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Daily Howler: As Big Dogs warbled a new hit song, Goldstein voiced an objection
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PLEASE COME TO FINLAND! As Big Dogs warbled a new hit song, Goldstein voiced an objection: // link // print // previous // next //

Please stop talking: We’d rather not discuss this today. But the topic is hard to avoid. We’d say it looks semi-remarkable.

Rachel Maddow and even Keith Olbermann have done some good segments this week. Why, a certain guest even did a Maddow segment without once playing the fool! (Correction: Without “always approach[ing] things from a humorous and risqué point of view when possible.”) But Maddow’s work is now rather hard to discuss. To all appearances, her network—the historically gruesome MSNBC—has stopped making her transcripts available.

Shorter MS: Please stop talking?

As we type on Thursday morning, none of the transcripts from Maddow’s shows have been posted on Nexis this week. Every Countdown transcript has been posted—in timely, next-morning fashion. Ditto every Hardball program, every Ed Show broadcast.

Transcripts from all Fox programs are there. So too with CNN.

On MSNBC’s own site, transcripts are being posted—very, very slowly. The network loftily tells viewers this: “Transcripts will be available within 24 hours of airing, except for Friday shows” (just click here). But only Monday’s night’s transcripts are currently posted, as we approach Thursday noon. We’re not sure when these transcripts were posted, but they hadn’t been posted as of last night. (There is some indication that they were posted a short time ago, late on Thursday morning.)

On Nexis, everything is there—except Maddow. It’s hard to avoid a certain thought: Maddow has received some criticism in the past two weeks, even in the New York Times. Her network has responded by making it harder to report the things she says.

Is that what’s happening? No idea. We’d rather not have discussed this today. But Hardball, Countdown and Ed are all there. Only one program is missing.

Special report: From the Finland Station!

PART 2—PLEASE COME TO FINLAND: Sung to the tune of “Please come to Boston,” the song has become a major hit among the opinion elite:

Please come to Finland in the springtime.
We’ve got a school built on a fjord we will walk you through...

Well actually, there aren’t any fjords in Finland. Nor is it clear that Finland has major lessons to teach about how to run public schools. But so what! For years, opinion leaders from the U.S. have let themselves be dragged off to Finland; they’ve proceeded to walk through Finnish schools, then type up the requisite glowing reports. In 2005, for example, Big Dog uber-insider Robert Kaiser rhapsodized in the Washington Post about the quality time he’d spent among the Finns:

WASHINGTON POST (5/24/05): Finland has the best school system in the world, some of the most liberated women (the president is female), more cell phones per capita than anyone else, one of the world's best high-tech companies (Nokia), remarkable information technology of many kinds, great music from rock and jazz to classical. The Finns are proud of their generous welfare state, which provides, among much else, free health care and free education at every level.

Actually, that was the unsigned synopsis of Kaiser’s report. Kaiser himself only said that Finland’s school system was “very likely the best on Earth.” Sadly, there was no sign in Kaiser’s report that he had the expertise or savvy which might allow him to form such a judgment. But so what! To see how Kaiser formed his view, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/05.

Kaiser rhapsodized from the Finland Station, as Big Dogs are currently wont to do. To read about a recent trip by someone who knows a good deal about schools, consider this post by Dana Goldstein at Tapped. Goldstein is one of the very few writers at career liberal sites who focuses on educational issues. That said, we’ll admit it—we were somewhat puzzled by her post about Finland this week. There must be something in the Finlandic air, we incomparably mused.

But people! Before we review Goldstein’s post, let’s recall the excellent piece she published last December, shortly after her return from the land of the midnight shine. In the following passage, Goldstein explained why so many Big Dogs have found it so easy to gulp down Finlandia. She also suggested a potential problem with familiar, glowing assessments:

GOLDSTEIN (12/18/08): Ever since 2000, when Finland first scored No. 1 in the world on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessments, American education reformers across the political spectrum have lauded the Finns' investments in parental leave, early childhood education, and national curriculum standards. Education liberals point to the value the Finnish system places on teacher autonomy, while conservatives and libertarians laud Finland's ability to coax excellent achievement out of students despite large class sizes and relatively few hours in the classroom.

The truth of the matter is far more complicated. A close look at the "No. 1 education system in the world" does more to quiet than to fan the flames of the education reform debates that divide the Democratic Party and that are sure to discomfit Barack Obama's incoming secretary of education, Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan.

Why do our “education reformers” insist on pimping the Finns? Because their students have scored at the top on a certain international measure, Goldstein says. But uh-oh! “The truth of the matter is far more complicated,” she then claimed. She then put the gloom on the rose:

GOLDSTEIN: That's not to say Finland's education system is perfect. Government research suggests a disturbing achievement gap similar to what educators are battling in the United States, with very few immigrant children making it into universities or polytechnic institutions, which are somewhat akin to the American community college system. In the past 10 years, the country's immigrant population has doubled, and in Helsinki, 12 percent of school children come from immigrant families. In some inner-city schools, non-native Finns make up 60 percent of the student population.

