Part 4—Big star hides the facts: In the aggregate, American kids didn't rock the world on the 2012 PISA.
In the aggregate, American students scored less well than their peers from many comparable nations. That was especially true on the PISA math test.
Perhaps for these reasons, you tend to hear more about the PISA's math test than about its reading and science tests. Perhaps for similar reasons, you rarely hear about results from the 2011 TIMSS at all.
(On the TIMSS and the PIRLS, American students scored much better as compared to the rest of the world.)
In the aggregate, substantial gaps obtained on the PISA between American students and their peers from some comparable countries. As we noted yesterday, the picture may look different, even on the PISA, if we "disaggregate" American scores.
Here's how the PISA reading test suddenly looks, at least in part, if we "disaggregate" American scores. At least one international gap starts to shrink. As it does, our nation's educational challenges may start to become more clear.
We're including the major developed nations, plus Finland and its Nordic neighbors. For a full list of scores, click here:
Average scores, Reading literacy, 2012 PISANote: According to an endnote in Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World, 39 points on the PISA scale "is considered the equivalent of one year of formal schooling." Now, back to those reading scores, where disaggregation of U.S. scores can teach some painful lessons.
South Korea: 536
United States, white students: 519
United Kingdom: 499
Even on the PISA, white students in the U.S. don't seem to show up as an international embarrassment. Meanwhile, on the 2011 TIMSS, white students in the U.S. tended to outscore even miraculous Finland.
This helps us remember some basic facts about our educational challenges.
Presumably, our schools could do a much better job educating all our kids. It's also true than many black and Hispanic kids are doing wonderfully well in American schools.
On average, though, our educational challenges are most acute among our black and Hispanic kids. Black kids hail from a segment of the population which was targeted by centuries of brutal attempts to eliminate literacy altogether. Meanwhile, the average score of Hispanic kids is affected by certain immigration policies and practices, along with traditional racial practices.
The average scores of those two groups is also disproportionately affected by low income and poverty. We note these facts for a reason:
For the past dozen years, our journalists and opinion leaders have been flying off for a week in Finland, seeking the answers to our educational challenges in that miraculous land. There has always been an obvious problem with this ridiculous practice.
For starters, very few kids in Finland are affected by poverty. Beyond that, Finland has very few immigrant kids. Also, to their substantial credit, the Finns didn't spend centuries trying to eliminate the culture of literacy from one population group. Finland is saner than we are.
For all these reasons, it has always been rather silly to spend that enjoyable week in Finland looking for ways to address our American educational challenges. You might as well spend a week asking how Hawaii keeps its roads free from snow in the winter.
Demographically, Finland is very different from the United States! Today, let's examine one aspect of that difference—the role played by immigrant kids in the two nations' schools.
As we do, let's examine the lengths to which our opinion leaders will go to deceive the American public in service to standard elite narratives concerning "education reform." This returns us to Amanda Ripley's highly readable, widely-praised book from 2013, The Smartest Kids in the World.
Ripley took the standard trip to the Finland Station. She also traveled to educational super-power South Korea and to Poland, where she said a "Polish miracle" had occurred.
In Chapter 8 of her book, Ripley praised the incredible way Finland educates its immigrant kids. Based on a visit to one Finnish school ("the Tiistila school, just outside Helsinki"), she drew a series of invidious comparisons with the way American schools allegedly behave with their immigrant kids.
According to Ripley, thirty percent of the Tiistila school's 300 kids were "immigrant children" whose families were "poor." Her visit to this school seems to be the only source for the way she fawns about Finland's alleged success with its immigrant students.
Ripley devoted eleven pages to the topic of immigrant kids in Finland. For a good chunk of that time, she let a pair of educators from the Tiistila school praise their own educational greatness at interminable length. In the process, she created the clear impression that the Tiistila school, and Finland's schools in general, were performing brilliantly with their immigrant kids.
(Page 165: "Compared to the rest of Finland, the Tiistila kids performed above average. That was impressive. Better than average in Finland meant better than average just about anywhere else." In such passages, Ripley creates the impression that even the immigrant kids in Finland are outscoring the rest of the world.)
Assuming even minimal competence, Ripley seems to have performed a scam in this part of her book. On the brighter side, this let her denigrate American schools and teachers, thereby advancing mandated scripts about aspects of "education reform."
Ripley's discussion of immigration starts in promising fashion. In this introductory passage, she cites some basic facts, then asks an important question:
RIPLEY (page 158): The more time I spent in Finland, the more I appreciated the rare balance it had struck. Finland had achieved rigor without ruin. It was impossible not to notice something else, too: During my time in [Finland], 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 an endote, Ripley cites a specific OECD document in support of those accurate statistical claims. (Click here, scroll to Table A5.2.) As you can see from that chart, Finland had one of the lowest percentage of "students with immigrant parents" in Europe. (The precise percentage was 2.6%.) Essentially, Poland and South Korea had no immigrant kids at all.
In fact, Finland, Korea and Poland were all homogeneous places with few immigrants or racial minorities. Japan and Shanghai, China, two other education superpowers, were similarly bland. Maybe homogeneity was a prerequisite for rigor at scale. Did sameness beget harmony, which somehow boosted learning? If so, was Finland irrelevant to a big, jangling place like the United States?
