Why Swedish schools are better than Finnish schools

(Alternative title; why finishing schools are better than Finnish schools.)

When left and right-leaning economists agree on something you can usually be pretty sure it’s true.  But education is different.  Both sides seem to agree that the point of schools is learning academic material, and that test scores tell us something useful about whether schools are successful.  That’s wrong, and it’s a particularly unfortunate error by conservative economists, who are supposed to believe in the market test. It’s like saying a Cadillac is better than a Mercedes because it has a bigger engine, even if the Mercedes sells for $10,000 more. Economists are blinded by the fact that they themselves are educators.  They are biased.

I’ve often argued that the only reliable test of schools is the market test—which schools are more popular at a given price point.  Tyler Cowen linked to a study that obliquely relates to this issue.  It shows that South Korean students are the least happy students in the world.  Finland’s students are near the bottom, and are the least happy of any Western European country.  In contrast, South Korea usually scores at the top of “education rankings” based on test scores, and Finland is often in second place.

It’s interesting to compare Finland with its neighbor Sweden.  Based on test scores Sweden has the worst schools in Western Europe, even worse than America’s K-12.  Horrible schools.  But their students are above average in happiness, far above Finland.  What explains that difference?

One reason might be that Sweden has a 100% voucherized school system, so schools have to cater to parents.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that schools in Sweden are perfect—Swedes have told me the legacy of the old socialist system hangs on to some extent, and most students still go to state schools.  Still, the vouchers are gradually forcing the schools to conform more to customer preferences.

Some might argue that high test scores are needed to produce the sort of highly-skilled workers needed for the modern economy.  That’s false, and Sweden proves it.  Its workers are more productive than Finnish workers because test scores tell us little about productivity.  The girls and boys who will work for Nokia and Eriksson get the math they need in either country.  But for the other 98% of students all that useless solving of equations or proofs of triangle relationships is a waste of time, they’ll never need it.  (I’m now having to struggles with helping my daughter solve her 9th grade math problems, so perhaps I’m biased.)

Since test scores don’t matter, we should focus on giving students the basics, and otherwise make schooling a more pleasurable experience.

PS.  Just to be clear I don’t mean to suggest that test scores are uncorrelated with economic success.  They clearly are correlated.  But the Swedish/Finnish case suggests that we’ve misinterpreted the causation. Most likely the sort of society that is so obsessed with success that they produce a South Korean-type school system will be successful for other reasons, having to do with cultural attributes.

You certainly need a basic level of education, with extra learning in specialized fields, to run a successful modern economy.  Sweden does that.  However you don’t need high average test scores.  The US, another lowly performer on tests, also has much more productive workers than South Korea.

If you apply my South Korean (causality) reasoning to this article on Shanghai, you will better understand why I think it very unlikely that China ends up stuck in the middle income trap:

Shanghai’s students came top of the global class in maths with an average score of 613 (up from 600 in the last PISA tests in 2010). That was 119 points, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling, above the average and placed Shanghai 25 places above Britain.

.  .  .

Kong Lingshuai, a professor who has studied Shanghai’s PISA successes, said the secret is mix of “traditional elements and modern elements”.

The “traditional elements” relate to the high expectations of “tiger” parents and a belief instilled in Chinese children from a young age that effort is crucial to gaining a good education.

“Chinese parents pay great attention to their children’s education in the hope that their sons will one day become dragons and their daughter phoenixes,” says Prof Kong, from the College of Education at Shanghai Normal University.

The “modern elements” include Shanghai’s willingness to constantly adapt its curriculum and teaching practices, its focus on improving underachieving schools by pairing them with schools that excel, its openness to foreign ideas and the introduction of performance-related pay.

An obsession with training has also been key, says Prof Kong. From last year new teachers have had to undergo a standardised, one-year training course before starting in the classroom.

