Why Finns?

Finland’s education system is good, but it’s goodness doesn’t fully explain the obsession of some news outlets with it. Even The Guardian took the time to scold the US to learn from the Finns.

It’s little surprise. Finland has been painted as a haven for eschewing testing, accountability, and competition. It’s the counterexample to be thrown at those who would tweak the system we have created in undesirable directions.
Bobby JindalMichelle Rhee

I question the motives of those who exalt the Finnish system. I suspect that it is a carefully curated example, picked to highlight desirable lessons and avoid undesirable ones regardless of their actual truth.

Below are the PISA 2012 scores, which supporters use to lay claim to Finnish superiority.

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Why Finns?
Did you find Finland? It’s not as simple as looking at the top of the list. That’s because Finland isn’t actually the best system. According to the test, the preferred metric of Finnophiles, the best system is found in Shanghai.

Wikipedia reports that a PISA spokesperson

…described Shanghai as a pioneer of educational reform in which “there has been a sea change in pedagogy”. Schleicher stated that Shanghai abandoned its “focus on educating a small elite, and instead worked to construct a more inclusive system. They also significantly increased teacher pay and training, reducing the emphasis on rote learning and focusing classroom activities on problem solving.”

Why haven’t The Atlantic and the New York Times fallen over themselves to explain why we should become more like Shanghai?

Because that is the worst possible thing you could say to the kind of person who subscribes to The Atlantic or the New York Times, and I say this as a paid subscriber to the former. “Be like Shanghai” is  for the Wall Street Journal crowd. Shanghai is rote memorization and beating your kids and no bathroom breaks and pretending you aren’t numbed by classical music. Finland is culture and castles and liking classical music because you’d be a better person and maybe windmills.

Of course, maybe you just think China’s government is somehow cheating. That would allow you to rule out Hong Kong too. That would still leave Singapore and Japan both outperforming Finland in all three categories and South Korea showing better performance overall. Hey, what do all those countries have in common again?

Photo credit

Photo credit: David Shankbone

Why Finns?

Of course, you could argue that Asian kids and teachers are too culturally different from Americans. Sure, maybe all that “focusing classroom activities on problem solving” works for those little collectivist brains there, but that won’t fly in Dubuque, Iowa.

That is a legitimate objection. Systems can work in some places and not in others. It does make some sense to choose as a benchmark a country that is more similar to yours.

But that ain’t Finland.

Rafael Irizarry notes that “Finland has less students living in poverty ( 3%) than the US (20%).” Additionally, US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland. If anything, it seems they should be learning from us—specifically from US schools with children who aren’t living in relative poverty. Suck on that, Finns. Murica. (The links refer to the 2009 PISA.)

Now, if only there were a capitalist, work-obsessed country with a respectable percentage of children living in relative poverty, say maybe 15%, that got even better scores than the Finns did in all three PISA categories. Oh, wait. There is:

OK, let’s say there is an as yet unarticulated reason to insist that no Asian country’s education system can serve as a plausible model for the United States. Now can we finally say we’re stuck with the Finns?

Cadillac Fin

Photo credit: Joe Ross

No. There is still a much, much better non-Asian model. It’s Massachusetts.

14% of children in Massachusetts live in relative poverty. That’s still below the US average, but much more American-like than Finland.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has already figured out how to deal with all the existing regulations imposed by the US government.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has figured out how to cooperate productively with US teachers unions.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has demonstrated how to get results from US-trained teachers rather than masters holders from Finnish research schools, of which the world only has so many.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has experienced success teaching real American students who go home every day to be subjected to American parenting styles.

The 2012 PISA reading scores for Massachusetts were 527. Math was 514. Science was 527. Finland’s were 524, 519, and 545 respectively. Better in two of three categories, but with a different population on a different continent with different resources facing different constraints and challenges. Achieving Massachusetts scores nationally would move us up 20 places in the math rankings, 19 in science, and 18 in reading (which would be ahead of Finland).

The Finland-is-best OpEd pieces go out of their way to emphasize how radically different the Finnish system is from the US, but they do not seem to realize that this might be a good reason not to try to emulate Finland.

Educational systems are complex systems that have evolved over long periods of time. They consist of multiple, interconnecting parts that though adaptive on one context might be maladaptive in another. You can’t take one element out of one system that you happen to like (e.g. a lack of accountability) and expect it to work the same way in another setting absent the unknown things it needs to do its job properly (e.g. removing any current teachers who have not “demonstrate[d] that they possess knowledge, skills and morals necessary to be a successful teacher.” It would be like taking a single piston rod out of a Ferrari and stuffing it into a Tesla. It would be worse, in fact. The Ferrari was at least designed top-down; educational systems are evolved. There is no master list of all the prerequisites that must be met for a particular practice to work. It’s the reason the technocrats failed to turn the Soviet Union into a bunch of well-functioning capitalist democracies.

Mitt RomneyWhy not make Massachusetts our model? Why not take what they’ve developed and spread it around the country? I can speculate on two reasons. The lesser reason is this guy.

Massachusetts cannot be a model for the US, because it would involve giving some indirect credit to Mitt Romney. En route to the election, every achievement he may have laid claim to had to be refuted across all possible avenues. This piece, somewhat hilariously, attacks a scholarship program Romney passed by claiming that the money actually hurt the students by delaying their graduations. Further, this (hurtful, remember) money was being kept from poor and minority students. Finally, there wasn’t enough (still hurtful) money given in the first place. At no point do the authors seem to realize what the implication would be if all their claims were simultaneously true, because the only purpose was to make as many attacks against the enemy as possible. I don’t mean to pick these particular writers. Google “Massachusetts Romney education” and soak in 10 pages of the same.

It’s not only Mitt’s fault. Who reads The Atlantic and the New York Times? It isn’t education reformers. It’s us. They write. We consume, digest, and excrete later. It’s for sharing on Facebook and bringing up at cocktail parties and debating on blogs. And for that “Finns succeed because they do everything the opposite of America” is a winner. “Massachusetts succeeds because they have some subtle curricular and pedagogical differences that require careful examination to disentangle” is not.

