The name that doesn’t bark: Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is simply filled with embellishments.
It also makes several basic proposals. These proposals seem to make pretty good sense, especially if you only care about our middle-class kids.
For ourselves, we’ve been fascinated by the embellishments. They start on page 2, where Ripley offers one of the most absurd misstatements in the history of books.
But so what? Reviewers, including major education writers, know they mustn’t notice such problems. As you can see in C-Span’s tape of a recent book event, elites seem to know they must crowd into line to praise Ripley’s very smart book.
As Yaakov might say, What a country!
Do you want to know more about public schools? If so, you can learn a lot by untangling Ripley’s embellishments. This week, we’ll look at the way she reported Minnesota’s success at the teaching of math.
The process involves a decision she made. We’ll call it “Ripley’s choice.”
Yesterday, we posted this passage from Ripley’s book. Minnesota is praised for rocking a major test. Can you spot the name that doesn’t bark?
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.“In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test,” Ripley writes. Then, she thrillingly tells us this: “In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.”
When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.
In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.
What was Minnesota doing that other states were not? The answer was not mystical. Minnesota had started with a relatively strong education system. Then they’d made a few pragmatic changes, the kind of common sense repairs you would make if you believed math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.
Thrilling news! In math, Minnesota rocked a major international test in 2007! But how odd! Ripley never names the international tests to which she refers in this passage, not even in her endnotes, which run 35 pages. She doesn’t even name the major international test which Minnesota is said to have “rocked”—though only on the elementary level, as you’ll note if you’re reading with care.
Here’s the rest of the story:
In each case, Ripley is referring to Minnesota’s performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (the TIMSS). In 1995 and in 2007, Minnesota participated in the TIMSS as a stand-alone entity. In those years, the TIMSS reported scores for the United States as a whole—and for the state of Minnesota, and for a few other states.
As we’ll note later this week, Ripley is stretching a bit in her statement about Minnesota and Japan. But at least before we disaggregate scores, Minnesota’s fourth graders did score quite well on that TIMSS math test in 2007. Minnesota’s eighth graders did a bit less well, but they outscored most foreign nations too.
Having said that, please note a key point:
In this passage, Ripley accepts Minnesota’s performance on the TIMSS as a marker of the state’s elite status in math. And yet, all through the rest of her book, she completely ignores the TIMSS.
Why would Ripley make such a choice? Let's start with a quick review:
Developed nations, including the United States, participate in three major international tests—the TIMSS, the PIRLS and the PISA. Presumably, all three programs are judged to be valuable. Why else would these nations take part?
And yet, Ripley builds her whole book around the PISA—and that is the testing program on which American students have scored least well in this brave new era of international testing. She completely ignores the TIMSS and the PIRLS, except in cases where the TIMSS helps her drive a preferred story line.
In the passage we’ve quoted above, Ripley refers to the TIMSS as “a major international test.” If that is true, why does she ignore the scores the United States has attained on the TIMSS?
A cynic would tell you this:
The United States has scored pretty well on the TIMSS in the last decade. Good grief! On the 2011 TIMSS, American students in both grades tested matched miraculous Finland in math!
Nine states took the grade 8 TIMSS as stand-alone entities that year. Six of those states, including Minnesota, outscored the miraculous Finns in math. A seventh state matched the Nordic nonpareils.
We’ll provide more detail tomorrow. But here’s what a cynic would tell you about Ripley’s choice:
As a general matter, reporting TIMSS scores would tend to undermine Ripley’s thesis, according to which the United States is a helpless, pitiful giant as compared to miraculous Finland. Reporting such scores would undermine that preferred adventure tale.
Ripley is hardly alone in this practice. As a general matter, “reformers” tend to disappear the TIMSS because it undermines the gloomy narrative they prefer. That’s what a cynic would tell you.
We’ll supply more detail tomorrow. For today, ponder this:
Ripley says Minnesota “rocked the world on a major international test.” The major test to which she refers is the TIMSS.
But how strange! That major test is MIA all through the rest of Ripley’s book! Decent American scores on the TIMSS go undiscussed. We only hear about scores on the PISA, which fuel a gloomier tale.
The TIMSS is cited in the case of Minnesota, which is said to have rocked it. But the name of the test isn’t even provided, not even in Ripley’s endnotes. And American scores on the TIMSS are completely ignored.
If the TIMSS is a major test, why would a writer make those choices? As worthless elites crowd their way into line, they know they mustn’t ask.
Tomorrow: Massively outscoring Finland