Raising Minnesota: Ripley’s choice!


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.

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.
“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.”

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


  1. I've been listening to Tony Danza's audiobook about his experiences as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia. Throughout he talks about turning the schools around, as if the schools were in desperate trouble. He sells his reality-TV show to administrators as a means of doing that -- though we never hear what they think about his assessment of their inadequacy. That is taken for granted. He says he was inspired by Teach for America to become a teacher, but he illustrates the problems that occur when teachers have too few classroom skills. His mentor-teacher keeps telling him to focus less on himself and more on the kids. He worries about shortchanging the kids via his stunt (in which he teaches only one class with reality-TV cameras, not a full workload), but does not see the narcissism of believing one can simply step into teaching with minimal training and be any benefit to kids, beyond serving as a "big brother" who cares about their problems. This is what people get to see of the teaching profession, more rap as poetry, fun-and-games instead of teaching. Movies about teaching and schools (Won't Back Down) never seem to understand what teachers actually do in the classroom -- how learning occurs. The casual assumption that a complete amateur like Danza would be better than the regular teachers, only works if the public has bought into a negative characterization of teachers as incompetent burnouts. I think this attitude that "anyone can do it if they care enough" is why teachers are not respected as professionals with a knowledge base and skill set. When there is nothing professional about the profession, then someone like Ripley can come around and suggest reforms that ignore what we know about specific best practices proven to enhance learning in kids with specific needs.

    1. There sure are a lot of reality shows. Young people love them because they can listen to their music, facebook chat/text message with a slew of friends, read up on the "status" updates of friends they haven't seen in a few years and maybe never will see again, eat food - what else? all while watching a reality show. "The Love Boat" was nuanced drama next to the current TV shows, I think.

      I doubt anyone takes Tony Danza being a teacher seriously. I doubt anyone takes any actor's political/public policy interests seriously. Get the bombs dropping on Darfur and make us wait for buses while they live in unimaginable luxury.

    2. "I've been listening to Tony Danza's audiobook . . ."

      And at that point, I stopped reading.

  2. Some days ago we were promised musings on a Salon essay by Thomas Frank, editor of the august (or augean?) Harper's magazine.

    Not sure that promise has been fulfilled as yet. My two main complaints about this blog are that certain topics, once commented upon adequately, become hobby horses ridden to the point of collapse. Ms. Ripley's horrific book has become only the latest example of this.

    My other frustration has to do with the frequent teasers of future commentaries that never seem to materialize. Like movie trailers, they often hold more promise than the features that actually show up, especially when the features that do show up serve only to reinforce points already nicely argued.

    Where's the take on Thomas Frank? This is shameless baiting and switching.

    1. If Somerby were being paid to write this blog or you were paying to read it, I think such a complaint would be valid. But he is not and you are not, so if he gets busy, forgets, or loses interest, it may be disappointing but not worthy of a complaint, in my opinion. Sort of like complaining about the food when you are invited to someone's home for dinner.

    2. So, the only time a commenter can criticize a blogger is when that blogger gets paid, or when the post is pay-per-view, or when you deem a post worthy of a complaint?

    3. Ah, but 2:18, suppose host begs you daily to come to dinner, the dinner always served is cold beans out of a can, your host invites you again promising something different, and once again you get the same old cold beans out of a can?

      Pretty soon, you'll find stop accepting the invitations.

    4. You visit friends for the company, not the food.

    5. Unlike you, CecilMac, I am not here to complain.

    6. I simply posed a question that you've now answered with a non sequitur, Anon218&612. Also, you mind-reading skills need work.

    7. And if your friends are lousy conversationalists who want to drone and complain and gripe on and on and one about some book they read and how the author is an idiot who doesn't know nearly as much as your host?

      You get not only a lousy can of beans, but lousy company as well.

      But you'll probably come back day after day without nary a word, while their true friends might want to put a bug in their ears about what crotchety old boors they are becoming.

    8. Bad analogy, folks.

      They aren't his friends.

      They are partisan zealot tyrants.

    9. It is a bad analogy Cecelia. Because BOB is not inviting his friends over for dinner. He is operating a blog in which he purports to be demonstrating the intellectual death of a culture while doing a commerically less successful repetition of the very acts he criticizes.

      And to engage in criticism of a constant critic is hardly tyranny.



    10. You're engaged in trolling and trying to discredit him via attacks on his character and his faculties.

      You're a troll who's trolling a fellow liberal's blog because he isn't a cut-throat partisan like you.

      You were a bad choice here too. If you guys were smart, you wouldn't have tried to counter a straight-talking sincere and analytical guy (who isn't always right) with irony, sarcasm, and personal insults.