Credit for unattributed photos: Wikimedia Commons

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113 thoughts on “Why Finns?

  1. slowclap.gif

    (that said, I still think that differential education outcomes are mostly exogenous, and what works in the Bay State probably won’t lead to the same results in the Magnolia State)

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    • I’m with you. Kids get input from their peers, their teachers, and their parents. If you brag about bombing the most recent math test, your teachers will tut tut at you. Your parents *might* step in somehow, depending on the household you’re being raised in. Depending on environment, your peers may offer help, express condolences, or say, “Dude, that’s so cool! Algebra is dumb! If you pass the next test, we’ll know you’re a nerd, and that’s bad!” Turning the gain up or down on the teacher might have some effect, but it seems to me that the common variable in successful academic cultures is that the kids are surrounded mostly by people who approve of academic success and disapprove of slacking, glorification of ignorance, and defeatism.

      This is why I can’t figure out the obsession with the need to “fire bad teachers.” I went to pretty good public schools, so maybe I’m missing out on the epidemic of incompetence that is killing our nation, but it always seemed to me that outcomes were mostly a function of kids’ attitudes. The best and most brilliant teachers could really only “save” a failing kid here and there, and the worst and most incompetent teachers didn’t do all that much damage. I can think of a couple who really needed to be fired, but for the most part, the teacher wasn’t the major explanatory variable at all. I think the same is probably true for the academic program or the amount of homework.

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      • Writing about culture made me think of a story from college: One of my econ professors came in and said, “Yesterday I was splitting up a check with a group of professors and one of them said, ‘I can’t really do percentages. Math isn’t my thing. You guys will have to handle it.’ I don’t know of any culture other than ours where that would be a normal thing to say. In most cultures if I said, ‘You know, I have a PhD from a top ten university, but reading isn’t my thing. Shakespeare? Never read him. I try to avoid books. They stress me out,’ people would be dumbstruck. But I can say, ‘I never really got fractions or percentages’ an a lot of people don’t bat an eye.”

        Expectations and norms are really important here.

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      • Yep. This. I’m in a teacher preparation program right now, studying to be a math teacher. I’m horrified by the attitude towards math that some of my peers in the multiple-subject program have shown. These are the people that are supposed to be teaching students the foundations of mathematics.

        Here’s a secret, though: firing bad teachers will rarely help–because there are almost never good teachers waiting in the wings for those jobs. Nobody spends three years being a good teacher and suddenly gets tenure and starts sucking. The bad teachers that manage to get hired and stay hired do so because they’re working in areas with teacher shortages, or with subjects or student populations that nobody wants to teach.

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      • I’m curious what your program consists of. When I was at Berkeley, I graded homework for one of the course in its math-for-teachers program, which covered the construction of the real numbers starting with Peano arithmetic. (I started to do the same thing here, but never went any further, because no one was interested.) None of them understood it. Literally, none of them.

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      • , I’m in the credential program, which is a 1-2 year post baccalaureate course of study that gets me a license to teach. None of the classes teach subject matter content–it’s expected that you’ve learned that in undergrad.

        Teachers must demonstrate subject matter competency as part of the credential program. This requires candidates to pass a test called the CSET (California Subject Examination for Teachers)

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      • The test for math teachers has a section of Algebra (and number theory), a section on Geometry (and probability and statistics), and a section on Calculus (and math history). The Algebra test is the hardest, since it covers abstract algebra topics not taught in high school or first-year college math. However, the test is pretty forgiving about how many questions you can miss and still pass. Those who pass are considered to have demonstrated the subject matter competency to teach any single-subject math class.

        Those who want to be math teachers but haven’t taken calculus can still take the first two sections of the test and qualify for something called a foundational math credential. Technically, this demonstrates subject matter competency to teach up through Algebra 2, but practically speaking foundational math credential holders teach middle school math and maybe Algebra 1.

        Multiple Subject teachers take a CSET that covers a variety of subjects. One of the subtests is focused on math and science, and covers material through 8th grade and maybe includes some really easy questions from HS math. Multiple subject credential holders can teach in multiple-subject classrooms (i.e. classrooms where the class has the same teacher for every subject). There’s some kind of supplementary math authorization that multiple-subject credential holders can get that lets them teach in a single-subject classroom, but I don’t really know the details.

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      • Cal Poly, where I was an undergrad, offers a Bachelors in Math with an emphasis on teaching. It also offers a Liberal Science degree designed specifically for students who want to become multiple-subject teachers. Both programs include a three quarters of “Mathematics for Elementary Education”. I suspect it’s a class like this that you were grading for.

        One of the teachers whose classroom I’ve been observing (and who is definitely in the running for best math teacher I know) got her bachelors in Liberal Science at Poly. She discussed her experiences in those classes and was generally unimpressed by the performance of her peers in the LS major.

        I myself haven’t taken any of those classes, though. My degree is in theater arts, but during my undergrad, I took four quarters of Calculus, Linear Analysis I, and Discreet Structures. After deciding to get my teaching credential and passing the CSET, I went back to Cal Poly and took a Methods of Proof class as well. Several of my classmates were Math majors as a teaching emphasis, and as best I could tell they did no worse than the other students (Methods of Proof is the weed-out class, so few people did well per se.).

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      • Does the shortage of good teachers constitute an argument for increasing class size? That is, is it better for kids to be in a larger class with higher average teacher quality, or a smaller class with lower average teacher quality?

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      • , at this point we’re getting into guesswork on my part since all of my classroom observations have been in classrooms with reasonable class sizes.

        I suspect that smaller classrooms with worse teachers would be better, IF they employ good teaching styles and don’t just lecture for an hour. And there’s a real push towards such styles and away from lectures with California’s implementation of the Common Core standards–so I think “meh” teachers in classrooms of 25 are better than good teachers in classrooms of 40 in most cases.

        With all fairness, I started as a comp sci major, so those classes are all just requirements or natural extensions thereof. I do wish I’d taken a Statistics class somewhere along the way. It’s really the weak point in my subject matter knowledge at this point.

