Doing something right in Finland

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies.

An article in the Washington Post takes a look at what Finland is doing right with their schools.

Superb schools symbolize the modern transformation of Finland, a poor and agrarian nation half a century ago, and today one of the world’s most prosperous, modern and adaptable countries.

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies. Finland also finishes at or near the top in many global comparisons of economic competitiveness: Internet usage, environmental practices and more. Finland, where the modern cell phone was largely invented, has more cell phones per capita than any other nation — nearly 85 per 100 citizens.

The article is hardly a rigorous study, but there are intriguing hints.

The Finns long ago decided that 7 is the right age to begin school, so in every grade the children are a year older than they would be in the United States. Six-year-olds have kindergarten (and a high percentage of Finnish youngsters come to school from state-run day-care centers, which are also generously staffed and supported). But according to Raili Rapila, a kindergarten teacher at Arabia, there is no pressure to begin reading before the first grade. Three of 10 in her class are readers, she said, but all 10 love to be read to, and are often, every day. “Social skills and learning to play are more important than reading” for the 6-year-olds, she said.

I doubt that we need to delay the start of school for our children, but it does suggest that our emphasis on ever-earlier starts—kindergarten, universal pre-school—are unlikely to be the answer.

Buried in the paragraph, though, is another hint: a class size of ten. California spends big bucks reducing K-3 class size from 30 to 20, even though class-size research, such as it is, suggests that 20 is still a large class, not a small one, and that the benefits of smaller classes aren’t reached until we get down to 12 or 15.

There’s another factor: teachers.

“The key,” said Pekka Himanen, 31, a renowned scholar with a PhD in philosophy (earned at age 20) who is a kind of guru of information-age Finland, “isn’t how much is invested, it’s the people. The high quality of Finnish education depends on the high quality of Finnish teachers. You need to have a college-level degree to run a kindergarten. You need a master’s-level degree to teach at a primary school. Many of the best students want to be teachers. This is linked to the fact that we really believe we live in an information age, so it is respected to be in such a key information profession as teaching.”

The principal of the Arabia Comprehensive School, Kaisu Karkkainen, 49, has the same answer when asked the reasons for Finland’s educational accomplishments. “Three reasons,” she said over a tasty lunch of chicken, rice and green salad in her school’s cafeteria: “Teachers, teachers and teachers.” Then she grinned an un-Finnish grin at one of her favorites, English teacher Riitta Severinkangas, 47, who has been teaching for 16 years.

A visit to Severinkangas’s eighth-grade class demonstrates that her students can all read and speak in English, a language that has virtually nothing in common with the Finns’ obtuse and complex native tongue.

“The teachers did it” is pretty much the universal answer to questions about Finland’s educational successes. Seppo Heikkinen, 45, a producer of educational programs for the Finnish Broadcasting Co. and a member of the governing board of the Arabia school, credits “the professional level of the teachers,” who are “highly motivated.”

Read the whole article.

Intel CEO: “Get a Mac!”

“… maybe you should buy something else.”

Intel’s CEO is fed up with Windows.

Pressed about security by Mr. Mossberg, Mr. Otellini had a startling confession: He spends an hour a weekend removing spyware from his daughter’s computer. And when further pressed about whether a mainstream computer user in search of immediate safety from security woes ought to buy Apple Computer Inc.’s Macintosh instead of a Wintel PC, he said, “If you want to fix it tomorrow, maybe you should buy something else.”

Meanwhile, Winn Schwartau, security columnist for Network World, is “Mad as hell, switching to Mac”.

This is my first column written on a Mac – ever. Maybe I should have done it a long time ago, but I never said I was smart, just obstinate. I was a PC bigot.

But now, I’ve had it. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

We have successfully moved to Mac in less than two days. Think about it: a security-friendly alternative that works and doesn’t require gobs of third-party utilities to safely perform the most mundane tasks.

Oil: Caveat Empty

Exxon Mobil sees an oil peak.