      You'd have known that those things play better beside orthodoxy, not heterodoxy.

      But then tyrants just want their way and they want it fast.

    11. Ah, yes. Throw around the "T" words -- troll and tryranny -- then complain about "personal insults."

      Only a dedicated member of the tribe could fail to see the irony.

    12. And only trolls would argue that it's hypocrisy to point out that they are tyrannical trolls, who park themselves on a blog in order to deride the blogger.

    13. Cecelia you never refute a single thing offered in criticism of TDH. You simply throw labels at the commenter. That is not the sign of a bright person

    14. I just showed how KZ engaged in a logical fallacy and earlier disputed a false analogy of what these trolls are about.

  3. If what Somerby says about Ripley's book is true, then it is shockingly, scandalously dishonest. I wonder if she wrote it herself or paid someone to write it. Ellen

    1. If what Somerby says about Ripley's book is true, why would he use the same tactics she does?


    2. Yes, to one who fails to see the beam in his own eye while calling out the speck in others, it would be a non sequitur.

    3. Yes, that's a non-sequitur. Even if you think the blogger is a hypocrite, it does not follow that this renders he/she incapable of accurately pointing out the flaws in others.

    4. Well, when one practices those very flaws he/she denounces is others . . .

    5. Anon11:10, just following YOUR argument here you'd look for the one who had the most import and the most to gain from subterfuge.

      In the minds of the trolls here, that wouldn't be an author and acclaimed expert on the subject.

      It would be some blogger on the Internet.

      These troll-tyrants take their punches where they can.

  4. On looking at the acknowledgements, the book seems to have been a joint effort with researchers at the New America Foundation, especially Marie Lawrence, whom Ripley thanks especially and who describes her job as helping the Fellows of the foundation with their research, and staffer Rebecca Shaefer.* Curiously, the NYT gave the task of reviewing (puffing) the book to Annie Murphy Paul, a fellow-Fellow of the New America Foundation, which is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. Perhaps Rebecca Shafer helped her, too. Former managing editor of the NY Times, Bill Keller, heir to Chevron oil, enthusiastically joined in the puffery. Sounds quite incestuous. Not to say unethical, all around.

    *Previously, Shafer taught reading comprehension at a public charter school in the Washington D.C. She also participated in Teach For America as a member of the 2009 Corps, through which she taught eighth grade for two years in Prince George’s County, Maryland. -E

  5. OMB (Fool or Fraud)

    Part 1

    BOB said a few posts ago he was ignoring reader complaints that this series was going too long. He says the book is a "succession of scams" and "filled with embellishments."

    As I have noted, BOB engages in virtually every bad practice he has accused Ripley of employing in her book. He should have stopped while he was ahead. He tells his readers:

    "all through the rest of her book, she completely ignores the TIMSS."

    "She completely ignores the TIMSS and the PIRLS."

    "As a general matter, reporting TIMSS scores would tend to undermine Ripley’s thesis"

    Throughout this series BOB chides Ripley for leaving out facts. At least one of those facts was one he himself invented as we have pointed out before. What facts are omitted by BOB in this post?

    Ripley's book centers on three American high school students studying abroad in three countries selected based on previous PISA results. Why would PISA be important in the selection of the three countires but not TIMMS or PIRL? Is it, as BOB asserts, because the other tests undermine her narrative? Or is it because, as he omits to say here or anywhere else, PISA tests 15 year olds, the age group of the high school students who are able to go abroad to school and the other tests are for much younger students?

    There are other reasons that might be at work as well which BOB ignores and omits. Ripley, as everyone including BOB knows, chose three countries with better PISA tests results than the US. BOB has challenged the validity of her selection of those countries. Much of his criticism centers around PISA results from 2009. She chose to follow tose three American students in the 2010-2011 school year. The 2009 PISA results were not available until December 2010. Her selection of those countries obviously preceded that data being available, a fact which either hasn't dawned on BOB if you buy a fool theory, or he ignores and omits, if you buy a fraud theory.

    KZ (to be continued)

    1. Bob isn't talking about testing the three students who went to different countries, who are older than 15. He is talking about testing the academic performance of the countries they visited. For that, all of the tests are relevant. If Bob cannot make a case based on trends shown in the 2009 PISA, neither can Ripley, whose book and statements are appearing this year, not in 2010 or 2009.

    2. Bob criticized Ripley's reliance on PISA to the eclusion of other tests and specifically her selection of the countries using 2009 PISA data. I suggest the countries, and the students going to those countries, were selected long before the data was available. Any idiot should recognize that as a strong possibility. Any blogger wishing to spend a month criticizing a book could easily have called the publisher and checked that out. One phone call.