Meanwhile, the percentage of immigrant kids in American schools dwarfed the percentage in Finland. On this basis, Ripley asked a very good question:
Given this type of demographic difference, "is Finland irrelevant to a big, jangling place like the United States?"
That's an extremely good question! That said, two important points should be stated concerning immigrant kids.
First, many immigrant kids are doing wonderfully well in American schools. On average, our immigrant kids score less well on academic tests than our non-immigrant kids. But as with black and Hispanic kids, many of our immigrant kids are doing very well in school.
Here's a second point: not all groups of immigrant kids are created educationally equal. Depending on their social class and their cultural background, some groups of immigrant kids may outperform the non-immigrant kids in the countries where they live.
In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, immigrant kids tend to outscore their non-immigrant peers on the PISA. In all likelihood, that's because the bulk of immigration to those countries comes from Asian countries with potent education cultures. This performance may also reflect the class background of the immigrant populations in those countries.
Ripley is aware of this basic dynamic. That is clear in the following passage, in which, assuming minimal competence, Ripley stages one of the great intellectual scams:
RIPLEY (page 159-160): Nothing was simple. Diversity could raise or lower test scores, and it did...Ripley spends the next nine pages suggesting that Finland did wonderful things with its immigrant kids. The Tiitsila Two go on and on discussing their own moral and educational greatness. Meanwhile, Ripley gives the plain impression that Finland's immigrant kids are rocking the world on their academic tests.
Overall, the gap between PISA reading scores for native and immigrant students in the United States was 22 points—better than Germany or France, where the gap was 60 points, but not as impressive as Canada, where the gap was zero. Much depended on the education and income of the immigrant parents, which had a lot to do with the history and immigration policies of a given country.
The rest depended on what the countries did with the children they had...
She offers several ugly anecdotal putdowns of our "indoctrinated" American teachers. It's anecdote and propaganda pretty much all the way down.
According to Ripley, Finland is doing great things with its immigrant kids because teachers like the Tiistila Two pay no attention to concerns about issues like poverty. According to Ripley's presentation, they maintain "high expectations" for their immigrant kids in the way our hapless American teachers do not.
They don't accept any excuses, the way our stumblebums do. As she gushes about Finland's approach to its immigrant kids, Ripley touches some very familiar bases. She cites the points that will tend to keep a journalist well funded, given current funding regimes in the realm of public education.
Ripley gushes about Finland's greatness, denigrates our own teachers and schools. Below, you'll see two pieces of data she forgot to mention as she staged this apparent scam.
These data come from the source Ripley cites with respect to the passage we've just posted. (Once again, she cites that same Table A5.2. Click here, then scroll down.)
In that passage, Ripley seems to scold the United States for its 22-point achievement gap between immigrant and non-immigrant kids. But how strange! She forgot to say that Finland's corresponding achievement gap was more than three times as large:
Achievement gap, immigrant versus non-immigrant kidsHow weird! In the passage we've just cited, Ripley scolds the United States for that 22-point gap. She forgets to say that the corresponding gap in miraculous Finland is a walloping 70 points!
Reading literacy, 2012 PISA
United States: 22 points
Finland: 70 points
Source: Table A5.2
By the way—Tiitsila's self-proclaimed greatness to the side, how well did Finland's immigrant kids actually score on that PISA reading test, as compared to America's immigrant kids? Here again, we're using the very table Ripley cites in her endnote:
Average scores, Reading literacy, 2012 PISAAmerican immigrant kids outperformed their peers in Finland on the very test Ripley cited! From page 158 through page 168, Ripley works very hard to convey the opposite impression. We're not sure we've ever seen an apparent scam this large in a high-profile book of this type.
Immigrant students only
United States: 484
Source: Table A5.2
For the record, those comparative scores don't necessarily mean that American schools "did a better job" with their immigrant kids. It all depends on the background of the immigrant kids in question. One group of such kids may present a greater set of challenges, based (for example) on their culture of origin and the status of language issues.
Who knows? Finland's immigrant kids may have presented a special set of challenges. But Ripley plainly implies that Finland's immigrant kids were outscoring the world on academic tests. That claim is blatantly wrong. Her sneering about American teachers seems especially vile in the face of her two pieces of disappeared data. A cynic might say that these are the things our journalists do to stay on the good side of grants.
Here in the United States, our large numbers of immigrant kids do present educational challenges. But so does the type of outright dissembling featured in this part of Ripley's book.
Next week, we'll finish our ongoing five-week series with a final set of reports, Where the Challenges Are. For now, we'l only say this:
Some of our educational challenges exist in our classrooms, even in our homes. But other challenges exist in the wider world, where thumbs are routinely placed on the scale to advance gloomy, destructive, mandated claims about our embarrassing schools. (Donald J. Trump loves to repeat these destructive, mandated claims.)
Ripley's passage on immigrant kids is one of the worst we've ever seen. But as we'll note next week, she played similar games elsewhere in her book—in a book which was widely discussed and widely praised.
Alas! Perhaps because of the endless chase for foundation money supporting certain types of "education reform," these practices are quite persistent when our journalists pretend to tell us Where the Test Scores Are.
Next week: Where the Challenges Are