Goldstein offered no further detail about that “disturbing achievement gap,” said to be “similar to what educators are battling in the United States.” But it was very instructive when she chose to cite it. You see, Finland has always been a middle-class, unicultural nation—the easiest kind of nation in which to produce wonderful test scores. When Big Dog Kaiser told Post readers that Finland’s system was “very likely the best,” he too offered a bucolic overview of the nation’s student population—not seeming to realize that almost anyone will produce good test scores with a student population like this:

KAISER (5/24/05): The student body at Arabia consists primarily of the children of college graduates and professionals, said the principal, [Kaisu] Karkkainen. But a visitor who asks if the school's successes can be attributed to this fact is quickly put straight.

"My last school," Karkkainen said, "was much different"—in a poor neighborhood, "nearly a slum." (There are no slums in Finland that Americans would recognize as such.) It had a student body consisting of one-third "refugees," meaning immigrants, of which Finland has relatively few, and one-third students needing special education. The city supported that school, she said: It had a fine new building and extra social workers on staff. There were lots of problems with students and parents. "But still, the results were very good," she said. "The teachers are trained to deal with problematic children.”

Finland doesn’t have slums, Kaiser said. And it doesn’t have many immigrant kids—kids who may be struggling with a new culture, with a new language, with the effects of poverty. By the way: How good were the test scores at Karkkainen’s previous school—the school which was located “in a poor neighborhood?” “The results were very good,” Karkkainen said. There was no sign that Kaiser had checked.

Karkkainen’s new school—the school Kaiser toured— consisted “primarily of the children of college graduates and professionals.” Of course, if you visit schools like that in this country, you will find plenty of strong test scores too. But when they report from the Finland Station, our Big Dogs may not realize the perils of easy praise and facile comparison. When they compare the schools of middle-class Finland to the schools found in the U.S., they may, in some cases, be comparing apples to kumquats. Question: How well do middle-class, majority-culture American kids score compared to similar Finns? Question: How well do Finland’s schools perform when they do have poverty kids? We don’t know the answers to these questions—in part because they never seem to occur to touring Big Dogs like Kaiser. Goldstein’s statement about that “achievement gap” suggests a possible answer.

This week, another famous Big Dog journalist has reported back from the Finland Station. It was Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, in yesterday’s high-minded column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/22/09). No, he hadn’t walked through Finland’s schools himself—he was merely cutting and pasting from the latest report by official approved experts. That said, we thought his column was, at times, almost cosmically clueless.

Last week, another Big Dog had done the same thing—had cut and pasted a hot new report. Tomorrow, we return to Friedman’s piece. After that, it’s on to the Issacson Station!

Somewhat puzzled: We’ll admit that we were somewhat puzzled by Goldstein’s post this week. She responded to a question about national education standards, a proposal Friedman and Isaacson have been pimping in the past few weeks. (For ourselves, we’re neutral on the question. We’ll wait till someone makes a coherent proposal before we state a view.) In her post, Goldstein praised those Finnish schools. She then offered an assessment of the Finnish system which struck us as somewhat odd:

GOLDSTEIN (4/20/09): For example, this past December, I spent a week in Finland learning about that nation's education system, which the OECD ranks as the best in the world. Like almost every developed nation other than the United States, Finland has a national curriculum. Here is an excerpt from that document, explaining the objectives for 5th and 6th grade history:

Oh boy. If they recalled Goldstein’s piece from December, readers might have had some idea what “the OECD” is.

That said, we were struck by Dana’s statement that Finland “has a national curriculum.” We thought that formulation was a bit odd, because the excerpt and examples she provides are exceptionally vague and broad. (See her piece.) Indeed, she makes this point herself, saying this of the excerpts she’s provided:

GOLDSTEIN: To my eyes, these objectives actually encourage teacher creativity, not stymie it. There is no "script" here that teachers must follow, and no reading list. Indeed, the opposite is true; there is no enforcement mechanism used by the Finnish government to make sure that local schools are following these guidelines. Teachers and schools simply expect to be told what students should know. And the content standards aren't much more controversial than these "objectives." They include the following: ancient Greece and Rome, Finland under Swedish rule, the French Revolution, review of advanced cultures outside of Europe, and the evolution of trade.

But of course, a “content standard” like “ancient Greece and Rome” is so vague that is barely constitutes a “content standard” at all. In this country, the so-called “standards movement” was largely begun in reaction to such loosey-goosey “curricula”—curricula so vague and so broad that they impose very little order on what different teachers will teach. To us, “content standards” like the one Dana cites show that Finland doesn’t have “educational standards” of the type being sought in this country. If Finland does have high test scores, we would draw these conclusions from what Dana shows:

*You’ll likely achievement strong results among middle-class kids whether you have rigid “standards” or not.
*You don’t really need a “national curriculum” if you’re teaching middle-class kids.

Do Finland’s schools really do better after adjusting for class, and for similar factors? Thanks to a string of observers like Kaiser, we don’t have the slightest idea. Tomorrow, let’s play a schoolyard game: As he warbled that new hit song, let’s see if Friedman asked.