Reader’s comment: By which yardstick should we measure education?

One of the more critical readers of this blog emailed me in response to my piece comparing education in Finland to that in Israel. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I’ll leave him anonymous. He wrote:

Ahem. Let’s try to find a few yardsticks to measure things here. The number of startups here and the number of startups in Finland. The number of unique books published by unique authors. The number of artists. The number of orchestras or dance groups…..The number of Nobel laureates (we have more than China, as well).

You can say what you want about how the edu system doesn’t work – on paper – but by any measure, we have the results to prove otherwise.

Thanks for the response, unnamed reader. I think we’re talking about different things. There is an accepted, international test (by the OECD) for ranking academic achievement of high-school students; on this, Finland scores extremely high and Israel is in the middle of the pack (and dropping.) Your point, if I understand correctly, is essentially who cares? If our kids are all Nobel laureates and start-up millionaires, what difference does it make?

It’s a valid point and I can’t respond to it comprehensively right now. It goes into all sorts of  issues that I need to consider more. Here are some unstructured thoughts.

I have no knowledge about cultural life in Finland (which, by the way, has a smaller population than Israel); therefore, I have no way of knowing whether it is more or less vibrant than the cultural life in Israel. Is culture a reflection of education? If so, does it reflect an equal and democratic education system? I suspect that the Israeli culture you talk about is the product of a thin slice of the population whose parents can afford to send them to music lessons etc. I’m pretty sure that the great bulk of Israelis don’t go to the theater, don’t go to concerts and don’t read books. What does that say about the education they receive?

My impression is that the startup scene is pretty dynamic in Finland, though I don’t have any hard numbers to back that up. But, once again, are startups indicative of a good education? Do you have to be well-educated to launch a startup? And what if most of them eventually fail (as they do)? Is a failed startup indicative of a bad education?

I would say that startups are the product of a national mentality – something that has a lot more to do with history and sociology than it does with education. In other words, it has a lot more to do with the type of people we are than with the kind of education we received. Einstein never launched startup. On the other hand,I can name a few start-uppers I know who I’m pretty sure never read a book unless is was forced on them as part of their so-called education.

It would be interesting to compare academic rankings with a chart of “startup nations”. If anything, the result is likely to be inversely proportional. The US is certainly startup nation #1, but its high school academic ranking is middling (15th on the OECD chart in December 2010). I doubt if either startupism or culture has much to do with good, democratic education (I’ll get to the democratic in a minute.)

The top-ranking countries as regards academic achievements are Finland, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. They are all reasonably wealthy countries – i.e. they rank in the top 25 or so when sorted by per capita GDP. So it’s tempting to think that education is primarily a question of national wealth.

The ability to pay for education is clearly an important factor, but there are also some striking anomalies. Qatar, for example, is #2 on the IMF’s list of  high per capita GDP countries, but it is fifth from the bottom in the educational achievement stakes. Clearly, education is less important than having lots of gooey black stuff in the ground when it comes to national wealth.

So,  what is the importance of educational achievement? The conventional wisdom seems to be that it is an indicator of the strength – or potential strength, given that children are not significant economic contributors – of a country’s “knowledge economy”; the part of the economy that utilizes information to produce benefits. The theory is that, as knowledge economies grow and achieve centrality, well-educated countries will prosper.

What strikes me as important about the academic achievement rankings is that they are nation-wide; the scores from kids studying at good, well-funded schools are weighed down by those from kids who are less advantaged. Therefore, the rankings can also be interpreted as reflecting social gaps. The countries that rank highest (Finland, South Korea, New Zealand etc.) are all relatively egalitarian societies with low income inequality (in this case, low is good.)

Sweden has the lowest rate of unequal income distribution (known as the Gini Index), with Finland a few places above it. The countries with the highest income distribution disparities are Namibia and South Africa. The US ranks at 42 and Israel at 66. Of course, having a low rate of inequality doesn’t help much if there is nothing to distribute; some of the countries ranking near the top with Sweden are among the world’s poorest.

But I think it’s safe to say that a good education is, among other things, a democratic one; that the more egalitarian a country, the better it is able to educate all its children – provided it has the resources to do so and an environment that values unrestricted knowledge.

The countries with high education rankings are democratic and secular. They all have elected parliaments and there is no overt religious participation or influence in the governments of Finland, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand etc. (Yes, the Japanese politicians go pray at their Shinto shrines every now and again, but that’s only to piss off the Chinese.) Knowledge, as opposed to learning by rote, needs good soil and lots of healthy nourishment. Ex-generals and priests are good at instilling fear (of the enemy; of God), but they make lousy educators.

3 replies on “Reader’s comment: By which yardstick should we measure education?”

“Startup Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer makes for interesting reading.

The book attempts to explain why Israel has been so successful vis a vis start ups. The main reason, they believe, is the experience Israeli kids have in the military. Two of the reasons cited are:

1. that kids are given a huge amount of responsibility while in the military – totally disproportionate with their age

2. many kids serve in military intelligence where they get computer, other “science” and analytical training. Again, they are given more responsibility than kids in other countries.

Vis a vis schooling, of course its terrible – the damn kids are even taught to write backwards. Talk about encouraging dyslexia.

Your comments about education and culture resonate strongly in South Africa. One thing the previous regime did right (for the whites at any rate) was to bring culture (Theatre, Music, Ballet) right into the schools. I remember PACT drama, ballet, orchestra, coming to schools at least once a year. The result was that they built audiences who attended the arts when they left school. Nowadays, “culture” is largely ignored in schools, in favour of sport, which has huge development subsidies and grants – as it should have, but some of it should find its way to the arts as well. Performing arts are now very badly attended, with the exception of music compilation shows featuring strings of “golden oldies”

ja but who’d wanna be a Finn, anyway? (2) what’s yr reader’s starry-eyed nonsense about zahal? …these diaspora yidden – they should be put through basic training instead of living in the lands of the golden calf

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