Once qualified, they are required to complete at least 240 hours training in their first five years. Teachers are also encouraged to attend each other’s classes in order to promote a culture of idea “sharing, exchanging and positive competition,” Prof Kong added.

Outsiders often dismiss China’s education system as a pressure-cooker-style frenzy of exams that places too much emphasis on rote-learning and does little to stimulate creativity.

But in Shanghai at least that may be starting to change. Authorities are attempting to move away from testing that relies too heavily on memorising facts or figures and some schools are also giving students more time to play, rather than just study.

Gao Xinhong, a Shanghai student who became a minor local celebrity after getting the highest marks in this year’s “gaokao” university entrance exams, said the city’s schooling system was becoming more flexible.

“The greatest part of Shanghai’s education system was that it gave me a broad perspective compared to other Chinese cities. Shanghai’s education is good because it does not treat grades as the only thing for a student,” she said.

Zhu Yi, the father of 10-year-old Amy Zhu, agrees.

“It is much better than before. Schools in Shanghai now focus on the all-round development of students,” said Mr Yi, a 44-year-old sports instructor.

You would never, ever, see that sort of article written about countries that have gotten stuck in the middle income trap.

Shanghai students are far happier than Korean or Finnish students.  Korea would do well to loosen up a bit. (And yes I know that Shanghai is a relatively affluent city, not a country, which largely explains its very high ranking.)


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44 Responses to “Why Swedish schools are better than Finnish schools”

  1. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    4. December 2013 at 09:17

    Another great post!

  2. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    4. December 2013 at 09:18

    Quick question: why are Finland’s students relatively unhappy?

    Some more fascinating data on the school system in the Netherlands:

    http://seekerblog.com/2008/04/09/school-choice-reports-on-denmark-netherlands-and-sweden

    Conclusion: teacher collective bargaining + school choice + managerial autonomy = Smart brains!

  3. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    4. December 2013 at 09:34

    Education on $5 a Month;

    http://www.wired.com/design/2013/11/schoolinabox/?cid=co14377534

    ———quote———–
    Bridge’s CEO, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Jay Kimmelman, compares his company to Starbucks and McDonald’s — organizations that offer a consistent experience no matter where in the world you encounter them.

    ….Tuition is just $5 per pupil per month. There are no student iPads, no science labs. Preschoolers work with clay or blocks; older children learn math with bottle caps and recycled egg crates. Often students write on Dickensian slate boards instead of paper. One of the teachers I met, “Ms. Elizabeth,” completed only high school, and the greatest technological firepower at her disposal was a decidedly analog yardstick.

    Instead of fancy tools, Bridge offers a system built on easy replication: a template for setting up schools cheaply, enrolling children seamlessly, hiring instructors, creating a curriculum, and making sure children learn it.
    ———–endquote———–

  4. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    4. December 2013 at 10:22

    Another point: if we mainly judge schools based on “student happiness,” does that mean we should segregate American schools based on culture / race?

    Can you see why I’m uncomfortable with this line of reasoning?

  5. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    4. December 2013 at 10:41

    So maybe we should follow examples of school systems in Indonesia, Albania, Thailand, Peru and Colombia as those are top 5 countries with most happy students out there? Or is there any other point that you wanted to make with happiness? Maybe not since the students are not very productive. So what rich countries have happiest students? Iceland, Israel and Singapore with Spain and Switzerland also being on the top.

    Also some interpretation of facts seem to be rather dubious. Like for instacne the graph showing that Korean parents have high expectations of their children to get university degree leading to excess stress. Seems plausible only if there was not Mexico on the second place in this metric, which is also 7th in student happiness.

    I am also sympathetic with your idea to change metric of how successful school system is, but your article does not contain any data. Is it supposed to be some mix of education expenses per capita mixed with overall productivity in the country somehow processed in a way that it takes into account state of education when the person actually was being educated spiced with paretn and student happiness? That seems pretty complicated to me.

