Part 5—A truly appalling passage: Are countries like Finland, Korea and Poland staging educational miracles?
Pretty much no—they are not. Consider one example from Amanda Ripley’s interesting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.
In the talented Ripley’s scam-ridden book, “the Polish miracle” (Ripley’s phrase) is said to be a miracle of improvement. But from 2003 to 2009, American students showed more improvement on the PISA’s three tests than Polish students did.
(Ripley ignores results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, two other major international tests. Results from the 2012 PISA have not yet been released.)
Next week, we’ll review Ripley’s explanation for the high test scores from Korea and Finland. In all honesty, those nations aren’t performing “miracles” either, although their test scores in reading and math frequently lead the world.
No, Virgilia! Poland, Finland and Korea aren’t producing miracles. That said, there is one true educational miracle on display in this ballyhooed book.
That miracle involves Ripley herself. We don’t mean that as a compliment.
Miraculous! As recently as 2010, Ripley was avoiding education assignments from her editors at Time. As she explains at the start of her book, she just found the topic so tedious!
But how amazing! Just three years later, Ripley is being hailed as a leading authority on the whole world’s public schools! We think that's a truly miraculous rise, and a bit of a scam on the world.
It’s clear that Ripley has done a lot of background work during this transformation. It also seems clear that her work should be regarded with a great deal of skepticism—partly due to her lack of experience, partly due to her apparent dishonesty in service to Elite Corporate Themes and the edicts of Hard Pundit Law.
Consider a part of her book which we’d be inclined to call repellent. It deals with the amazing success Finland has had with its immigrant students.
For the record, Finland doesn’t have many such students. Korea and Poland have so few immigrant kids that the PISA can’t even present any data on immigrant kids in those countries.
That isn’t the case with Finland. Finland has started permitting some immigration in recent years. The country now has enough immigrant students to generate PISA data.
Sure enough! Ripley sets out to tell the world about Finland’s astonishing work in this area. The inspiring story begins on page 158, under the eye-catching headline, “Black people in Finland.”
As she starts unspooling a scam, Ripley presents some basic data. “Kim” is an American exchange student on whom Ripley relies for anecdotes:
RIPLEY (page 158): The more time I spent in Finland, the more I appreciated the rare balance it had struck. Finland had achieved rigor [in its schools] without ruin. It was impossible not to notice something else, too: During my time in Pietarsaari, I saw exactly one black person. In Kim’s classes, everyone looked basically the same. Nationwide, only 3 percent of Finland’s students had immigrant parents (compared to 20 percent of teenagers in the United States).In the source Ripley cites, the more precise figure for Finland is 2.5 percent.
After several pages of bashing the way American schools treat “black, Hispanic and immigrant kids,” Ripley begins to introduce the paradisical Finnish experience.
“Let them come to Berlin,” John F. Kennedy said. Ripley went to Tiistila:
RIPLEY (page 161): Finland was a homogeneous place, but getting less so. The number of foreigners had increased over 600 percent since 1990, and most of the newcomers had ended up in Helsinki.At this remarkable school, Ripley encounters kids from an array of nations. Right on cue, she also encounters an inspiring sixth-grade teacher.
To find out how diversity changed the culture of rigor [in Finland’s schools], I went to the Tiistila school, just outside Helsinki, where a third of the kids were immigrants, many of them refugees. The school enrolled children aged six to thirteen. It was surrounded by concrete block apartment buildings that looked more communist than Nordic.
As Ripley’s story continues, Heikki Vuorinen gives his class an assignment, then steps into the hall to waste his time talking to Ripley. As if in accordance with Hard Pundit Law, he turns out to be a saint:
RIPLEY: Wearing a purple R-shirt, jeans, and small, rectangular glasses, Vuorinen proudly reported that he had kids from nine different countries that year, including China, Somalia, Russia and Kosovo. Many had single parents. Beyond that, he was reluctant to speculate.That was a take! As he offers his saintly remarks, Vuorinen seems to have come right out of central casting. He also seems to have walked straight out of a Standard Elite Pundit Script.
“I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much,” he said, running his hand through his thinning blond hair. Then he smiled. “There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”
Vuorinen tells Ripley that he doesn’t want to “label” his students. He doesn't want to focus on their cultural challenges or on their relative poverty.
“He seemed acutely aware of the effects that expectations could have on his teaching,” Ripley admiringly writes, reciting a familiar point right out of the Standard Playbook. At this point, she drops an ugly, unintelligent bomb.
“I’d never heard a U.S. teacher talk this way,” Ripley inexcusably says.
At this point, Ripley launches a minor attack on Diane Ravitch. In Ripley’s view, Ravitch has overstated the effects of poverty on American students. “In Finland, Vuorinen said the opposite of what Ravitch was saying in America,” Ripley rather pointedly says.
Everything is so much better when it happens in Finland!
