What I’ve been reading

by on March 5, 2008 at 3:37 pm in Books | Permalink

1. Predictocracy: Market Mechanisms for Public and Private Decision-Making, by Michael Abramowicz.  A good compilation of current knowledge on prediction markets; he also argues for letting prediction markets determine many social decisions.  Here is his debate with Robin Hanson on the same.

2. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, by Robin Wright.  An intelligent and experienced book on current trends in the Middle East and why we should be optimistic that pluralism will triumph.  Here is one good review.

3. "What makes Finnish kids so smart?"

4. Superior, Nebraska: The Common Sense Values of America’s Heartland, by Denis Boyles.  Contra "What’s the Matter with Kansas?", Boyle argues that the Midwestern values of individual responsibility are wise and sophisticated and that the Republican Party embodies much of this wisdom.  The author lives…in France.  By the way, here are maps for per capita Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

5. Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality.  This seems to be less popular than Synthetic Worlds but in terms of social science I think it is better and deeper; recommended.  Here is a Russ Roberts podcast with Castronova.

1 Andrew March 5, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Having lived literally one village over from Superior, Nebraska, and having lived in many other parts of the US, I would assert that the author misattributes the characteristics she lauds. I find the mountain West to be culturally much closer (from an American perspective) to those attributes. The culture in south-central Nebraska is not the worst of the many I have lived in, but there are enough negative attributes that I would not exactly praise it either.

2 Robert S. Porter March 5, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Just for Andrew’s sake, Denis Boyles is a he.

3 David Shor March 5, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Incase anyone was wondering about Colorado, Starbucks per capita is skewed by Tourism.

Median starbucks coffe consumption per person would be more interesting

4 Varangy March 5, 2008 at 8:01 pm

I read the Finnish kids article the other day — a classic case of burying the lede.

Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don’t speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.

Comparing these Finnish high school kids, for that matter, most European high school kids, to the US high schooler is utter nonsense. These kids have already been selected for! The less scholastically inclined have been weeded out. This system is common all over Europe. Essentially, if your parents don’t push you hard in grammar/middle school or you don’t especially like school —- you’re gonna be a plumber. While there are clear efficiencies with such a scheme, I don’t think most Americans, due their innate egalitarianism, would support determining a child’s professional fate at such a young age, even if it meant that the smart/motivated kids would be unshackled academically.

If the States were to implement such a program, you would see huge numbers of Hispanic and African-American minorities forced (!) into technical schools, with whites and Asians making up all of this type of high school.

Efficiency versus predetermined fate.

5 Varangy March 5, 2008 at 10:46 pm


Yep. Saw it. What it indicates is that Finnish middle schools are, indeed, very good, but I still stand by my comments regarding comparing US high-schools with Finnish.

6 Joshua Holmes March 5, 2008 at 11:45 pm

All of the Finns I’ve met are incredible polyglots. One of them speaks 10 languages, and I don’t mean “struggles with it”. I mean he can sit down with a French, Spanish, Italian, English, Russian, Swedish, or German newspaper. One of the others I know speaks 8 or so, and the rest speak 5-6.

Granted, they’re smarter than the average Finn, but if they can be believed, they don’t know any Finns who don’t speak at least Finnish, English, and another language (usually Swedish or German).

7 Neal Hamilton March 6, 2008 at 2:19 am

My question: do these education surveys contain a consideration for socioeconomic disparities?

8 mpkomara March 6, 2008 at 3:36 am

I was shocked to hear the US dropout rate was 25%. The WSJ cited this statistic came from the U.S. Department of Education? Can anyone find this stat? I can’t.

9 AQ March 6, 2008 at 4:15 am

What I’ve been reading: the writing on the wall.

10 JBJ March 6, 2008 at 9:09 am

The Finnish system sounds exactely like other scandinavian systems based on this tale. However Danish, Swedish and Norwegian students don’t come near Finish students in mathematics. The only difference from what I can tell is that the “status” of the teacher-occupation seems higher in Finland, hence Finish students are taught by more talented teachers.

11 Tracy W March 7, 2008 at 7:17 am

Varangy, please read the bit you quoted from the article:
(All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.)

Some kids are sent to traditional high schools, some are sent to vocational high schools. *All* of them took the test, both the ones who went to high schools and the ones who went to vocational schools. The less-scholastically-inclined have not been weeded out of the PISA tests where the Finns perform way better on average than American students.

I am not defending the practice of sending kids to different high schools for their last three years of schooling. I suspect a 15-year-old’s results on the PISA test is highly affected by what happened over the last 15 years in their life, not by the Finnish habit of splitting schools. But the idea that Finish high schoolers do better than Americans because the Europeans only test the good students is just plain wrong.

12 Kaj Sotala March 11, 2008 at 10:51 am

Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school.

This is actually incorrect. Students are not separated based on the grades: students choose whether they’d prefer a vocational school or an academic school. It is true that high schools tend, on average, to have stricter grade requirements for entry than the vocational ones, but this is mostly just because high school is currently more popular than vocational.

Also, the system is a lot more free than it’s been made to sound like: you can finish vocational school and then go to high school (or vice versa) if you feel like it and can get in, or you can drop out of either school after a year and apply to the other one, or re-take the last grade of elementary school so that you get better grades to apply with, or complete high school as an adult in specific adult high schools, and so on. Also, you can get to university even with a vocational school background, though high school students are certainly favored: though they’re less favored in the polytechnics, which are thought to be higher education extensions of vocational school. (Polytechnics get a lot more applicants from high school than universities get from vocational schools, I believe.)


However, I would like to know what happens to upper end of the distribution.

They don’t reach their full potential, at least not in elementary school. It gets better in high school and the problem becomes eliminated in university, but elementary school – proceeding at a pace that isn’t too fast for anyone – tends to be too slow for the fast learners. As good as the Finnish system is, it would be even better if there’d be enough resources to split the brighter kids to their own classes.

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