  6. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    4. December 2013 at 10:43

    I’m skeptical of the accuracy of these tests used to compare the educational attainment of secondary students and I think it may be dangerous to draw conclusions about the quality of “educational systems” based on them.

    It appears that the primary basis for making these comparisons is the “PISA tests”. Here’s a blurb from Wikipedia:

    “470,000 15-year-old students representing 65 nations and territories participated in PISA 2009. An additional 50,000 students representing nine nations were tested in 2010.”

    I sure hope the sampling methods were rigorously controlled. That would be about 7,000 students per country tested. What percentage of Shanghai secondary students would have been included in the sample?

    I think countries like Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands also do quite well in these comparisons not only because of the quality of the education systems, but also because of their relatively homogenous populations.

    The quality of an educational system should not be confused with all the other things that factor into how well the *average* student purportedly performs on these tests. Maybe this is just an argument that test scores don’t matter (that much).

  7. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    4. December 2013 at 11:11

    Vivian: Since Shanghai has population of around 14 million, which is more than many countries (Sweden has population 9 million) I think that the sample size was OK.

    As per countries like Finland or Sweden or Netherlands you would be surprised how heterogenous populations are here especially among students. For instance in Sweden 15% of population are imigrants, 9% outside of EU.

    And as far as tests are concerned I really, really recommend you to actually try some sample tests on the internet for instance here: http://pisa-sq.acer.edu.au/ The problems to be solved are about how to read graphs that you may find in the newspapers, how to use simple math formula in realistic situation or how to apply most rudimentary physics knowledge to guess what happens in presence of some phenomena. I think it is reasonable that children should be taught these skills at school as they are relevant to most situation they may be confronted be it in job or in many ordinary life situations.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2013 at 11:58

    JV, I do not think student happiness is the proper test, nor did I say so. It’s an alternative test. I said the market test is the right test. I think parents care about both learning and student happiness, and other things as well, such as Texas high school football. And that’s appropriate.

    Shanghai is a big sample, but its biased toward smart people. It’s not representative of China overall. It would be like using Massachusetts as a proxy for the US.

    Travis, You can have both vouchers and anti-discrimination laws.

    Vivian, I don’t understand why you claim Swedish students do well on tests. They do poorly.

    Thanks Patrick.

  9. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    4. December 2013 at 12:39

    Just to repeat my original question:

    Why are students in Finland relatively unhappy? And why are students in Spain, Switzerland and Norway relatively happy?

  10. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    4. December 2013 at 12:40

    Great post. I would add that the optimal tradeoff between focusing on pupils’ ability to pass tests and other educational activities will depend on the particular pupil, which is another case for vouchers, competition and diversity. For example, pupils who have been coached in reading and basic maths before even attending elementary school won’t need as much help with the three Rs, but will benefit a lot from activities designed to develop the creative, critical and emotional aspects of their personality.

    We wouldn’t want standardised pediatric healthcare, and we shouldn’t have standardised schooling. I don’t know how the Swedes ended up with their school reforms, but they’ve managed to get the holy grail of liberalism: state-funded education that circumvents the criticisms of great liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill.

  11. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    4. December 2013 at 13:35

    Sweden isn’t just vouchered, it’s decentralized. That means local responsiveness is very high.

    Another interesting fact: poor white students in London test much worse than poor immigrants.

    I don’t think good schools are enough to keep China out of the middle income trap — they’re going to lose their best and brightest to places where the oligarchs don’t run things.

  12. Gravatar of Marcelo Marcelo
    4. December 2013 at 13:54

    Scott,

    This is off topic, but I thought you’d appreciate this argument from President Obama’s official twitter feed: https://twitter.com/barackobama/status/408337097859162112

    Keep up the great blogging
    -Marcelo

  13. Gravatar of 123 123
    4. December 2013 at 14:04

    Two remarks.
    I took the PISA (or was it TIMSS) math test once. The problem is that I studied in the best class of the best school in Lithuania, so I wonder ifmthere is a selection bias.
    There is also a question of rankings – are they statistically significant?