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  2. Good essay.

    I think that this all goes to a kind of Two Americas debate. Maybe there are more than two because the educational debates largely happen among elites and/or elite wannabes. Everyone who participates in these debates is highly educated at least on the Internet and media or so it seems. They also bring their other pet political issues into the debate as you noticed.

    On one side, you have a relentless kind of practicality that seems to think the point and purpose of an education is to generate commerce and wealth. This is about STEM being a cure-all, rote memorization, charter schools, etc. The pet issue for this crowd seems to be union-busting. This is the crowd that panics about America losing in the global economy and panics when they see one Hong Kong preschool post a handwritten poster with stock numbers from the Dow, Nikei, etc. This side likes to assign a lot of homework.

    The other side thinks that stressing about economics is destroying kids and education. They want education to foster an interest and passion in things including but not limited to classical music, the arts, and the humanities. This side tends to think that homework is more about parental and national anxiety than anything else.

    Neither the two shall meet. See Tod’s comment.

    I will note that the way America tends to fund public education is completely fucked up. It means that there are public schools and there are public schools. Cornell Wilde would make the observation that rich children are taught, poor children are tested. If you were lucky enough to be born into an upper-middle class family, you probably lived in a suburb with high property taxes and those taxes funded excellent public schools. I grew up in a suburb where people move to because of the schools. If you are not so lucky, you grew up in an area with a strained and stressed school system that was constantly under budget.

    We need a more uniform way of funding schools at least that does not revolve around local property taxes.

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    • Your description of the two sides strikes me as valid and better stated than I would have been able to. It’s a bit sad to someone like me because all I actually care about is the K-12 system becoming better. I don’t particularly care which side wins. I want exactly as much homework assigned as is empirically supported. It strikes me as crazy that people have strong ideological prior beliefs about what should be a mundane question of what is effective.

      Politics ruins everything.

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      • “I don’t particularly care which side wins. I want exactly as much homework assigned as is empirically supported. It strikes me as crazy that people have strong ideological prior beliefs about what should be a mundane question of what is effective.”

        But you have to have a pre-determined preferred outcome to determine what what level of homework is empirically supported. Sometimes, it’s ideology all the way down.

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      • Okay, let’s break this down.

        You want exactly as much homework assigned as is empirically supported. But to what end? What are you trying to achieve?

        You imply that there is an optimum amount of homework, but you have to have an end game. The optimum amount of homework to have good PISA scores might be different than the optimum amount of homework to maximize future earning potential… and both might be different than the optimum amount of homework to foster a sense of civic duty.

        I’m not even sure we can determine the optimum amount of to achieve happiness and fulfillment. As a parent, that’s more what I’m worried about.

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      • The optimum amount of homework to have good PISA scores might be different than the optimum amount of homework to maximize future earning potential… and both might be different than the optimum amount of homework to foster a sense of civic duty.

        Yes, and I would be happy with someone who said they were pursuing any one of those. There are so few people who are looking for empirical answers to these questions that I rejoice when I see *any* of them. I’m not going to get bogged down in what final criterion they prefer when the real enemies are those who yell “more homework” or “less homework” from their armchairs.

        But I do get what you were getting at now. Thanks for clarifying.

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      • I agree with Jonathan here (which is not necessarily disagreeing with Vikram). Some of these things, like homework amounts and summer schooling, are tradeoffs that depend on priorities. This, like so many other things, I consider to be an argument in favor of less central planning and assigned schooling because different places and different parents may have different priorities.

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    • Why the assumption that the inequality flows from the funding? There are certainly lots of things that make an upper-middle class school district different from a poor and working class school district. Funding probably matters at the margins, but I would guess that this is mainly about the differences in the population of students and their parents. Poor schools have a much higher percentage of students from dysfunctional families (and I don’t mean the parents are divorced; I mean the kid spends three nights a week with an aunt and three nights with a grandmother and the remaining night with whoever can take her in).

      You can look at parochial schools that operate in low-SES, inner city areas that function much better and on less funding per student than the public schools that operate in the same area. Why? Because the people with the means and the willingness to pay for parochial school are, as a population, different from the people who cannot or do not pay.

      Better funding certainly has a role to play in bringing bad schools up to par. No amount of funding, however, is going to be enough to overcome the plethora of challenges that failing schools face. We are talking about schools were a significant percentage of the kids are effectively suffering from PTSD.

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      • The funding issue in general is more nuanced than a lot of people think. Back home, when you look at per-pupil expenditures, it tends to be the case that poor districts actually spend more than wealthy ones do. That’s not necessarily a sign of waste, though, as there are plenty of reasons that we want to and have to spend more on poor districts than wealthy ones. But it makes for a more complicated picture.

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      • The you agree with me that equalizing funding between school districts won’t do a whole lot to fix under-performing poor schools.

        My overriding belief in this area is that we do not have an education problem; rather, we have a poverty problem that bleeds over into education, as well as a number of other areas.

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      • I don’t think funding is the biggest issue.

        The big issue does seem to be environment.

        Kids who are surrounded by college-educated people and/or people with interesting careers tend to go unto get college educations and/or interesting careers. They see the options and possibilities of the world.

        Kids who do not have this environment tend not to go to college and/or develop interesting careers and opportunities.

        My parents and their peers had careers, not jobs. They always talked about careers like it was a passion and calling. One person here said he was the first person in his family to attend college and his parents and their peers always said “How is that supposed to get you a job?” He noted the difference between job and career. Career implies growth, a long route, and passion. A job implies something you get right now to pay the bills and survive. There is nothing wrong with jobs but it is an interesting that this posted noted the difference.

        Another internet friend is getting her undergrad degree at 30. She made a comment on facebook about a new server job and said that serving was something she could always fall back on. This is a blessing and a curse in my opinion. I think those you can always fall back on jobs tend to act as limitations, perhaps unconsciously.

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      • I was recently reading an article in Time about how the Watts neighborhood has more resources for single teen mothers than it does for kids who want to get some kind of post-HS education.

