Groundhog Day in Finland: Will the junkets to Finland never end?
Last Friday, the New Republic posted the latest report from the Finland Station. Samuel Abrams had taken the trip, once again looking for the secret to Finlands educational success. (In the past decade, Finlands students have scored quite well in international public school testing.)
What can this country learn from Finland? Abrams came up with the latest answer. As he started, he stood outdoors on a chilly day, watching Finnish children at recess:
ABRAMS (1/28/11): While observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School on the eastern edge of Helsinki on a chilly day in April 2009, I asked Principal Timo Heikkinen if students go out when its very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when its very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children cant learn if they dont play. The children must play.
In comparison to the United States and many other industrialized nations, the Finns have implemented a radically different model of educational reformbased on a balanced curriculum and professionalization, not testing. Not only do Finnish educational authorities provide students with far more recess than their U.S. counterparts75 minutes a day in Finnish elementary schools versus an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.but they also mandate lots of arts and crafts, more learning by doing, rigorous standards for teacher certification, higher teacher pay, and attractive working conditions.
The Children Must Play, TNRs headline said. (Sub-headline: What the United States could learn from Finland about education reform.)
Good lord, this stuff can get silly! In fairness, Abrams says he has heard a criticism of these junkets to Finlandthough were not sure where hes heard this reflexive critique, since everyone seems to take these trips, then draw rapt conclusions from them. That said, Abrams repeats a critique of his approach, and here it is: As a small, homogenous nation, Finland doesnt face the sorts of educational challenges we face in the United States. Late in his piece, Abrams repeats this criticism, then answers itby taking a journey to Norway! Can Lichtenstein be next?
ABRAMS: The reflexive critique of comparing the Finnish and U.S. educational systems is to say that Finlands PISA results are consequences of the country being a much smaller, more homogeneous nation (5.3 million people, only 4 percent of whom are foreign-born). How could it possibly offer lessons to a country the size of the United States? The answer is next door. Norway is also small (4.8 million people) and nearly as homogeneous (10 percent foreign-born), but it is more akin to the United States than to Finland in its approach to education: Teachers dont need masters degrees; high school teachers with 15 years of experience earn only 70 percent of what fellow university graduates make; and in 2006, authorities implemented a national system of standardized testing. The need for talent in the classroom is now so great that the Norwegian government is spending $3.3 million on an ad campaign to attract people to teaching and, last year, launched its own version of Teach for America in collaboration with Statoilcalled Teach First Norwayto recruit teachers of math and science.
Moreover, much as in the United States, classes in Norway are typically too large and equipment too scarce to run science labs. A science teacher at a middle school in Oslo told me that labs are unfortunately the exception, not the rule, and that she couldnt recall doing any labs as a student a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, much as in 2000, 2003, and 2006, Norway in 2009 posted mediocre PISA scores, indicating that it is not necessarily size and homogeneity but, rather, policy choices that lead to a countrys educational success.
Good God! How could a country like Finland offer lessons to a country like the United States? The answer is next door, Abrams says, in Norwayanother country that is much smaller, and much more homogeneous, than the United States!
For the sake of argument, lets assume that Finland is doing a better job than Norway with somewhat similar populations. This still doesnt mean that we can fly to Finland to find solutions to our own major problems. This countrys greatest educational challenges are concentrated among our rapidly rising Hispanic student populationa population which includes many immigrant kids who come from poverty backgrounds and dont speak Englishand among its black student populationa population within which literacy was actively, aggressively discouraged (even outlawed!) for hundreds of years.
What has Finland done with its corresponding student populations? Answer: Nothing! It has no such groups!
Next question: Will a longer recess solve the problems we face with these deserving students? Answer: Good God, this can get silly!
A junket to Finland really cant tell us how to address the problems we face with these large, low-achieving student groupswith these delightful, deserving children. That said, we seem to face a second problema problem which is found at the top of our test score distribution. Even if you consider our more advantaged student groups, it seems that the United States tends to produce a relatively low percentage of top scorers on international math tests. This means that we have a problem at the top of our student distribution, not just among student groups which come to the table bearing obvious disadvantages.