  14. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    4. December 2013 at 14:16

    Scott, it’s my understanding that, not only is Shanghai not representative of China, Shanghai school-children are not representative of Shanghai: hukou and tuition required.

    It doesn’t change your argument, just FYI.

  15. Gravatar of John Karlsson John Karlsson
    4. December 2013 at 15:13

    As a young guy who does not pretend to know the truth about this stuff, I base my opinions on the writings/thought of other, more educated folks. But sometimes these sources conflict, and this blog post is one such example.

    Scott, it would make me really happy if you directly addressed what is flawed wrong with the studies cited in this Free Exchange column (http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21587784-good-teachers-have-surprisingly-big-impact-their-pupils-future). Raj Chetty is a smart guy; can’t I trust his findings?

    Reihan Salam endorses this quote: “A wide variety of tests support the claim that the level of human capital acquired by young people while in school has a direct, causal effect on a country’s economic growth rate.” (Here’s the source: http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/360705/benefits-improving-us-educational-performance-reihan-salam.) You once proclaimed that Reihan had written “the paragraph of the year.” You obviously respect him and find him a smart guy. How could he be so wrong? Why is that sentence incorrect? Are all “tests” just based on correlations?

    Honestly, I need this stuff answered. I really, really want to understand this stuff, but this is one of those issues where you get wildly different conclusions (you and Bryan Caplan are thorns). I don’t know what to think.

  16. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    4. December 2013 at 16:14

    Is our children learning? Let me correct that: Is are children learning?

  17. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    4. December 2013 at 19:41

    Yes Obama, that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to increase the GDP. And we need to create the jobs. Good work, Mr. President.

  18. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    4. December 2013 at 19:42

    Scott, what are these “basics” that you would put into the mandatory school curriculum?

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2013 at 19:42

    W. Peden, Good point about Mill.

    TallDave, I’m told they test lower than poor black students.

    myb6, As I said.

    123, My sense is that these national rankings on PISA are statistically significant–the samples are huge. Economically? That’s harder to say.

    John, I’m not an expert so I can’t comment on the supposedly decisive impact of great teachers. But that’s a separate question from whether national average test scores are important. And by they way, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that test score are completely meaningless; obviously an average of 600 is better than 200. But they are not the right test of a school system, just one factor of many.

    Ben, They our learning.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2013 at 19:45

    Saturos, Readin, writin, and rithmatic. The three Rs.

    Seriously, I should just quote Friedman. When asked what sort of curriculum voucher schools would provide, he said something like; “If I knew that I wouldn’t favor vouchers, I’d just instruct the public schools to teach that way.” It would vary greatly from one town to the next.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2013 at 19:48

    Marcelo, Please tell me that’s a joke, I’d hate to think our president is a complete moron. He once taught at the University of Chicago for God’s sake!

  22. Gravatar of Brenb Brenb
    4. December 2013 at 20:23

    Scott, aren’t you overlooking the correlation between State test scores and State income levels? Of course there are omitted variables, but still…

  23. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    4. December 2013 at 20:36

    “I’d hate to think our president is a complete moron. He once taught at the University of Chicago for God’s sake!”

    Ummmm…

  24. Gravatar of Mattias Mattias
    4. December 2013 at 23:40

    Interesting post!

    Let me add that maybe the test scores also show where in a development process a country is. I noticed that a lot of “hungry” countries have good results. They have been under communism (or almost under as in the Finnish case) or just dirt poor and now everyone wants to get what we in west have. And so they work hard and education has a high status in those countries.

    As countries progress and become richer, that hunger and educational status seems to fall. Some people say the kids are spoiled, but I think it’s just a natural effect of getting richer.