In the May/June issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Alfred J. Cavallo writes,

Without any press conferences, grand announcements, or hyperbolic advertising campaigns, the Exxon Mobil Corporation, one of the world’s largest publicly owned petroleum companies, has quietly joined the ranks of those who are predicting an impending plateau in non-OPEC oil production. Their report, The Outlook for Energy: A 2030 View, forecasts a peak in just five years.

Granted, that’s a “non-OPEC” peak; Exxon Mobil makes some rather optimistic (and, as Cavallo points out, unrealistic) assumptions about OPEC picking up the slack.

The Exxon Mobil report is online.

Brad DeLong’s “Statement on Social Security Reform”

Everything you need to know about the current state of the Social Security “reform” discussion.

In a longish and somewhat technical open letter to the Democratic Policy Committee, economist Brad DeLong lays out the current state of the Social Security argument. Must reading.

Did nobody inside the White House bother to run the numbers? Did nobody care? This breaks my heart–for in yet another of my hearts-of-hearts, I am a technocrat who believes in administrative competence, and think that the President of the United States should not be sent out to make speeches that only an underbriefed fool would write because of the nonsensical things that they say.

Until the center of policy making and implementation in this administration is moved outside the White House to someplace else where people seriously concerned with the substantive design and implementation of policy, nothing the White House proposes–nothing, no matter how good it sounds at first–can be expected to turn out to be anything other than a large pile of mud.

‘Good effects’ of small classes

A long-term study in the USA suggests children benefit from being taught in small classes over several years.

The BBC reports:

A long-term study in the USA suggests children benefit from being taught in small classes over several years.

There’s a catch, though: “small” in this context means 13-17 students per class, not the 20 that California’s class-size reduction calls for.

There’s more information at the HEROS site.

Findings from the current major well-designed class size studies, seem to have influenced policy makers toward the institution of reduced class size. Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has laid out a four-point plan to ensure that all children are educated to their full potential, which includes reducing classes to “no more than 15 students per teacher” for the early elementary grades. In addition, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Delegate Assembly has revised their class size policy statement from 20 to 1 down to recommending a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

California needs to set up a pilot program to test these results in our own schools. CSR is a very expensive program; we should be measuring its results.

Sunday Godblogging

Has Christianity, in fact, stood for a better morality than that of its rivals and opponents?

Via James Wolcott.

…has Christianity, in fact, stood for a better morality than that of its rivals and opponents? I do not see how any honest student of history can maintain that this is the case. Chistianity has been distinguished from other religions by its greater readiness for persecution. Buddhism has never been a persecuting religion. The Empire of the Caliphs was much kinder to Jews and Christians than Christian states were to Jews and Mohammedans. It left Jews and Christians unmolested, provided they paid tribute. Anti-Semitism was promoted by Christianity from the moment the Roman Empire became Christian. The religious fervor of the Crusades led to pogroms in western Europe. It was Christians who unjustly accused Dreyfus, and freethinkers who secured his final rehabilitation… The whole contention that Christianity has had an elevating moral influence can only be maintained by wholesale ignoring or falsification of the historical evidence.


That the world is in a bad way is undeniable, but there is not the faintest reason in history to suppose that Christianity offers a way out… What the world needs is reasonableness, tolerance, and a realization of the interdependence of the parts of the human family. It is to such considerations that we must look, and not to a return to obscurantist myths. Intelligence, it might be said, has caused our troubles; but it is not unintelligence that will cure them. Only more and wiser intelligence can make a happier world.

–Bertrand Russell, “Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” (1954)

Do parents matter?

Parents matter–but maybe not for the reasons you thought.

In an article in USA Today, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) look at the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and highlight some interesting conclusions.

The ECLS program has been designed to include two overlapping cohorts: a Birth Cohort and a Kindergarten Cohort. The birth cohort follows a sample of children from birth through first grade. The kindergarten cohort follows a sample of children from kindergarten through the fifth grade.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) Program provides national data on children’s status at birth and at various points thereafter; children’s transitions to nonparental care, early education programs, and school; and children’s experiences and growth through the fifth grade. ECLS also provides data to test hypotheses about the effects of a wide range of family, school, community and individual variables on children’s development, early learning and early performance in school.