To ponder this situation, well start you with this post by Kevin Druma post from last November. Kevin noted some confusing aspects of an education report in the Atlanticbut that Atlantic report (click here), while a bit confusing, discussed a study which is well worth examining. How bad is our achievement problem at the top of the student population? Well return to this question in the coming weeks. And by the way: Its conceivable that a trip to Finland might help us address this problem. Its unlikely that these junkets will help us figure out how to help the millions of deserving kids who are struggling at the bottom of our student distribution.
We have huge problems at the bottom; we also seem to have problems at the top. These are different problemspresumably, with different solutions. If we want to have a serious discussion, we need to sort such distinctions out.
Last week, the New Republic failed in this task. Until we sort such matters out, our education discussion will be what it always has beena glorified version of dodge ball.
WHAT KASICH SAID (permalink): Race is a mountain in our historyrather, a brutal mountain range. Weve never even developed a language for discussing the depth of that brutalityfor discussing the interaction between European settlers and Native Americans; for discussing the brutal decisions those settlers made about men and women from Africa.
Its stunning to contemplate the mountains of pain which race has causedwhich raced still causesin so many American lives. Thats why we think its so unfortunate when liberal intellectual leaders are willing to play cheap games with race, as Steve Benen did over the weekend in this unfortunate post.
Steves post involved John Kasich, the newly-elected Republican governor of Ohio. It may have sent thrills us pseudo-lib legs, but sorrythe highlighted statement just isnt accurate. Yes, Steves claim was good solid fun. But it was also untrue:
BENEN (1/29/11): Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is off to quite a start, isn't he? We learned recently that Kasich, a former congressman, Wall Street executive, and Fox News personality, has picked 22 officials for his cabinet17 white men and 5 white women.
Though he says he offered two posts to African Americans who declined the offers, the result is the first Ohio governor from either party to have a cabinet lacking any racial or ethnic diversity in a half-century.
A week later, Kasich refused to attend the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Galadespite being in townand his office issued a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day.
Say what? Did John Kasich (sorryhis office) really issue a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day?
Well actually, noit didnt. Steve was having fun when he typed that claim. But what he wrote is untrue.
Steve was getting us rubes fired upbut what he wrote is untrue. And you dont have to take our word for that; you just have to click through on Steves link, to his own original post on this utterly pointless matter. Ten days earlier, this is what Steve originally wrote about this non-event event, in which someone on Kasichs staff wrote March 17 instead of January 17 on Kasichs official King Day proclamation (the error was quickly corrected):
BENEN (1/19/11): This was obviously an unfortunate clerical error, and I suspect it was an embarrassing, not a deliberate, slight. Accidents happen, and I'm more concerned about Kasich's all-white cabinet than his St. Patrick's Day proclamation on MLK Day.
Duh. Even there, Steve seemed to be having it two different ways as he discussed this pointless event; in the same sentence, he said this was obviously a clerical errorand he said he suspected it wasnt deliberate. Those ideas dont go together real well. But increasingly, Steve seems to exist to stir up the rubes, rather than to enlighten us. For sheer tribal clowning, check his explanation in this recent post about why the CBOs estimate of this years deficit just went up. Were quite sure Steve is smarter than what he wrote.
(In that post, Mark Kirks statement was utterly silly. But so was Steves account of the December budget deal. It was utterly sillyand designed to get us rubes all stirred up.)
Is something wrong with Kasichs cabinet? Thats a matter of judgmentthough we note that very few African-Americans are Republicans. But if you read and fact-check Steves post from last Saturday, you will find him making other strikingly flimsy claims about things Kasich is alleged to have said. Steves claims pass from flimsy straight through to ugly because they toy with race.
No, Virginia. Kasichs staff didnt issue a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day. White liberals in Vermont stir the rubes with such soulless crapas a nation continues to suffer.