        Sometimes it isn’t just the families & neighborhoods that are the problem.

        (Found the link)

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      • I was recently reading an article in Time about how the Watts neighborhood has more resources for single teen mothers than it does for kids who want to get some kind of post-HS education.

        That may well be demand-driven.

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  3. So, is there a good place to start to see exactly what MA does that’s been so successful?
    This guy is asserting that Romney didn’t have anything to do with it (starts in 2003) and may have been messing is up. http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2012/06/08/the-massachusetts-education-miracle-nothing-to-do-with-romney-and-everything-to-do-with-money/

    Doesn’t the move towards a common, nationwide curriculum (Common Core) support your suggestion?

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    • To be clear, I don’t actually know or particularly care about what Romney actually did for MA. Assigning credit is a luxury. I do think that between the two reasons people don’t want to look at Massachusetts that he is the smaller reason. After all, he didn’t campaign on education reform.

      Common Core *could* have been that, but it wasn’t. The curriculum that Massachusetts was using previously was far more challenging than the Common Core that was actually passed and adopted by almost all the states. Unfortunately, instead of selecting the most effective core curriculum, I think we simply averaged the curriculums of all 50 states. That still yields benefits, but not as much as it could have.

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      • Well, now that I’m searching I’m not finding that a consensus that it’s right.

        This person claims that Massachusetts prior curriculum was more rigorous than the Common Core: http://voices.yahoo.com/massachusetts-educators-abandon-mcas-favor-common-6617858.html?cat=8

        This report on a report, in contrast says it is too close to call:
        http://www.wbur.org/2010/07/21/ed-standards
        (The link to the actual report seems broken though.)

        Not that it should matter, but I just want to note that I’m not against the Common Core, at least in theory. I think it makes sense to have national standards and instead use the states to experiment with different approaches to reach those standards rather than have 50 different standards.

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      • , I was mostly reacting to your “averaged the curriculums of all 50 states.” statement.

        The fact, is, the Common Core standards reflect very different priorities than those reflected in some existing standards, and those who argue that the Common Core standards are dumbed down are reacting to a real change, even if they’re characterizing that change unfairly.

        For example, in my state of California, the old standards called for all students to take Algebra I in the 8th grade. That meant a number of students were taking Calculus in high school. It also meant that an even greater number of students were repeating Algebra I and generally failing to be successful in high school math.

        The new standards don’t ask students to take Algebra I until 9th grade. Instead students take an academically demanding course covering topics that lay the foundation for success in high school algebra and geometry, which in turn allows high school courses to be more academically demanding and cover material more thoroughly. Under these new standards, fewer people will be taking calculus, but more people will be taking algebra 2, and the algebra 2 course they take will be more challenging than the course offered under the old standards.

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    • >“averaged the curriculums of all 50 states.” statement.

      Ah, that…I’m not sure where I came up with that. I suppose it was an inference based on having heard that it was less rigorous than the standards used by some states and that 48 states had adopted it. I defer to your take.

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  4. Who reads The Atlantic and the New York Times?

    I do.

    I am not a Real American™.

    I can’t speak for all schools in Massachusetts, but the MA school my children attended was probably one of the best in the country; in part because English, the majority native language, was the first language to just 40% of the students.

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  5. Saul wants to pin this on “Two Americas”.
    I’d like to ask a different question:
    Why does America tend to make top flight scientists,
    while Japan and Germany make outstanding engineers?
    (while China tends to make pretty crummy scientists,
    no matter their test scores).

    I’d rather we not crush the aspects of our system that are
    actually working better than other places.

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    • Kim, I think the reason America has the success that it does is largely the result of (1) some really great K-12 schools that cater only to good neighborhoods and upper-middle and upper class parents and (2) world-class higher education.

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      • Look at it from someone in my position. I’m at the stage where I’m applying to PhD programs. Ideally I want to get my PhD in the US and come back to work. Assuming I do get into a PhD program in the US, it’s highly likely that I won’t get a job in Singapore immediately. I may spend more than a few years doing a postdoc fellowship in the US. After that, I may be reluctant to leave. Universities with good reputations attract their own talent.

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      • I think Vikram is right here.

        We have public schools and we have public schools.

        The best public schools in America can compete with top private-boarding schools and internationally. I grew up in a well-to-do suburb filled with professional parents who cared deeply about education. Most kids I went to high school with went to colleges and universities that are considered elite, just like if the school were Andover or Philpps Exeter.

        The best thing for someone to succeed in education it seems is to be surrounded by other educated people. If a kid is surrounded by adults with good educations and interesting careers, they pick up on it as a norm.

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      • I should probably sell the link a bit more. It’s very…balanced. There are a ton of people out there writing about what it was like to go through a PhD program. You have the professors who talk about it as if it were their first sexual experience and you have others who are so badly burned that their rants against PhD programs make those Westboro Baptist church protests at military funerals look circumspect and restrained.

        This guy actually tells you pretty plainly what he went through.

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      • I probably have the mathematical ability. But I don’t have any formal econs background. I don’t know if that will count against. A PPE at UK would be a good way to get some econs in. And depending on my supervisor, I might end up doing quite a few econs modules.

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      • “My family situation is pretty much the same as Saul’s my parents expect me to get at least a PhD (not explicitly, but the idea that I won’t get one is not even in their heads).”

        fight the power! get a terminal degree!

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  6. On your PISA graph, only Shanghai is reported for the PRC. The rest of the line items are entire nations, not single cities. (Cf. Singapore; I know.) What was the source that produced this cherry-picking? I’d expect some article specifically about education reforms implemented locally in Shanghai. How does the PRC as a nation stack up?

    With that noted, yes, it’s worth noting that an urban educational system produces such results; it’s worth considering how they got them. They may provide an example from which we can learn.

