THE LETTERS: Fabulous Finland must be praised!


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 Test
Oof! 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 It
The 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.

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.

R— J—
Fairfax, Virginia
"In our desperation," we've overtested—and fabulous Finland has not! This seems to explain why miraculous Finland "outperformed us on the Pisa."

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


  1. Well, Finland is certainly bigger than Mississippi, and you don't mind analyzing the (supposed) miracle there, dear Bob.

    So, why such contempt for Finland?

    And yes, it's a country with relatively homogeneous culture and socioeconomic conditions. Perhaps that's the main reason, dear Bob?

    1. Immigrants are 7.3% of the Finnish population. That is greater than the % of African Americans in many US states. You could call some US states monocultures too. Do such states do better on PISA or do they have their own problems? Utah comes to mind. Blacks are less than 2% but 70% live in Salt Lake City. Are there majority-minority schools in that city and how do they do? Is poverty a problem there despite the very small black population? Or do they outperform Finland?

      Somerby pat answer about why Finland does well is ridiculous. It is entirely possible that Finland has some favorable practices that we do not, such as smaller class sizes, universal pre-K, or some such. But Somerby won't discuss actual schooling issues. It is only about demographics for him, perhaps because he only knows how to talk about %s and not modern education.

    2. "Is poverty a problem there despite the very small black population?"

      Sorry, I don't know what "black population" is.

      Poverty, by itself, is not necessarily the main problem. At least not the American version of poverty, where no one is actually starving or can't afford a pair of shoes.

      It seems to me, the absence of middle-class culture might be the main problem.

    3. Lots of people in America are starving and lots cannot afford a pair of shoes. When it comes to kids, they experience neglect (parents who are unaware of when they are hungry or not) and they grow out of their shoes but parents don't notice and don't replace their outgrown or worn out shoes.

      Malnutrition, which is different than starvation, also happens to kids when adults don't pay attention to their diet and kids are scrounging what they can find to eat or eat junk food all the time. The result is poor learning and also failure to thrive (growth beneath normal curves for increases in height and weight).

      "black population" is population of African Americans, also known as "black" in our culture, by self-designation.

      Poverty is a serious problem in Utah. Utah does have a growing tech sector and lots of jobs in urban areas but not in small cities and rural areas of the state.

      Try this:

      "But for the 10 percent of Utahns who live in our state’s 16 rural counties, the boom looks more like a bust. According to Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund’s new report, “Reaching Across the Urban-Rural Divide,” rural counties share some traits they would rather leave behind them. They have the highest poverty rates, the highest unemployment rates, the lowest incomes and the lowest percentages of college graduates."

    4. ""black population" is population of African Americans"

      I don't know what that is either. I don't see why it would matter if someone self-identifies as 'African'.

      Like I said, income is unlikely to be the main issue. Impoverished family of an engineer or college professor would probably do better, education-wise, than family of a well-to-do prostitute or drug dealer.

      It's the attitude that counts, not wearing expensive shoes and eating filet mignon.


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  2. “School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global Test

    Oof! The Times' front page report painted a gloomy picture about the state of American schools. “

    Think about the headline: “School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global Test.” The PISA results are stagnant. That is not in dispute. The article specifically places that in the context of *school reforms* enacted over the last twenty years. Thus, the point is to examine and critique school reforms whose specific purpose was to “lift US on global test”, which, again, did not happen. The point of the article was not to rate our schools “bad” and call for yet more reforms. It is the reforms themselves which are questioned.

  3. "Although myriad troubles plague American schools—from lack of support for immigrant students to inequalities between schools..."

    These specific problems can exist regardless of the direction of PISA scores: up, down or stagnant. It sounds like this reader is using other information beyond the article published to determine the status of our schools. I don't understand how Somerby can single out this letter without considering that other information about manifest problems still existing in our schools. He could, for example, mention the overemphasis on PISA while such problems go unaddressed. But that might take some actual thinking, beyond his tiresome statistical carping.

  4. Bob’s post kind of rang a bell for me, after reading a recent post:

    “Schooling and the Labor Market.”

    “Schooling, from pre-K through college, shapes the labor market. The U.S. school system is a multi-tiered system, preparing people for different levels in the workforce. Certain areas of education receive attention—which means funds—according to the needs of employers, as demonstrated by the emphasis in recent years on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The structure of the school system, good or bad, is not a “natural” phenomenon, but it greatly affects the operation of the labor market and the distribution of income.”

    The above was a description of things in the U.S. What matters, actualIy, in other societies? I’ll admit an extraorinary amount of ignorance of Pisa scoring, not to mention educational issues. Only reason I know about it, in fact, is this website. Though I don’t have any children, I appreciate the gimlet eye with which Somerby Somerby casts his gaze.

    But the question is legit. Why Finland? Could it be that their focus goes way beyond testing? No effing idea.


  5. '. 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.'

    Not to mention the attitudes of those who claim to be liberals but spend their time defending Donald Trump and Roy Moore, in short acting like Trumptards.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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