Foundation and Earth

Matt Yglesias writes:

Obviously, you don’t build a Finnish level of educational performance without the foundation provided by the egalitarian Nordic social/political/economic model. And you don’t build a Nordic welfare state without some taxes.

Not surprisingly, I don’t think this is obvious at all. What happens when you break down the results by historical disadvantage? As Matt noted, the children of immigrants to Finland tend to have a harder time in Finnish schools.

The early education system is, in principle, a huge opportunity in terms of hopes of building a successful system of integration and assimilation. Kids come in to Finnish early education at very young ages — sometimes just one or two years old — at a time when their linguistic capabilities are developing rapidly and at a point where foreign language acquisition is relatively easy. Thus, this is a great opportunity to teach Finnish to foreign-born children or to the children of foreign-born (most often Russian or Somali) parents. One interesting element to this is that Finnish center-based early childhood services are universally available but by no means mandatory. Many children are taken care of at home or by relatives. And since unemployment is higher among immigrant communities and immigrants also tend to come from families with more traditional gender/family ideas the objective need for child care services in the immigrant community isn’t necessarily enormous.

Similarly, educational outcomes among non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. — a good proxy for the population that has not been subject to serious and sustained discrimination — are strikingly similar to what you find in Finland. Yet there is a great deal of wage dispersion among non-Hispanic whites.

This isn’t a flawless comparison, to be sure. One could just as easily point to Singapore, a highly diverse state that is in the same weight class population-wise as Finland and that achieves stellar educational outcomes.

I feel a little silly getting into this. Matt is making a lot of great points on Finland. The point I most strongly endorse is that schools are only part of a larger, complicated picture that affects educational outcomes, something I drone on about in the aforelinked post. I just think it’s not obvious that Nordic social democracy is the essential foundation to Finnish levels of educational performance, given that there are other populations that get to roughly the same destination in very different ways. (One could just as easily say that Nordic family structure, i.e., the far higher number of intact families, is the essential foundation. But I won’t! I’m trying not to be polemical.)

I fear that some people will draw glib conclusions from Finland’s performance, e.g., mandatory schooling starts later on in Finland in the U.S. — so we should forget about universal kindergarten! I mean, that’s ridiculous.

Will Wilkinson notes this very smart article on teacher performance. It’s worth a look.