    But my continuing objection to all such analyses is the necessarily incomplete nature of the metrics. I’ve mused recently on why we have schools at all (to make our economy strong? To prepare people for citizenship?) and all the possible reasons I’ve come up with suggest that we aren’t paying enough attention to things that aren’t easily quantifiable, like inductive reasoning, the arts, and rhetoric. It feels as though we’ve staked our future on today’s eleventh-graders outperforming the Finns and the Taiwanese on a single test, and I think that’s not only missing a part of the big picture, that part is so big it is the picture.

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    • Burt, I use the PISA scores, because that’s what the Finnophiles use. There are going to be a limited number of tests that all countries will be willing to take, and not all countries even agree to take this one. India, quite predictably, opts out of the PISA.

      I agree it is weird that China isn’t shown as a whole and may suggest that something is up. But those concerns don’t seem to apply to Japan.

      Your objection is valid. I think it’s just that we don’t have many international measures, and so we use what we have however incomplete it is. If any country is structuring its system to do well on these tests in lieu of actually educating their kids, that would be a bad thing. Ideally, the test would be structured such that even if a country were attempt to do so they would unintentionally educate their kids along the way. That requires a good deal of effort on the part of the test-makers, but they are professionals, and I think we should demand that of them.

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    • I think confining the analysis to Shanghai is fair enough (if kept in context), because for all the talk of two Americas, they are a planck’s length away from each other compared to the light years that separate urban and rural China.

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  7. This may explain why Democrats must not look to Massachusetts as an example. But what about Republicans? Or do Republicans not tend to look to Finland or other foreign countries as the educational system to follow?

    If they do (I don’t know), could the problem be here Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has figured out how to cooperate productively with US teachers unions. – that would imply that unions are an ally, not a foe to vanquish?

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    • I don’t think Republicans look to foreign countries as the educational systems to follow. The sole sometimes-exception would be the Wall Street Journal. And even when they mention it, I don’t know how serious they really are.

      Regarding the union line, I changed the wording of that sentence a half-dozen times in draft. What I mean to say is that they (through whatever means that were at their disposal) were able to extract what was needed from them. Regardless of what you think of the National Education Association good or bad they to my knowledge only operate in the United States. Other countries might have greater or lesser challenges with their unions, but those are different unions.

      I just want the system to get better. I don’t have any notion going in a priori as to how unions should be treated. I’d like to see those practices that work best spread regardless of whether others might view them as anti- or pro-union. I do think it’s a fools errand to try and remove the unions, however, so I wrote “cooperate productively with”.

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    • It tends to be Democratic and left-leaning types who look at Finland as a model for how to do education. Generally Democratic types that dislike Michelle Rhee and Charter Schools and are suspicious of the market can do better. It is the dream of people who believe in the importance of government run public schools.

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  8. Mass has teachers unions so therefore is Official Anathema to a good chunk of pundits and others. Mass is Liberal which will piss off a few others who can’t handle unions.

    There is a good point here since it hasn’t been reported enough that the highest performing states have done very well compared to the rest of the world. For all the talk about states being the laboratories of something or other, that is mostly just pretty words to say “we don’t want to do it that way.” I don’t see any reason why educating in Mass should be all that different from Alabama. A bit more rural and more poverty in AL, but if you can deal with it in one place you can deal with it another.

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    • Some benchmarking is OK. Sometimes you can look at what someone else is doing and it is obvious that you can learn from them. If Zazzy looks nice with ribbons in her hair that might not mean it would be a good idea for you too though.

      (I would use me as an example, but I don’t have hair.)

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  9. A few months ago, the Atlantic had an opinion piece that argued that the problem with education in America is not how its organized or poverty or teachers unions but relatively high levels of anti-intellectualism in American society. Now, a certain class of American intellectuals have been complaining about anti-intellectualism in America since forever, the Atlantic article even quoted Anti-Intellectualism in American Life but it might have a point. For a variety reasons, American high schools are social places as well as schools. From what I can tell the various extra-curricular aspects of high school life aren’t present elsewhere except maybe Japan where we imported them during the Occupation. Maybe certain aspects of American society are causing our problems rather than something on a more superficial level.

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    • I have some empathy for some anti-intellectualism. It’s not like intellectuals have always carefully disclosed the limits of their knowledge and never launched ambitious projects that failed because they overestimated the power of their insights.

      The extracurricular differences are a great point. Mrs. Bath noted being surprised at how many activities American students are involved with. In China the only extracurricular was playing with the neighborhood kids.

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      • What I meant by anti-Intellectualism is a tendency to look down at “book-learnin” and think that the best sort of learning takes place on “the street” in the “school of hard nocks.” If we kids to be better educated than looking down on the endeavor of education itself doesn’t help. The extra-curricular activities are a symptom of anti-intellectualism because ot takes away the focus from learning.

        From what I can tell, the school systems of most other countries are more immunized from democratic political pressure than the American school systems. They also are much more centralized than the very decentralized American political systems. This sort of immunity allows them to teach kids things that would cause many American parents to flip. Most people in the United States do not come in contact with philosophy until college while I understand elsewhere its a high school subject.

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      • Also note that centralisation in most other countries is a very different thing from centralisation in the US. Singapore has a very centralised education system, but this is centralisation over maybe 20 000 students per year over a land area smaller than NYC. Centralisation in the US would be across a 100 times that number of students and even larger land area.

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      • Though the problem of ‘book-learnin’ is just a fraction of the margin of the American educational system.

        As brought up elsewhere in this thread, there are basically 3 public american education systems. (that together comprise 90% of all kids in the US; private and homeschool cover the other 10%)

        The first is the best, and are the suburban school systems that surround the major metroplexes of the US coast to coast. (of which suburbanites are still a numerical majority) and vary from good to great, depending on specific neighborhood affluence. (based on the cycle of better school stats leading to higher property values leading to higher socioeconomic attendees leading to better school stats). There are pockets of older less affluent (most often minority) neighborhoods in the inner suburbs, particularly in the south, and/or inner suburbs with large newly arrived immigrant populations. The stats in the schools in the neighborhoods tend to lag even in the best public schools systems with the most funding (and most equal funding) in the country.