    Maybe the schools are changing also because of new technology, like smart phones. I don’t know how that would explain what’s going on, but it seems that every kid in Sweden has a smart phone and they’re online all the time (incl the lessons). Maybe it’s the same everywhere but it’s happened before that Sweden has been early adopters in cultural and social changes. Look for instance at statistics about “paternal leave”. Notice that Finland is also dropping in PISA scores, but from a higher level.

    Personally I’m not that worried about the schools in Sweden, but I think it might be very bad for the present administration which are now 10 percent down to the opposition. Next election is just 10 months away.

  25. Gravatar of mikef mikef
    5. December 2013 at 03:48

    I just read an article a couple of weeks ago about Finnish education. It’s main point was that they did almost no testing or homework, students don’t start school until age 7, and only hired the brightest people to be teachers…which is what they accredited the success to…..so you can read all types of contradictory information..it is hard to draw conclusions…

    As the parent of two..both of whom are bright…but one struggles in every subject and one who cruises through every subject…we at a complete loss…but it seems to me that how happy children are has more to do with how happy the parents are and the genetic and cultural factors than the schools…I would be much happier in a school with no testing and no homework…

  26. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    5. December 2013 at 04:00

    Dear fellow Market Monetarists,

    Isn’t this data a huge problem for our worldview?

    http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/11/22/the-government-dominated-bond-market

    The main source of demand for government bonds is…..central banks??????

  27. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    5. December 2013 at 05:38

    I grew up hearing how rigorous Japanese schools are so I don’t understand why Japanese students are happier than American students. There seems to be no correlation between happiness and achievement – or anything else.

  28. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    5. December 2013 at 06:03

    TravisV—
    I no savvy. So central banks are big buyers of government bonds. I still believe in MM. What am I missing?

  29. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    5. December 2013 at 06:20

    Benjamin Cole,

    Last night, I believed that the yield on the 30-year U.S. treasury was overwhelmingly determined by free-market forces (particularly expectations of future NGDP).

    Now I’m not so sure……

  30. Gravatar of Neal Neal
    5. December 2013 at 06:41

    Scott, I think you’ll enjoy this article about (American) secondary math education:
    http://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

  31. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    5. December 2013 at 07:16

    Both sides seem to agree that the point of schools is learning academic material, and that test scores tell us something useful about whether schools are successful. That’s wrong

    Amen, amen, amen! I am so glad to see someone other than me saying these things. I would even say that some of the testable stuff squeezes out the basics/principles. As an illustration some people who have graduated from college and have even taken physics and chemistry fall for the 100/gallon carburetor story because their grasp of the principles is weak. IMO that is because physics and chemistry are mostly taught as an intelligence test with lots of math rather than to teach people what they need to know to live a better life. The basics of physics and chemistry are simple enough that teaching them does not provide a good enough test to divide the very smart from the smart so they pack them full of math.

    In this whole education debate people never talk about what knowledge and skills that could be taught in schools regular people are lacking that would allow then to live a better life.

  32. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    5. December 2013 at 07:16

    TrvisV, This is not news and you’re a smart guy, so I’m kinda scratching my head over your comment. It is clear to me that interest rates in late 2012 were very artificial. On 12/6/12, TIPs yields were -1.46%, -1.22%, -0.87%, -0.12%, and +0.24% over 5, 7, 10, 20, and 30 years, respectively.

    Yesterday, those yields were: -0.19%, +0.41%, +0.73%, +1.35%, +1.64%.

    Maybe a bit ‘artificial’ but a lot less than a year ago.

  33. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. December 2013 at 07:49

    Brenb, That’s classic correlation doesn’t prove causation. I don’t think anyone believes state variation in test scores reflects different school systems.

    Mattias, Good post, but the current government is going to lose for one reason and one reason only, their insanely stupid monetary policy. The Swedes used to understand monetary economics better than most countries. What happened?

    Travis, The Fed still holds only a small share of Treasury debt. It’s not a big issue.

