FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 2016
Part 3 in this series
Part 4—Journalists, please go to Boston: Last Saturday morning, a viewer in Mississippi placed a phone call to C-Span.
He made a familiar presentation. As so many others have done, he praised the fabulous public schools of the miracle nation, Finland. This Tuesday, in part 1 of this series, we transcribed that call.
The caller identified himself as "a William F. Buckley conservative." In truth, he seemed a bit defensive about his praise for a northern European welfare state. But, he told his "conservative brethren," "I'm looking over the horizon. You know we go with what works."
His statement was very familiar. If we've heard that phone call once, we've heard that that phone call a million times. Over the past dozen years, praise for Finland's miracle schools has become remarkably common across the ideological spectrum.
In her piece for Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, LynNell Hancock explained how this stampede began. We'll present that short passage again:
HANCOCK (9/11): 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.
Hancock's history is basically accurate. Results from the inaugural PISA "revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world," or something very much like that.
Finland chic started there. American journalists began flocking to Finland to determine how the small Euro nation had done it. By now, belief in the greatness of Finland's schools has spread remarkably widely. People from all sides of every spectrum can be found praising Finland's schools, often picking-and-choosing the factors which, they say, must explain the nation's great test scores.
In truth, it never made obvious sense for reporters to fly off to Finland.
As far as we know, the Finns run excellent schools. (This is a point which Finnish officials are always prepared to make.) That said, Finland is a small, unicultural, middle-class nation. Demographic issues which may complicate schooling in other nations play very little role there.
To its credit, Finland has little poverty. As of the year 2000, it had permitted virtually no immigration, let alone to immigrants from low-literacy backgrounds.
To its credit, Finland didn't spend centuries trying to eliminate literacy from one segment of its population, as our own benighted ancestors attempted to do. Situations which may complicate schooling Over Here were virtually non-existent Over There when Finnish kids seemed to emerge as (being among) "the best young readers in the world."
It never exactly made sense to fly to Finland seeking answers to types of questions which didn't exist Over There. That said, our journalists have been conducting that hajj for the fifteen years.
Their upbeat profiles are so standardized that they practically write themselves. This June, The Atlantic published a similar piece, a piece which asked if Estonia—a nation which is tiny, not small—might be "the new Finland."
Our journalists went where the test scores were! (The tabs for their expensive trips were sometimes paid by interest groups, a point we'll discuss in the weeks ahead.) In the process, a problem has occurred:
They've managed to overlook miracle scores which are found a lot closer to home.
According to Hancock, Finland's kids emerged as the world's best readers on the 2000 PISA. According to The Atlantic's report, Estonia emerged as the possible new Finland on the 2012 PISA.
(The PISA is administered every three years. Last year's results aren't available yet.)
Those two small nations did in fact score well on the PISA. But so did kids in a jurisdiction a great deal closer to home.
Good news! The PISA allows sub-national jurisdictions to participate in the testing as independent entities. Three different American states did so in 2012, testing a large enough sample of students to produce statistically meaningful test scores.
Massachusetts, population 6.8 million, was one of those states. It's a small corner of North America, but it's larger than Finland, population 5.5 million. It's much larger than tiny Estonia, population 1.3 million.
Are Finland's kids the world's best readers? Could Estonia be the new Finland? Apparently, Massachusetts is the new Finland too! Here are the average reading scores from the 2012 PISA:
Average scores, reading, 2012 PISA
Given the way the PISA scale works, the differences between those average scores aren't all that significant. But three years after those scores were released, Americans have never heard about the miracle schools of Massachusetts—and journalists are still being sent to examine the wonders of schools in two far-away lands.
Massachusetts took the PISA math test that year too. Again, there is little significant difference between these average scores:
Average scores, math, 2012 PISA
Given the way the PISA scale works, there's little difference between those scores. But for some reason, our journalists will sometimes fly from Logan Airport to gaze on the wonders of Finland.
