An embarrassment of letters: In December 2019, the New York Times attempted two substantial presentations about the current state of American public schools.
Bad news! On December 3, the Times presented a front-page report about the 2019 Pisa scores. In print editions, the gloomy report appeared beneath this headline:
School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global TestOof! The Times' front page report painted a gloomy picture about the state of American schools.
On the other hand, good news! On December 6, the Times published this upbeat opinion column. The column included a type of information which is rarely allowed to appear in major American newspapers.
According to the opinion column, Mississippi's fourth-graders have been recording large score gains in reading on the Naep. Online, the column appears beneath this upbeat headline:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows ItThe column offered a somewhat implausible explanation for the apparent good news from this high-poverty state. Mississippi began stressing phonics instruction in 2013, and that's when the reading scores rose. According to this upbeat column, that's the right way to teach reading!
The nation was "stagnant" and "disappointing;" Mississippi was on the rise. So the Times had reported.
On Sunday, December 22, the Times published a set of nine letters in which readers discussed these two presentations. Inevitably, as if by law, one of the letters described the educational greatness of fabulous Finland:
LETTERS TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): The stagnant results of the international PISA exam have spoken: An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed. Although myriad troubles plague American schools—from lack of support for immigrant students to inequalities between schools—part of the solution may lie in one of the countries that outperformed us on the PISA exam: Finland."In our desperation," we've overtested—and fabulous Finland has not! This seems to explain why miraculous Finland "outperformed us on the Pisa."
Our country has sought to boost test scores by introducing a multitude of standardized tests, essentially forcing teachers to center their class around preparing for these tests rather than teaching their students foundational skills. In Finnish schools, students are subject to almost no standardized tests, yet Finnish students surpassed American students in the PISA exam.
In our desperation to improve academic achievement, our country has fostered a culture obsessed with test results, yet, ironically, this fixation only serves as a detriment to America’s academic performance on the international stage.
Finland—a small, middle-class, unicultural nation—did outperform us on the Pisa. Or at least, Finland achieved this distinction depending on the way you choose to evaluate basic Pisa data.
That said, did Finland "outperform us on the Pisa" because we've been testing too much? Almost surely, that isn't the case. Indeed, it isn't even all that clear that Finland's schools outperformed our own schools at all, depending on the way you choose to analyze Pisa data.
Did Finland's miraculous schools really outperform our own? Tomorrow, we'll show you why we aren't hugely inclined to adopt that sweeping assessment. We'll also show you why that assessment tends to misdirect our view—tends to direct our attention away from The Very Large Problem We Actually Do Face.
For today, let's make a few notes about the nine letters the New York Times chose to publish:
On balance, we'd say those letters constitute a major embarrassment. On balance, we'd say they constitute an indictment of our upper-end journalistic discourse, not of our public schools.
We'd say those letters were an embarrassment. What was their general thrust?
The first seven letters all responded to the Times' front-page report about the 2019 Pisa scores. All seven adopted the gloomy assessment which suffused that front-page report.
All seven writers seemed to accept the assessment the Times had dispensed. In the letter we've posted, the writer declared that "an extensive overhaul" of our education system "is desperately needed."
As a general matter, these seven writers tended to agree with this sweeping assessment, though they offered a wide array of explanations concerning what has gone wrong. The letter we've posted deserves special treatment because of the fidelity it displays to a treasured journalistic script.
All hail mighty Finland! In the year 2000, Finland scored surprisingly well on the initial Pisa tests. In so doing, Finland became the instant poster child of bungled educational assessment.
For reasons we'll touch on tomorrow, Finland's star has lost a bit of its shine in recent years. But upper-end journalistic law still seems to hold that a selection of letters like these must include a paean to miraculous Finland, a small, middle-class, unicultural nation which faces none of the educational challenges larger nations may confront.
All hail wondrous Finland! According to the letter we've posted, Finland "outperformed us on the Pisa" because we conduct too much testing in our schools and fabulous Finland doesn't.
It may well be that our public schools do conduct too much testing. But to what extent did mighty Finland really prevail on this year's Pisa tests? To what extent did fabulous Finland outperform the U.S. at all?
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the record, employing just the tiniest bit of statistical sophistication. When we do, it seems to us that our actual problem swims into view, while a sweeping indictment of U.S. schools (surprisingly) disappears.
In our view, those nine letters in the Times are an embarrassment, but they're also a road map. While decrying the failure of American schools, they actually display the familiar dumbness of our upper-end journalistic discourse.
Is something hopelessly wrong with "our educational system?" Is something hopelessly wrong across the board—possibly caused by too much testing, to cite one familiar villain? If we just made a change in our testing procedures, would our test scores on the Pisa match those of wonderful Finland?
Praise for Finland has been required ever since the first Pisa tests. So has the upper-end journalistic incompetence which helps define the state of our failing nation in this, the third year of Donald J. Trump.
Tomorrow: Miraculous Finland outperformed
After that: Mississippi (not actually) rising