousand times! And yes, the claims of Finland's success has always stemmed from its students' performance on international tests.

That said, we'll repeat yesterday's question. Have you ever seen the way students from Massachusetts, population 6.8 million, score on international tests as compared to students from Finland, population 5.5 million?

The correct answer: no, you haven't! On Friday, we'll give you a look at those scores. Tomorrow, we sail for Estonia.

Tomorrow: "Is Estonia the New Finland?"


  1. It is inane to compare Finland with the U.S. in almost every way. Apples and oranges.

    Also the so-called Bill Buckley conservative is a fool. Buckley was an ideologue, the opposite of an educated person, in my opinion. The only time he stepped out of his rigid thinking box was when he fought for liberalizing drug laws, if I recall correctly.

  2. It is truly amazing what the school children in America have achieved in the last few decades.

    The rich of this country are petrified of that truth leading to this observation: "how well could the kids do if schools were funded not by local property taxes, but federal money allocated equally to all Americans?"

    So, instead they scream, "WILL CHARTER SCHOOLS DO BETTER THAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS?" And, for the love of Pete, it works.

  3. Ben Carson... For Secretary of Education. He AIN'T no Rod Paige. LOL.

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