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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 Finland’s educational success. (In the past decade, Finland’s 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 it’s very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when it’s very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, “If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can’t learn if they don’t 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 reform—based on a balanced curriculum and professionalization, not testing. Not only do Finnish educational authorities provide students with far more recess than their U.S. counterparts—75 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,” TNR’s 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 Finland—though we’re not sure where he’s 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 doesn’t face the sorts of educational challenges we face in the United States. Late in his piece, Abrams repeats this criticism, then answers it—by 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 Finland’s 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 don’t need master’s 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 Statoil—called Teach First Norway—to 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 couldn’t 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 country’s 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 Norway—another country that is much smaller, and much more homogeneous, than the United States!

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Finland is doing a better job than Norway with somewhat similar populations. This still doesn’t mean that we can fly to Finland to find solutions to our own major problems. This country’s greatest educational challenges are concentrated among our rapidly rising Hispanic student population—a population which includes many immigrant kids who come from poverty backgrounds and don’t speak English—and among its black student population—a 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 can’t tell us how to address the problems we face with these large, low-achieving student groups—with these delightful, deserving children. That said, we seem to face a second problem—a 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, we’ll start you with this post by Kevin Drum—a post from last November. Kevin noted some confusing aspects of an education report in the Atlantic—but 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? We’ll return to this question in the coming weeks. And by the way: It’s conceivable that a trip to Finland might help us address this problem. It’s 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 problems—presumably, 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 been—a glorified version of dodge ball.

WHAT KASICH SAID (permalink): Race is a mountain in our history—rather, a brutal mountain range. We’ve never even developed a language for discussing the depth of that brutality—for discussing the interaction between European settlers and Native Americans; for discussing the brutal decisions those settlers made about men and women from Africa.

It’s stunning to contemplate the mountains of pain which race has caused—which raced still causes—in so many American lives. That’s why we think it’s 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.

Steve’s post involved John Kasich, the newly-elected Republican governor of Ohio. It may have sent thrills us pseudo-lib legs, but sorry—the highlighted statement just isn’t accurate. Yes, Steve’s 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 cabinet—17 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. Gala—despite being in town—and his office issued a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day.

Say what? Did John Kasich (sorry—“his office”) really “issue a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day?”

Well actually, no—it didn’t. Steve was having fun when he typed that claim. But what he wrote is untrue.

Steve was getting us rubes fired up—but what he wrote is untrue. And you don’t have to take our word for that; you just have to click through on Steve’s 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 Kasich’s staff wrote “March 17” instead of “January 17” on Kasich’s 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 error—and he said he “suspected” it wasn’t deliberate. Those ideas don’t 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 CBO’s estimate of this year’s deficit just went up. We’re quite sure Steve is smarter than what he wrote.

(In that post, Mark Kirk’s statement was utterly silly. But so was Steve’s account of the December budget deal. It was utterly silly—and designed to get us rubes all stirred up.)

Is something wrong with Kasich’s cabinet? That’s a matter of judgment—though we note that very few African-Americans are Republicans. But if you read and fact-check Steve’s post from last Saturday, you will find him making other strikingly flimsy claims about things Kasich is alleged to have said. Steve’s claims pass from flimsy straight through to ugly because they toy with race.

No, Virginia. Kasich’s staff didn’t “issue a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day.” White “liberals” in Vermont stir the rubes with such soulless crap—as a nation continues to suffer.