By now, the direction of Ripley's mini-novel is unmistakably clear. And sure enough! Eight pages into this rumination, we finally get the good news. According to Ripley, those immigrant kids at the Tiistila school have been knocking it out of the park:
RIPLEY (page 165): At Vuorinen’s school, all fifth graders had been tested in math two years earlier. It was one way that the Finnish government made sure that schools were working. Unlike in the United States, the accountability tests were precision targeted; the government tested only a sample of students. It usually took just one hour.Tiistila is different from U.S. schools in almost every way!
Compared to the rest of Finland, the Tiistila kids performed above average. That was impressive: Better than average in Finland means better than average just about anywhere else.
Tiistila students were diverse and good at math. The school was inspiring. It was also different from U.S. schools in almost every way...
The public hanging continues from there as Ripley counts the ways this Finnish school is better than anything here. Averting our gaze from this journo porn, let’s discuss what she has already said.
According to Ripley, Tiistila’s fifth graders had tested above average in math two years before. Indeed, the brilliant little (one-third) immigrant school had outperformed the rest of Finland! Given Finland’s international status, this meant that the school had outperformed almost every place in the world!
From that claim, which can’t be confirmed, we are apparently supposed to infer that the immigrant kids in Vuorinen’s current sixth grade class were performing above the Finnish average in math too. No, that doesn’t make any sense. But that’s plainly the drift of the story.
(For the record, we don’t understand the apparent contradiction in the first paragraph we’ve presented. All fifth graders got tested, we’re told, even though the Finnish government tests “only a sample of students.” Whatever!)
The drift of this eight-page passage is perfectly clear. The Finns work miracles with their immigrant kids, unlike their ratty counterparts over here in the States.
Ripley is thrilled by Vuorinen’s sincerity and by his thinning blond hair. Indeed, she’s so thrilled that she forgets to provide the actual data about Finland’s immigrant kids! We refer to the data which aren’t anecdotal—the actual data which actually come from the actual PISA itself.
How well is Finland actually doing with its immigrant kids? According to results on the PISA, the truth is quite different from the impression conveyed by Ripley’s anecdote—and plainly, Ripley knows this. She cites the corresponding data for the United States, France, Germany and Australia in an earlier, scolding passage on page 160. But she never remembers to cite the data for brilliant Finland itself.
In fact, large achievement gaps exist between native-born Finnish students and Finland’s immigrant students. We don’t offer that as a criticism of Finland’s schools, and certainly not of those immigrant children, who face so many challenges. We offer that to suggest that Ripley is conning her readers again in that passage about Tiistila, which is so “inspiring” and so unlike the U.S.
If we review the actual data, how large are the achievement gaps for Finland’s immigrant students? You can see the large gap in Figure 5.6 in this PISA publication, which Ripley repeatedly cites in her endnotes. Or you can look at the relevant scores on the 2009 PISA by using the PISA Data Explorer:
Average scores in reading, 2009 PISA, Finland:In her novelized treatment of the Tiistila school, Ripley gives the impression that the brilliant school’s immigrant kids are outperforming Finland as a whole. In fact, immigrant students in Finland scored far below the nation’s average on the 2009 PISA. They also scored below the average for the 34 OECD nations as a whole.
Native-born Finnish students: 538
First-generation immigrant students: 449
Average scores in math, 2009 PISA, Finland:
Native-born Finnish students: 542
First-generation immigrant students: 479
Average scores in science, 2009 PISA, Finland:
Native-born Finnish students: 556
First-generation immigrant students: 463
We don’t mean this as a criticism of Finland’s schools. We don’t mean that as a criticism of Finland’s immigrant kids. Many of them are refugees from the world’s trouble spots. They’ve all had to adjust to a new culture and language, just like so many deserving kids are doing over here.
We mean this as a criticism of Ripley, who doesn’t seem especially honest. As we read this intriguing book, its author seems involved in a series of cons as she picks and chooses her data—as she offers novelized anecdotes which seem designed to mislead.
Much more remains to be said about Ripley’s ballyhooed book. Her book is very interesting. Unfortunately, it often seems like a well-scripted con.
It may be that Ripley is so new to education that she doesn’t understand what she’s doing. It may be that she herself has gotten conned concerning the preferred talking-points of the elite pundit world.
But that passage about the Tiistila school really is a pip. The anecdote doesn’t make any sense, and Ripley ignores the relevant data, of which she is plainly aware. She offers sweeping attacks on American teachers, attacks which are utterly brainless.
It adds up to a familiar point. Those miraculous Finns have conquered the world. All the big dopes are Over Here! Why can't we have better teachers! People more like me!
That said, Ripley’s book has produced an educational miracle. Miraculously, this book has established its inexperienced author as a leading authority on the public schools of the entire world!
Next week, we’ll be moving to a new focus in our central posts. But we plan to continue offering posts about Ripley’s remarkable book.
This book is full of passages which seem designed to mislead. That said, there are two big winners from this book—Ripley herself, and a wide array of Musty Elite Talking Points.
You get ahead by pimping these lines. Ripley proves this point.