        The political fight in these school systems are generally the Nimbyiest of the Nimby, most frequently fighting over district lines and increased relative funding for both G/T and Special Education funding, but with stakes that in the biggest of big pictures, are small.

        The second is your proverbial inner-city school systems, which are adequately funded (contra common conventional wisdom) but where child poverty creates the biggest and most intractable exogenous effects on education. This is where the fights between the Rhees and the anti-Rhees, between neoliberals and old school union democrats, between the Fentys and the Grays are taking place. And as more upper income but still middle class people move back into the cities, they feed into the ‘reformer’ camp, as well as the dynamic mentioned in type 1, with pockets of good schools in good neighborhoods in an overall district that is not as strong on paper as its suburban neighborhoods.

        Then you have type 3, the schools in the smaller communities, all over, but particularly in the south and midwestern plains. It’s true they don’t quite have the funds because they don’t quite have the tax base of there larger neighbors, but they also don’t have the expenses. But, they’ve also been the most affected by the long term (and definitely positive) trend of women no longer being relegated to just nursing or teaching as a profession. The white collar professional ecosystem is small, and continually gets offgassed by the gravitational pull of the larger metroplexes (where both spouses can find work more easily). This here is the culture war battleground of education, where the fight is between the same sort of people that would like to inhabit type 1, and people that either want to graft their religious beliefs on the public education system, (while still striving for type 1), or those that reject public education altogether and promote homeschooling (not just because they think it will provide a better educational outcome for their kid, which is fine, but because the public schools are instruments of the devil, indoctrinating them into atheism and islam) (that was pretty close to an actual quote I heard on the radio while driving around South Carolina last week).

        So its the last anti-intellectual strand that definitely does exist, but represents the fringe out of the vast enterprise of public education in the US (the biggest public education enterprise in the world)

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    • I remain skeptical of all arguments against supposed anti-intellectualism. This is mostly because I tend to find that people making them are not intellectuals; rather, they are pseudo-intellectuals. Most legitimately intellectual people that I’ve known don’t seem overly preoccupied with being seen as such and also have a fairly robust non-ironic appreciation of the lowbrow.

      As for athletics, I think the sterotype of the dumb jock is greatly exaggerated, and again, in many ways fomented by the type of people who resented the jocks in high school. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and discipline to play sports while going to school and those things tend to carry over into the classroom.

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      • , You’re sort of right. The stereotype imagined by those of us who were unpopular nerds in high school isn’t that common. But there are plenty of bright kids who simply value sports to the exclusion of academics, don’t do their homework, don’t learn the course content, and avoid academic probation only because they got an A in weight training and the history teacher is also the football coach. They are not dumb in any sense of the word, but they’re also not being prepared for college or intellectually challenging careers.

        And, (here’s the scary part), those are among the most popular kids in school. (or at least in the type-3 schools Kolohe describes above). Their behaviors strongly define the cultural norms of the school. Which means kids who aren’t on the sports teams are emulating their behavior and failing to value education, but also aren’t learning the discipline and teamwork that comes with being part of a sports team.

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  10. Not on the main topic exactly, but did it occur to you that that education blog’s assessment of the scholarship program may not have had its position dictated by its exogenous partisan preferences, but is in fact doing a real assessment of the effectiveness at achieving stated goals and also its overall normative efficacy apart from said goals? It doesn’t really look like a partisan hit job to me, but rather a post on a topic that the blog has spent time examining in various states/contexts over some years.

    i was a recipient of that kind of a state merit scholarship designed to spur academic effort and retain top high school students in-state for college. I’m biased in favor of wanting to think that kind of thing is a good idea. But I certainly think that the kinds of efficacy questions that post is raising are very fair and, indeed, important to raise before giving a full blessing to the idea and maintaining it for another generation as it were.

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    • …Looking at the piece again, it’s a little more hacky than I first took it for (it was co-published at Slate and is specifically tied to the election). But I think it raises legitimate questions about these scholarships that were not drawn out of thin air for the purpose of blunting a Romney achievement, but that have been raised consistently about them in ed policy debates out of highly charged political contexts (i.e. more politically charged than education policy debates usually are, which is of course pretty charged).

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      • I do feel a little bad about singling out that particular article, but I think it earns the limited bit of criticism I direct at it. All complaints are pointing in the pre-ordained direction of dismissing a Romney achievement. It does so along every dimension possible.

        You are 100% right that this doesn’t mean *none* of the points they make are not accurate. I do think, however, that if there were positive information about the program that the authors would not have been likely to include it or would have found a way to downplay it. I also think they would be more likely to take a criticism of the program with less evidence than they would require of a reported benefit of the program.

        And, let me acknowledge in advance that BSDI.

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      • …Yeah, but only one Romney achievement, which the article clearly has a position on (is that a problem?), which seems to be in accordance with a position it already had on similar programs. It’s not like they’re going through his whole education record and making nothing but negative comments on it (in this article at least). There’s one plank that they choose (because he highlights it) to address, and on that they have a a position. And that appears to track with the position they’ve taken on the same kind of scholarships in other places and other times. Your suggestion was that they just couldn’t let a positive Romney claim about education go unchallenged. To me, it looks more like this is a topic on which they have an established position that puts them at odds with one of Romey’s big planks in his education record.

        And to the larger case you make, is this really the evidence you want to give that liberals wouldn’t want to make Massachusetts the national model for education if they could (if we were going to select a model – I think liberals are probably in practice more open to state-by-state education policy than we might initially assume them to be)?

        I mean, honestly, if liberals were told that we were going to choose one state to model education policy after, your thought would be that they wouldn’t want it to be Massachusetts because education policy in Massachusetts is Mitt Romney’s brainchild (even though the main accomplishment he claims is a merit college scholarship that many states had already had for years?

