Sunday, July 14, 2013

Finland Has Smarter Teachers!

Listen up, America’s public school teachers! It’s time to face facts. Finland has fantastic teachers. Finland’s teachers are great. Finland’s teachers are way smarter than you.

This teacher-intelligence-gap is serious business.

Haven’t you been paying attention! In 2010, in a competition involving fifteen-year-olds from around the world, Finland’s teens ranked first overall. In a test of reading, math and science they stomped our poor kids. By the time the tests ended America’s fifteen-year-olds looked like they had been run over by herds of angry reindeer.

Finland came in second in reading, second in math, first in science, and first in total score. (See chart below.) The United States placed 14th in reading, 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th overall.

Just look at that chilling chart—America’s failing teachers! What a disgrace! Our fifteen-year-olds were clobbered by the Canadians in reading. They were pummeled by the Poles in math. They were slaughtered by the Swiss in science. 

And just how do we explain this whole sordid mess? 

All figures for the 34 member nations of the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (OECD)

In a recent New York Times editorial, Harvard associate professor Jal Metha set out to use his own giant brain and answer that question and made it clear that despite decades of school reform in the United States we were still missing the point.

What is the point you might well ask? Increasing poverty, maybe? Gangs and school shootings? Drugs? Fathers like the one who recently decided to stop his infant daughter from crying by sticking the baby in the freezer? Nope.

None of that.

According to Metha, high-scoring countries like Finland have smarter teachers—“drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.” In other words the problems in our schools can be summed up in two words:

“Dumb educators.”

Well, excuse me for being obtuse. As a retired teacher, it may be I am too dimwitted to follow the logic of an esteemed Harvard professor. And for that matter he’s not alone in his criticism of American public school teachers. (See for example: Bloomberg, Michael R.)

Still, I do look at those scores from 2010 and wonder. Even the list is suspicious. No one seems to mention that sixty-five nations were actually tested. So: finishing 14th and 17th and 25th doesn’t seem quite as bad. Technically, it might also be less alarming if we noted that U. S. students tied for 12th in reading and beat the Germans, Spanish and French.

It might also have a calming effect if we asked: “Where are the most populous nations on this list? Where are Brazil and Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam?

Fifteen of the top-20 most populous countries are absent from the chart.

Well then, what about Finland—with all those smart teachers—and 5.3 million people? Perhaps, comparing Finland and the United States isn’t exactly right. What if we focused on Wisconsin—with 5.7 million people—instead?

If you don’t mind digging into other reports from the OECD (“Education at a Glance: 2011”) a picture begins to form that is not nearly so grim. If we consider a chart showing percentage of students who have attained “upper secondary education” (roughly speaking, those who have graduated from high school), Finland drops to 9th place, with a minuscule lead over the United States.

We finish 12th out of 35 nations.

What happens if we drop some of our worst performing states (Alaska, Georgia and Oregon). If we then compare Finland and top-scoring states in the Union (or Finland and Wisconsin alone), Finland’s teachers suddenly don’t look so great.

Study OECD statistics a little more and a nuanced perspective begins to take form. Students from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and New Zealand outscored ours in reading, math and science. Nevertheless, all four nations end up graduating a lower percentage of those who enter their schools than does the United States (Same report, above, p. 32).

It’s a false construct, really, this idea that teachers in this country are so dumb, and critics and college professors need to calm down. Are we really going to say, based on these kinds of comparisons, that Hungarian math teachers are smarter than ours? Because if we do, we should note that Hungarian reading teachers are morons. Does Norway, by comparison with the United States, have smart reading teachers and dumb science instructors? Is that what the results from 2010 prove? Well, then, how about Israel’s pitiful educators? Those poor people must be drooling fools.

Or: the picture may not be as simple as the critics make it seem.

P. S.: The OECD reports that the U. S. has fallen to 16th in attainment of “tertiary education,” or % of students with college degrees. Still, in a ranking of thirty-six advanced nations, we remain ahead of Switzerland (18th), Finland (19th) and Germany (mired in 27th place).

If we follow the kind of logic used by Professor Metha, then we must assume his German counterparts are a pitiful collection of dolts.

According to the OECD, one out of every four college graduates
in the world was produced here in the United States.


  1. Why you say??? Because we lower our standards on tests so the kids can pass the test. We lower the qualifications for graduation so the kids can graduate and we lower the standard for college so kids can get in. How about we raise teacher salaries and revere teachers as much as Harvard professors who use statistics. And how about we raise the bar so that our top 30% can compete with the rest of the world.

    1. What evidence is there that our college graduates, say, are less capable than college graduates from other nations?

  2. As long as I continue to see my students graduate and lead successful lives, I will continue to have hope that we are doing something right at Platteview High School in Springfield, NE. My graduates are the only statistics I need!

    Thank you for your insight.

    P.S. Love the header photo.

    1. I agree. The picture is from a day when I had a veteran from the First Gulf War speak to my classes. I tried on his gas mask.

  3. I'm not surprised at all by the stats and graphs. As a math teacher, I feel strong resonance with this post. Do you think implementing technology in education will improve the situation? My students are more earnest in learning when technology is involved. Also, education technology also makes our lives easier. For example, I stumbled upon a tool called ClassroomIQ ( It’s a very efficient grading tools. It helps me grade homework and exams more quickly and easily. It’s a very handy and convenient tool to have. Anyway, nice post and nice picture (I like your mask!).

    1. Thanks, they should have used me in the recent Lone Ranger remake. It tanked anyway.

      I'm of the opinion that the tools help; but the motivation of all the people in the room is the real key.