Dubner and Levitt flag a few interesting effect–and non-effects:

But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child’s test scores and how often his parents read to him. How can this be? Here is a sampling of other parental factors that matter and don’t:

  • Matters: The child has highly educated parents.
  • Doesn’t: The child regularly watches TV at home.
  • Matters: The child’s parents have high income.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
  • Matters: The child’s parents speak English in the home.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
  • Matters: The child’s mother was 30 or older at time of the child’s birth.
  • Doesn’t: The child attended Head Start.
  • Matters: The child’s parents are involved in the PTA.
  • Doesn’t: The child is regularly spanked at home.

So it isn’t that parents don’t matter. Clearly, they matter an awful lot. It’s just that by the time most parents pick up a book on parenting technique, it’s too late. Many of the things that matter most were decided long ago — what kind of education a parent got, how hard he worked to build a career, what kind of spouse he wound up with and how long they waited to have children.

If correct, this is a deeply pessimistic study for the project of eliminating systematic inequality in our public education system.

Remedial economics for the WSJ editorial board

Media Matters:

An April 26 Wall Street Journal editorial argued that “the overall tax burden grew more progressive” in the last 25 years because upper income taxpayers pay a larger share of total taxes than they did in 1979. But the Journal failed to explain why upper income taxpayers pay a larger share today: The wealthiest Americans earn a much larger share of total income than they did in 1979.

Word: Mill

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies…

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies… sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.

John Stuart Mill

Sunday Godblogging

Maintain justice in the courts.

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

Amos 5:11-15a

Comments? (update)

I’ve been having problems with comments…

If you’ve tried to post comments recently, they may not have appeared, due to a malfunctioning comment-spam plugin; please try again.

Your first comment is moderated, so it won’t appear immediately. Please be patient.


Update: So that experiment failed, too. I tried the wp-spamassassin plugin, but the comment process seemed to hang. Back to manual moderation, at least for now.

Update 2005-06-16. Spam Karma 2-beta and Bad Behavior 1.1.1 installed and working fine–or so it seems.

Healthcare roundup

Healthcare roundup from Ezra Klein and Angry Bear, via Kevin Drum.

Kevin Drum summarizes a good collection of recent healthcare posts:

HEALTHCARE ROUNDUP….There’s been a bunch of healthcare blogging in the past couple of weeks. Here are a couple of roundups that are worth taking a look at if you haven’t already:

Ezra Klein has collected his snapshots of national healthcare systems in other countries here. The complete set includes Japan, Germany, Canada, Britain, and France.

Angry Bear pulls together all his recent healthcare links here.

I especially recommend Kash’s post about waiting times. One of the main bugaboos that Americans have about national healthcare is the fear that it means long waiting times for office visits and elective surgery. But it just ain’t so. As Kash points out, some countries have long waiting times and others don’t. There’s nothing inherent in national healthcare that causes long waiting times and there’s nothing inherent in the U.S. system that eliminates them. It all depends on how much money you spend, what your priorities are, and how well you run things.

Add to that Paul Krugman’s column today, Passing the Buck:

The United States spends far more on health care than other advanced countries. Yet we don’t appear to receive more medical services. And we have lower life-expectancy and higher infant-mortality rates than countries that spend less than half as much per person. How do we do it?

Think about how crazy all of this is. At a rough guess, between two million and three million Americans are employed by insurers and health care providers not to deliver health care, but to pass the buck for that care to someone else. And the result of all their exertions is to make the nation poorer and sicker.

Why do we put up with such an expensive, counterproductive health care system? Vested interests play an important role. But we also suffer from ideological blinders: decades of indoctrination in the virtues of market competition and the evils of big government have left many Americans unable to comprehend the idea that sometimes competition is the problem, not the solution.

Evaluating charter schools

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

Charter schools are just as good–and just as bad–as conventional public schools, and that’s a problem for NCLB.

JENNIFER RADCLIFFE, LA DAILY NEWS – Fueling the politically charged debate over the merits of charter schools, a study released Wednesday finds the innovative campuses perform no better than traditional public schools, and they may actually have a negative impact. The report by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., and generally regarded as progressive, collated data from 19 studies in 11 states, including California, about charter schools — tuition-free public campuses that operate under fewer federal and state regulations.