We're looking here at the PISA, one of our two major international testing programs. The other major international program is the combination of the TIMSS and the PIRLS, whose most recent results date from 2011.
The world's developed nations take part in the PISA and the TIMSS/PIRLS. But for reasons which sometimes seem all too clear, journalists funded by certain interests only discuss the PISA.
As Hancock correctly reported, Finland gained international prominence due to its performance, down through the years, on the PISA. In 2011, the miracle nation took part in the TIMSS for the first time.
(Generally speaking, the PISA is said to stress "critical thinking." The TIMSS is said to stress knowledge of curriculum. The TIMSS tests kids in fourth and eighth grades. The PISA tests 15-year-olds.)
Which testing program is more worthwhile, the PISA or the TIMSS? That is a matter of judgment. That said, the major developed nations, including the United States, routinely participate in both programs. Here's what happened when Finland took the TIMSS, which tests kids in science and math:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSS
Estonia: did not participate
Given the way the TIMSS scale works, that is a rather large difference. Massachusetts ate Finland's lunch on the TIMSS math test.
Massachusetts took part as an independent entity in the TIMSS science test too. Once again, it outscored a miracle nation:
Average scores, Grade 8 science, 2011 TIMSS
Estonia: did not participate
The PIRLS tests fourth-graders in reading. Massachusetts didn't take part in the 2011 PIRLS as an independent entity. Florida, the one state which did, outscored Finland by exactly one point.
For today, we'll leave our comparisons here. As our report continues in the next few weeks, we'll be looking at more international scores, and at domestic scores too.
We think the data we've shown you today are enough to raise an obvious question. Our question concerns the way our national news orgs treat that C-Span viewer.
Like citizens all over the country, he's possibly heard it again and again. Again and again, for the past dozen years, we've been told, again and again, about Finland's miracle schools.
Tiny Estonia may be "the new Finland," we have also now been told. Three years ago, in a widely-praised book, Amanda Ripley said the same thing about Poland. She seemed to pick and choose her data to advance this mandated claim.
The story is pleasing; it never gets old. Inevitably, it features an invidious comparison to the lousy, pitiful schools our own hapless teachers are running.
Frankly, readers, how strange! We're constantly told that Finland—a small, unicultural corner of Europe—is running miracle schools. But how strange! Five years later, that C-Span viewer in Mississippi has never heard a similar piece of news—a piece of news about a slightly larger corner of North America:
Five years ago, Massachusetts cleaned Finland's clock on the TIMSS math tests. One year later, it narrowly outscored Finland in reading on the PISA, was narrowly outscored in math.
That said, how strange! When Finland scored well on the 2000 PISA, its kids became "the best readers in the world." But how strange! On the 2012 PISA, Bay State kids outscored Finland in reading. To this day, no one has heard that any such thing occurred!
"Please come to Boston," Dave Loggins sang, way back in 1974. You're supposed to think it's a sappy song. To this day, we think it's fascinating, though that's neither here nor there.
"Please come to Boston," the singer pleads. For unexplained reasons, his girl friend says no. So it has gone, for many years, as a bit of a journalistic con is handed to us the people.
Journalists fly to the ends of the earth looking for those miracle schools and the secrets they surely contain. For the price of a ticket on Amtrak, they could please go to Boston instead—or to Needham, Leominster, Worcestor, Dennisport, Fall River, Ipswich, Woburn.
Instead, they insist on going abroad, to small corners of Europe. We have a larger, high-scoring corner Right Here, and admit it—you've never been told!
Eventually, we'll ask a question about this peculiar state of affairs. Why have our big news orgs so persistently done this?
Why don't they simply get on the train and take themselves where the test scores are? Why can't they be decent enough to admit that those test scores exist?
Next week: Where the NAEP scores are
More information: Nine states took part as independent entities in the Grade 8 TIMSS math test in 2011. Six of those states outscored Finland. Florida came quite close.