        Granted, Massachussets had a string of republican governors before Romney and I imagine ed policy there was shaped by the way they worked with heavily Democratic legislatures. But if we were choosing state models to nationalize, I’d be willing to bet that if you offered up Massachusetts as one to work from, you’d be able to get a critical mass of liberal education policy types (granted, that group comprises a LOT of variability, but I’m guessing that most of those who would refuse Massachusetts would also refuse just about every other state simply because they’d rather maintain fundamental critiques they have than consecrate any existing model) to work with you with that as as a starting point. And I’m fairly sure that retroactively shining some degree of positive light on any part of Mitt Romney’s administration would not factor in basically any of their calculations. Perhaps I’m wrong about the policies that the string of 90s governors as well as Romney fashioned, and there would be liberal resistance to it. but that would be because there is resistance to the policies.

        My political instinct says that in any such discussions, the political bankshot effect on Romney’s image of such an agreement would simply not be a concern for anyone, and I don’t think the evidence you offer even suggests that it would.

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      • Now that Romney isn’t running for national office, I would expect that looking at “The Massachusetts model” would probably go over favorably. During the election there was a fair amount of ankle-biting (usually along the lines of Maryland rules, Massachusetts drools), but I suspected at the time that it was geared towards a particular election and not a wholistic appraisal of interstate education policy.

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      • …And in any case, how does your theory square with the fact that liberals *did in fact* nationalize the guy’s health insurance scheme when they knew they might and quite likely would still have to run against him to keep the White House – and then when they had to do exactly that happily gave him credit for the idea they were defending in the very race from which this mild criticism of his scholarship program springs?

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      • I admit you bring up a number of good points, Michael.

        Why do you think there are so many more calls to emulate Finland than Massachusetts?

        If the authors of that Romney article have issued the same criticism in a smiler way about other programs tied to other governors regardless of party, then I have probably wronged them in this piece. I didn’t research their other work as perhaps I should have.

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      • See below for my response on the first questions. And thanks for asking.

        On the Romney blog post question, I’m not sure how profitable that conversation really is at this point. I don’t really know what else they wrote about other governors; that was a series about education in the election. Presumably they wrote something about Race To The Top. Who knows; I’m not sure it matters. It’s a sidelight at this point. I don’t think it suggests that liberals would reject a Massachusetts approach to national ed policy out of concern for how it made Mitt Romney look, and I think it’s pretty clear that that is their good-faith position on the merits of these merit-based scholarships. (I disagree with them, btw.)

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  11. I don’t think the Canadian education system is overwhelmingly different from the American one, and it’s got results approximately the same level of Massachusetts, and only a little worse than Finland in math and reading. Both the Canada and Massachusetts numbers suggest that reforms to emulate those systems, rather than a radical overhaul of education, would be sufficient to substantially improve US educational results.

    But that depends on how much you think the structure and methods of the US education system have to do with PISA results (and how good a barometer of educational effectiveness you think the PISA results are). I strongly suspect there are historical and cultural reasons why the US system overall is underperforming Canada and Massachusetts. You’ve got a quarter or so of the country, in the southeast, that deliberately underfunded its schools and shortchanged its children for decades out of spite, because they resented being required to treat black people like people. A region that, for years, would rather close its schools altogether than integrate them.

    And the north in some places is arguably no better. I’ve read TNC’s posts on The Atlantic about what his life was like growing up. If the essential skills you need for school, and for walking to and from school, are about simple survival, then better teachers aren’t going to make a big difference.

    Whether it’s education, decentralization, city planning, or any of a host of other issues, in the US, it always seems to come back to race and to racially discriminatory policies.

    Canada’s not so different in that regard; we just have different demographics. Our numbers are better because First Nations people are only 3% or so of our population, so the deprivation they face in virtually every area of life doesn’t show up in our national statistics, and discrimination doesn’t have such a pervasive effect on our policies.

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    • This is probably spot on. Many of the problems in American education come from a long history of Whites not wanting to pay for the education of African-Americans and other people of color. Canada had this issue with First Nations people but they were statistically insignificant for this to register in data. The best educated nations tend to be both rich and very homogeneous, meaning you don’t run into problems of not wanting to fund minority education because of hate.

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  12. I have a couple of tangental questions:

    Seems to me that one of the US’s big advantages is it’s Universities. Having lived in the Boston area, there’s not doubt that the economic advantages of being home to Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, etc. etc. etc. is huge. At what point does the poor quality of or k-12 public education system become an economic drag on that university system?

    And in measuring the general, all-around crumminess of public schools, should the comparisons be how the crummy students do, not how the average or mean students do? How big the failing-student cohort is in one nation vs. another, not how the averages of the general population compare? Flip that for the above average, too. Seems like the deviation from the mean might be more revealing than the mean.

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    • When we talk about our great university system, we’re often talking about the best colleges. I don’t know how awesome the University of Louisiana at Monroe is internationally. Presumably, as long as our K-12 system can produce enough great system to populate the Harvards and the Michigans and the Oklahomas, we’re in pretty good shape.

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      • According to Ms. Bath, The University of Louisiana at Monroe would be considered the same as Oklahoma to people in China. Once you get out of the top 5, they are all considered about the same from their perspective. And if they can afford it, rich Chinese like to send their kids here even if they have to pay ridiculous tuition amounts (which they do).

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    • At what point does the poor quality of or k-12 public education system become an economic drag on that university system?

      I think about 12 years ago. I don’t have statistics available, but my subjective impression is that remedial education is becoming a bigger and bigger component of higher education. And 13-week university courses are not well-suited to remedying 13 or more years of educational neglect.

      I have to admit that part of my anger at the situation is personal. I know professors who have to teach remedial courses, and they are miserable with the work. It isn’t what they signed up for. Yes, it is their job, and they are paid to do it, but there were a bunch of other people in the system who were paid as well and they didn’t.

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  13. , down here.

    Why do you think there are so many more calls to emulate Finland than Massachusetts?

    This goes to your larger point about how the Finland example is being used by those who like what it represents. i was trying to think through that question on a walk just now – I wasn’t sure I had a good sense of all the dynamics. But since you ask I’ll give it a shot.