“Overall, we conclude that charter school students certainly did no better, and in many cases did worse,” said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor of education and economics who helped compile the research results.

And while charter advocates might attribute lower test scores at some charter schools to a higher proportion of students living in poverty, EPI researchers said their study showed that charter schools attract slightly more affluent students than traditional campuses do. . .

The research piggybacks on an American Federation of Teachers’ analysis from last summer that showed charter students were one-half grade level behind on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Charter school advocates, however, disputed the new study, saying it didn’t take demographic differences into account and was too narrowly focused on test results from a fraction of students.

In their artillery is a Harvard University study, released last fall, which showed that charter students are 3.8 percent more likely to score as proficient readers on state standardized tests and 1.2 percent more likely to be proficient in math.

The EIP report is available online.

I don’t have an axe to grind one way or the other, but it’s increasingly apparent that being a charter school per se is not only no guarantee of success, but is at best a neutral indicator. There are good and bad charter schools just as there are good and bad conventional public schools, and it seems that we have yet to find anything like a reliable formula for success.

That’s a problem for No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which prescribes conversion to a charter school as one of the possible remedies for a failing public school. I’m ambivalent about NCLB as well; one of its critical failings is that its remedies are expensive and disruptive, but lack good evidence for success.

NCLB seems to be saying, “We all know how to create a good school, where all the children test above average, and if you don’t shape up on your own, we’ll force you to.” But of course we don’t know how to do that, at least not on a large and repeatable scale.

Sunday Godblogging

Woe to those who make unjust laws…

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?

Isaiah 10:1-3

Computers considered harmful

Use a computer, go to fail.

Donald MacLeod, writing in the Guardian, reports on a new study being presented this week.

In a report to be given at the conference of the Royal Economic Society in Nottingham this week, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University say their research shows diminished performance in students with computers. Their findings look conclusive: they are based on the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international tests in maths and literacy taken by 100,000 15-year-olds in 32 countries.

The report isn’t a blanket condemnation of computers in education; rather, it suggests that how the computer is used is critical to its effect. From the report’s abstract:

We estimate the relationship between students’ educational achievement and the availability and use of computers at home and at school in the international student-level PISA database. Bivariate analyses show a positive correlation between student achievement and the availability of computers both at home and at schools. However, once we control extensively for family background and school characteristics, the relationship gets negative for home computers and insignificant for school computers. Thus, the mere availability of computers at home seems to distract students from effective learning. But measures of computer use for education and communication at home show a positive conditional relationship with student achievement. The conditional relationship between student achievement and computer and internet use at school has an inverted U-shape, which may reflect either ability bias combined with negative effects of computerized instruction or a low optimal level of computerized instruction.

Unlike computers, books at home proved to be helpful; children from homes with more than 500 books performed better than those without, again with other variables held constant.

I design computers for a living, using them intensively at home and at work, and I don’t find these results surprising in the least.

US report acknowledges peak-oil threat

“Expedient” solutions to peak oil…

I’d like to call your attention to a disturbing article by Adam Porter, who has covered the peak-oil beat for the BBC, US report acknowledges peak-oil threat. This story has gotten essentially no mainstream coverage.

The subject of the piece is a report from major government contractor SAIC for the US Department of Energy.

“World oil peaking is going to happen,” the report says. Only the “timing is uncertain”.

The effects of any oil peak are similarly not ignored. Specifically, the impact on the economy of the United States. “The development of the US economy and lifestyle has been fundamentally shaped by the availability of abundant, low-cost oil. Oil scarcity and several-fold oil price increases due to world oil production peaking could have dramatic impacts . . . the economic loss to the United States could be measured on a trillion-dollar scale,” the report says.

The authors of the report also dismiss the power of the markets to solve any oil peak. They call for the intervention of governments. But also they rather worryingly point to a need to exclude public debate and environmental concerns from the process. They say this is needed to speed up decision-making.

“Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic. But the process will not be easy. Expediency may require major changes to . . . lengthy environmental reviews and lengthy public involvement.”

And what kind of “expedient” solution does the report envision? Here’s a clue: the report mentions “coal” 65 times; “oil shale” 17 time; “nuclear” six times. “Solar” or “wind”? Twice. “Climate change” or “global warming”? Not even once.

If America Is Richer, Why Are Its Families So Much Less Secure?

If America Is Richer, Why Are Its Families So Much Less Secure? Los Angeles Times reporter Peter G. Gosselin’s three-part series.

Los Angeles Times reporter Peter G. Gosselin has spent the last year examining an American paradox: Why so many families report being financially less secure even as the nation has grown more prosperous. The answer lies in a quarter-century-long shift of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families. Safety nets that once protected Americans from economic turbulence — safeguards like unemployment compensation and employer loyalty — have eroded or vanished. Familes are more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the economy than any time since the Great Depression. The result is a daunting “New Deal” for many working Americans — one that compels them to cope, largely on their own, with financial forces far beyond their control.

As Kevin Drum says,

So do it: click the link. Believe me, this story is well worth the 20 or 30 minutes it takes to read, and if there’s any justice you’ll be seeing this series on a list of Pulitzer nominees in a few months. It’s what print journalism was born to do.

Go read. And if you have a blog yourself, pass it along.

The Best Care Anywhere

When it comes to health care, it’s a government bureaucracy that’s setting the standard for maintaining best practices while reducing costs, and it’s the private sector that’s lagging in quality.

In my last post, I mentioned Paul Krugman’s mention of Phillip Longman’s Washington Monthly article on the remarkable turnaround of the Veterans’ Health Administration system.

But when it comes to health care, it’s a government bureaucracy that’s setting the standard for maintaining best practices while reducing costs, and it’s the private sector that’s lagging in quality. That unexpected reality needs examining if we’re to have any hope of understanding what’s wrong with America’s health-care system and how to fix it. It turns out that precisely because the VHA is a big, government-run system that has nearly a lifetime relationship with its patients, it has incentives for investing in quality and keeping its patients well—incentives that are lacking in for-profit medicine.

One reason is that the market incentives in our privatized health care system are dysfunctional. For example,

Or suppose an HMO decides to invest in improving the quality of its diabetic care anyway. Then not only will it risk seeing the return on that investment go to a competitor, but it will also face another danger as well. What happens if word gets out that this HMO is the best place to go if you have diabetes? Then more and more costly diabetic patients will enroll there, requiring more premium increases, while its competitors enjoy a comparatively large supply of low-cost, healthier patients. That’s why, Casalino says, you never see a billboard with an HMO advertising how good it is at treating one disease or another. Instead, HMO advertisements generally show only healthy families.

And cost?

The [VHA] system runs circles around Medicare in both cost and quality. Unlike Medicare, it’s allowed by law to negotiate for deep drug discounts, and does. Unlike Medicare, it provides long-term nursing home care. And it demonstrably delivers some of the best, if not the best, quality health care in the United States with amazing efficiency. Between 1999 and 2003, the number of patients enrolled in the VHA system increased by 70 percent, yet funding (not adjusted for inflation) increased by only 41 percent. So the VHA has not only become the health care industry’s best quality performer, it has done so while spending less and less on each patient.

Longman concludes,

As the health-care crisis worsens, and as more become aware of how dangerous and unscientific most of the U.S. health-care system is, maybe we will find a way to get our minds around these strange truths. Many Americans still believe that the U.S. health-care system is the best in the world, and that its only major problems are that it costs too much and leaves too many people uninsured. But the fact remains that Americans live shorter lives, with more disabilities, than people in countries that spend barely half as much per person on health care. Pouring more money into the current system won’t change that. Nor will making the current system even more fragmented and driven by short-term profit motives. But learning from the lesson offered by the veterans health system could point the way to an all-American solution.

Longman is skeptical of our ability to move directly to universal health care, where a VHA-style system would work well. Instead, he argues for an expansion of the VHA to cover more people.

I hope he’s wrong about universal health care.