  34. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    5. December 2013 at 07:52

    ‘Please tell me that’s a joke, I’d hate to think our president is a complete moron.’

    Added to his remarks that profits eat up overhead, and you should buy collision insurance on a beater automobile, that demand curves slope up and people buy more at higher prices, does invite the speculation.

  35. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    5. December 2013 at 07:54

    Brian Donohue,

    I guess it all depends on what “artificial” means.

    An Austrian might say that the Fed has tightened monetary policy. As a result, 30-year interest rates have increased over the past year.

    Market Monetarists believe that Fed easing and other factors have increased expectations of future NGDP. As a result, 30-year interest rates have increased over the past year.

    Felix Salmon’s data here http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/11/22/the-government-dominated-bond-market seems to support the Austrian story over the Market Monetarist one……

  36. Gravatar of Mattias Mattias
    5. December 2013 at 08:29

    Scott,

    I think the sad truth is that pop Austrian ideas are very popular throughout Europe. See for instance (a short version of) a column in Sweden’s biggest financial paper (DI) the other day, that I translated with help from Google, written by their leading commentator on monetary policy:

    “Time to lower the inflation target!

    The Riksbank should lower its inflation target. The interest rate can not be zero only because inflation is falling all around the world.

    Critics claim that the Riksbank has abandoned the inflation target to prevent debt build-up. That is of course not the case. The Riksbank steers the economy using its inflation forecast, but must also take into account other parts of the economy.

    However, there is every reason for the Riksbank to clarify that the conditions have changed, which also raises the question whether it should redefine the numerical target of a 2 per cent inflation target, because that target is likely to have had its day.

    Inflation rates fall all over the world when millions of people are seeking gainful employment and that’s what’s driving down wages and prices.

    If GDP grows over time, it is reasonable that the interest rate is higher than zero, regardless of whether we are importing cheaper and flatter televisions. The more interest rate deviates from reality, the greater the risk that we may be pricing everything wrong, except what is included in the consumer price index.

    Today, the low interest rate leads to higher valuations of shares and property, as well as art and wine.

    The ‘masters of simple solutions’ is now pressuring Stefan Ingves to cut rates. But to combat international price falls by pouring petrol on the Swedish fire is foolish and dangerous.”

  37. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    5. December 2013 at 11:13

    Why are students in Finland relatively unhappy?

    Because they’re Finnish. Depression is their national heritage. Measures of happiness are basically useless.

  38. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    5. December 2013 at 21:56

    The PISA international test score results in one pretty picture:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/12/daily-chart-1

    So much for the Finnish miracle.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. December 2013 at 06:09

    Jim, The jump in Japanese reading scores is striking.

  40. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    6. December 2013 at 08:56

    According to the WSJ, myb6 is right:

    “Shanghai’s education system has another side that is not so praiseworthy. The children of roughly 10 million of the city’s 24 million residents are still locked out of formal secondary education. That’s because under China’s household permit system, known as hukou, Shanghai and other cities bar children whose parents moved from the countryside from attending academic high schools. For education past the age of 13, they can only attend vocational high schools that train them for blue-collar jobs.”

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304096104579239753677854722

  41. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. December 2013 at 07:23

    Vivian, Yes, that’s right.

  42. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. December 2013 at 07:24

    myb6, Sorry , I misread your earlier comment, I did not mention the hukuo problem.

  43. Gravatar of Diomides Diomides
    17. December 2013 at 00:04

    While I love the first part of the post I have a hard time believing Shanghai will be moving away from the South Korean model. While its easy for the government to come in and say it will change things, Shanghai parents are probably more “Tiger” than your average.

  44. Gravatar of iakovos iakovos
    3. February 2014 at 09:11

    The Swedish Economic Model. Why Sweden’s success has nothing to do with socialism.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/204219375/The-Swedish-Economic-Model-A-Socialist-or-a-Free-Market-Success

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