    I think it obviously depends on who’s using the example, so lets take what I presume to be maybe your paradigmatic example (though I’d be interested to know what example you’d point to that both most typifies the way you take the Finland system to be being used and also exemplifies the problems with that use). Let’s look at the Ravitch piece, again, because I think she probably at least exemplifies the issues that you have with the use of Finland, even if she doesn’t may not typify overall uses of Finland in education debates very well.

    So, the way I look at it, you’ve levied a charge and asked a question. The charge is, “I suspect that it is a carefully curated example, picked to highlight desirable lessons and avoid undesirable ones regardless of their actual truth.” And the question is the one quoted above, “Why do you think there are so many more calls to emulate Finland than Massachusetts?” Let’s take them in order.

    On the first, I think you’re basically right. I do think that Diane Ravitch does not profess at this point to be neutrally considering different approaches to teaching and other aspects of school system management, but has instead selected one (or a generalized cluster of them) that is her preferred one. I’m sure she has an involved evidence-based case for this position that does not rely simply on comparative PISA scores, which I’m sure likewise can be picked apart and challenged on its terms. But what this means is that I think you’re misreading the meaning of her claims when she appeals to PISA. I think she’s using it as a validating example, nota trumpting example. In other words, I don;t think that the logic of her position is that PISA scores are the one important measure for considering education systems cross-nationally,or for considering approaches to teaching generally. I think she has her case for why model X is best, and Finland is an example to demonstrate that it can achieve results that are highly competitive cross-nationally. But the other reasons for her support of X for her remain valid, and I think that her perception is that generally that model isn’t in place in most of the countries scoring higher on the PISA. (It may be the case that she’s not up to date on practices in all those countries; it may be the case that she dismisses them out of latent racism; it may be the case that there are reasons to regard the Finnish system as more translatable to the U.S. than the Shanghai system that we haven’t considered but she has. It also may be the case that her focus on Finland doesn’t foreclose the possibility that she would look to other systems as ones we could learn from.)

    In any case, I think the point is that I don’t think you’ve established what role the PISA scores actually play in the arguments that those you call “obsessed” with Finland make. You can think what you like of it as to persuasiveness, but it seems to me that something along the lines of, “I think this approach is best for all these theoretical and empirical reasons having nothing to do with cross-national comparisons, but it’s also worth looking at whether that approach makes it impossible for a country to be competitive internationally, and Finalnd shows that it doesn’t” is a reasonable, legitimate argument. I think that’s basically the argument implied in the Ravitch take on Finland.

    Now, as to why point to Finland rather than Massachusetts, I think it’s because the issue for her really is the culture of teaching and learning, not measurable performance at any cast. From Ravitch’s perspective, what she sees as the problem with American education (excessive reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, attempts to hold teachers responsible for the performance on those tests of their students, etc.) has become essentially pervasive throughout American education. But the culture she sees in Finland is not foreign to her understanding of the culture of American teaching, but in fact more resembles the model she came to recognize as a successful one in the United States than does the current culture of standardization and performance incentives, which to her way of thinking is foreign to what she recognizes as the American culture of education. So, for her, Finland is an example that shows that the American model as she came to understand it decades ago could still work (where “work” is partly defined as making us reasonably competitive or better on PISA, among many other outcomes) if we would let it.

    Now, it is absolutely a cherry-picked example, I’m not arguing with that at all. I’m more trying to bridge what I think is a gap of understanding both of basic perspectives about education culture between you and in communication of what claims it is she she means to make about Finland as regard the significance of its international competitiveness on standardized tests.

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    • Thank you for you considered response.

      I think she has her case for why model X is best, and Finland is an example to demonstrate that it can achieve results that are highly competitive cross-nationally.

      That strikes me as likely. I would then note to her though that it isn’t puzzling we why all aren’t tearing down everything in favor of a Finnish clone. If better arguments can be made for other directions as seems to be the case here, then it is good that we haven’t started yet.

      The notion of Finland as a romanticized version of old America is intriguing. I’ll have to think about that some more.

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  14. Why not make Massachusetts our model? . . . I can speculate on two reasons.

    You said the “lesser” reason is an abhorrence of giving credit to Mitt Romney. What is the other reason? That it’s easier to point at Finland and say we should be more like them? I suppose that is what you’re saying.

    In the 1980s, it was quite common to point to Japan’s educational system as a model for the U.S. to emulate, so at least back then the idea of adopting an Asian method wasn’t rejected out of hand. I don’t know much about Finland, but I suspect that anyone who thinks Finnish culture is somehow similar to American culture probably knows less about the Finns than I do.

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    • The greater reason (I think) is that “Finns succeed because they do everything the opposite of America” is a good narrative to tell. Massachusetts is boring, and it’s lessons (whatever they are) are likely to be more subtle.

      Another way to look at it would be to ask which book do you think Malcolm Gladwell would write?

      Were people serious in suggesting we model after Japan in the 80s? I remember there was a lot of fear that we would all have to eventually learn Japanese. I know it can be hard to ascribe motives, but do you think the calls then were based on fear and anger or out of a genuine belief that there system was better?

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      • Well, I think we can be sure that the calls to Japanify our education system were not coming from a place of sober reflection. James Fallows wrote a book, More Like Us, which I admire very much, and which makes a point similar to your article. I agree with much of what you wrote, by the way, in case that didn’t come through.

        To be sure, here in Japan people tear their hair out about seemingly rapidly rising rates of stupid. I wonder if any country ever truly feels happy about the education system they’ve evolved.

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      • I think Malcolm Gladwell would probably write the Massachusetts book because it’s less intuitive than looking to other countries. What describes is, however, I think the reason lesser writers talk about other countries (not just Finland) rather than certain states. (Not saying Gladwell’s that great, but I do think the point about states being what we should look to is actually the less lazy-writerly intuitive way to look for comparative policies.) People tend to assume that the greater differences in other countries will expose problems that are seen in all or most of the U.S., and that those are probably the key problems that need to be addressed. I actually think Gladwell would go against that intuition out of anti-intuitive reflex.

        Btw Vikram, Kevin Drum seconded your basic point here but suggested NJ instead of MA. Not sure if you noticed but wanted to point you to it.

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