      As for the other tests, I have clearly demonstrated that, with the exception of Korea, which BOB barely mentions (and then does so with a racial/animal term)
      results aren't available at all until well after the main
      premise, research, field study, and probably text was concluded.


  6. OMB (Fool or Fan)

    Part 2

    Why you might still ask, has Ripley ignored, omitted, or to use a BOBism, DISAPPEARED the results of PIRLS and TIMMS. It might center on another fact BOB omits here.

    The only TIMMS data for Finland prior to Ripley completing her field study with the American student was a test of 8th graders in math in 1999. There was none from Poland. BOB cites 2011 data in this post. It was not released until December 2012. Therefore the research portion of Ripley's book was complete before any TIMMS data less than ten years old was available for either European country. There are TIMMS scores available to compare to the US in math from Korea. BOB has omitted those. They aren't pretty and wouldn't help his narrative.

    Lets move on to PIRLS, a reading test of fourth graders. Americans are spared further embarassment by Koreans. They report no PIRLS test results. Finnish fourth grade reading results were also unavailable at the time Ripley selected that nation and until after her visit. Polish fourth graders took the test in 2006, but there was no prior or subsequent PIRLS data from which to make conclusions about any trends before that nation was selected or visited by Ripley and the American exchange student.

    Why were PIRLS and TIMMS left out of Ripleys book for the most part? Was it because they didn't fit Ripley's narrative as BOB suggests a cynic would conclude? Or was it because they were both irrelevant to and unavailable for the purpose of her book about American students studying abroad?

    BOB knows his way around the NCES data base. He also knows enough about writing and publishing to know the timelines involved.
    To us that rules out the fool theory.

    Oh, and because some BOBfans seem to fit the category we have ruled out for BOB, we had best close by reiterating this point. None of this makes Ripley's book any better or worse. We haven't read it. We find books and articles based on test results or any educational research suspect because statistics are easily manipulated by anyone with an axe to grind or narrative to spin.


    1. KZ, obviously you miss the point. In Bob's mind, the publication of Amanda Ripley's book is one of the key events of 2013, if we go by no more than the number of posts he has devoted to it.

      But you got to admit, by manipulating statistics to grind his axe and spin his narrative, BOB certainly has shown how easy it is to manipulate statistics to grind his axe and spin his narrative.

    2. Somewhere in this series there was a comment with a link to an animated clip of a guy beating a dead horse.

      It is sad that BOB chose not to just reveal Ripley's book as a fraud, but to use the fraudulent techniqes he points out in his effort to debunk her work.

      Clearly based on what I can myself verify from the data and verbatim quotes, Ripley's book is badly flawed. It may have a lot more influence than Tony Danza's audio-book, but the reforms it promotes, based only on what I gleaned from reviews and BOB's posts are banal generalized restatements of common panacea.

      Thanks for your reply. Have a nice bowl of rigor each day and remember to set the bar higher!


    3. Shorter KZ:

      Bob's correct. Ripley's a fraud. I write to hear my fingers on the keyboard.

  7. In referring to the most prominent critic of corporate education "reform" Diane Ravitch, Ripley calls her "an education pundit", whom Ripley depicts as addressing a crowd of screaming teacher's union members. She omits to mention that Ravitch is a former US Assistant Secretary of Education or a noted historian and author of many books, whose essays have been published in the prestigious New York Review of Book, let alone engage with her arguments. Pretty crude. Ripley's book is not a work of journalism, it is a transparent "infomercial" (and smear job). Even more disgraceful, if possible, is the disgusting performance of Mr. Keller in all this. To think that the New York Times used to have a reputation for integrity. - E

    I notice there are some trolls here who are trying to discredit Somerby, using analogous BS. He must have rubbed someone the wrong way. But facts are stubborn things.

    1. Facts are stubborn things. Which is why you should not create them in order to charge someone with omitting them, then claim the omission is a symptom of a cultural disease. Or use the facts available after a key date to berate a Ripley or a Rice.


  8. KZ, your arguments are empty. Ripley's book is not about American students studying abroad. That is just the hook. Or in your case the bait. The book needlessly worries about the state of education in America with respect to the global community and proposes solutions that at best might help some well-off kids. This is bone simple stuff, there is no need to go off dancing with yourself over meaningless perceived inconsistencies or hypocrisy. Try to stay focused on the message and what it might do to edify or hopefully mollify your darker tendencies.

    1. You mistake me for someone who cares what Ripley's book is about. I care only that the guy pretending to be
      a child pointing out the emperor has no clothes is actually a naked old geezer sreaming the world is ending and we are all in danger of paralysis.


    2. Actually, there's no mistake "KZ" -- We all know you're just a guy who likes the sound of his own voice and the look of this own writing.