Part 3—“A gulf of more than ninety points:” In her interesting book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley proposes two reforms for American schools.
On the surface, each reform makes perfect sense. In many parts of our complex society, her reforms likely would make good sense.
What are Ripley’s proposed reforms? First, Ripley thinks we’d have better schools if we had better teachers—if our teachers had stronger academic backgrounds and more extensive university training.
Also this: Ripley thinks our schools should display more academic “rigor.” She thinks we should demand more of our students, for example in the study of high school math.
In many parts of our complex society, those suggestions may well make perfect sense. Ripley is plainly a tribune of our elites, but she is a centrist tribune. As a tribune of establishment thinking, she writes from the center of the world of standard “education reform,” not from the corporatist right.
In many of our public schools, “smarter” teachers and increased academic “rigor” might make very good sense! But then, there are all those other kids—the invisible children people like Ripley rarely seem to know much about.
Ralph Ellison was an “invisible man.” To approach the children who are largely invisible in Ripley’s book, let’s start with her silly portrait of Andreas the Giant.
We refer of course to Andreas Schleicher, the German education researcher who invented the PISA, the important international testing program for which Ripley plays the role of cheerleader in her book. Right from the start of Smartest Kids, Ripley buys the idea that the PISA is “a smarter test,” a test of “the kind of advanced thinking and communication skills that people need to thrive in the modern world.”
Because the PISA is “smarter,” Ripley chooses to ignore results from the PIRLS and the TIMSS, the other two major international testing programs—programs on which American students have scored better than on the PISA.
(On the 2011 TIMSS, American students matched the miraculous Finns in math in both grades tested, grade 4 and grade 8. In a 230-page book, Ripley can’t find time to report this fact.)
Whatever! Ripley starts her Chapter 1 with a silly portrait in which she explains how Schleicher became so prominent in the field of testing. Writing as if for 9-year-olds, she describes the way the youthful Schleicher, “his pale blue eyes focused and intense,” sat in on an education class as a college student in Germany.
By the end of that class, the professor “could tell that there was something different about this rail-thin young man who spoke in a voice just above a whisper.” In this ridiculous, mystical way, Schleicher’s career begins.
This is silly, novelized writing, of a type which is often directed at children, for whom it is age appropriate. It also signals an obvious point—everything Schleicher says later on will be assumed to be accurate.
It won’t be enough to say that Schleicher has devised an important set of international tests. His tests have to be better than all the others—so much better that the other tests don’t even have to be named!
In such passages, Ripley is virtually inventing a new literary form, a claim we’ll discuss on a later date. For today, let’s examine what happens in 2001, when the man whose pale blue eyes were so focused releases the first set of scores from his smarter invention, the PISA.
Those first PISA scores were released in December of that year, in a press event at “the Chateau de la Muette, the grand Rothschild mansion that served as [OECD] headquarters in Paris.” (For the record, that’s Paris, France.) When small little Finland is named as the top scoring nation, Ripley’s grants herself novelistic omniscience as she describes what happened right there in the room.
Miraculously, Ripley knows who “whispered” what to whom when Finland was named the top dog. This is purely novelistic. There’s no way Ripley can know the things she folds into her Boy’s Life-style story-telling.
Whatever! Eventually, Ripley starts describing how people reacted over here in the States. First, she describes the way U.S. kids had performed on these first PISA tests:
RIPLEY (page 17): Across the ocean, the United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance that would be repeated in every subsequent round [of PISA testing]. U.S. teenagers did better in reading but that was only comforting, since math skills tended to be better predictors of future earnings.As written, that second paragraph is fuzzy. Readers won’t able to explain precisely what it means. But Ripley has begun to hit a key point—American society is much more stratified than is the case in miraculous Finland or hamster-wheel Korea. As compared to those high-scoring PISA nations, much larger academic gaps separate various groups of students here in the U.S.
Even in reading, a gulf of more than ninety points separated America’s most-advantaged kids from the least-advantaged peers. By comparison, only thirty-three points separated Korea’s most-privileged and least-privileged students, and almost all of them scored higher than their American counterparts.
American students produced middling scores on those first PISA tests. As she continues, Ripley describes the reaction in the U.S. As she does, she starts disappearing large groups of American kids.
Millions of children are becoming invisible in this anodyne passage. Note the heroism of Schleicher, our focused and intense hero:
RIPLEY (continuing directly): U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige lamented the results. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” he said. He vowed (wrongly, as it would turn out) that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s new accountability-based reform law, would improve America’s standing.According to Ripley, some Americans “defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results.” Ripley never says, in her text or her endnotes, who those Americans were. But true to her novelized drama, Andreas the Giant responds to those hackish Americans “in his meticulous way.”
Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results. In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.
Meticulously, Schleicher presented the data. No doubt his pale blue eyes were focused and intense as he did this. (Do you see how novels work?)
As Schleicher responds to those unnamed Americans, Ripley is working a sleight of hand. In the process, she is disappearing a large swath of American children. Beyond that, there is a second problem:
Worldwide, does the share of immigrant children “explain only 3 percent of the variance between countries?” That’s an unfortunate con job too, for reasons we’ll note tomorrow.
For now, let’s get back to the first sleight of hand in that slippery passage. As we do, let’s think about those invisible children:
Question: Does the diversity of America’s student population only derive from its immigrant children? Aren’t there other large groups of students who help define our “diversity?”
Ripley never says which Americans, if any, actually “defended their system” in the manner she describes. But there was a different group of kids who lowered America’s average scores on those first PISA tests. Ripley sweeps those children away in that slippery passage.
As a group, these children scored well below other parts of the American student population on those first PISA tests. Remember the way American students displayed an unusually large achievement gap on that first PISA reading test? That “gulf of more than ninety points” which Ripley cites on page 17?
In fact, at least two large groups of American kids scored well below other parts of the student population on those first PISA tests. And uh-oh!
The two reforms which Ripley promotes may work well in many parts of our land. But it isn’t clear that those reforms would address the needs of these disappeared and deserving American kids, the children who are largely invisible in this upper-class book.
Tomorrow: Concerning those first PISA test scores
Discourse on method: Doggone it!
Thanks to the government shutdown, the truly fabulous PISA Data Explorer is still out of commission at the NCES. (On the bright side, none of our “education reporters” will be inconvenienced by this!) Despite that fact, we hope to be able to dissect those first PISA scores tomorrow, courtesy of a top-secret, back-channel source.
If not, we have substitute data which will establish our point. Who are Ripley’s invisible children, the children the scribe disappears?