AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT BY LAW: Mandated press corps tales!


Part 1—Even pitiful Poland: It’s the most remarkable fact about our national discourse—the national discourse we consume through our upper-end “press corps.”

Here is that remarkable fact: Certain mandated standard stories are required by Hard Pundit Law. Journalists agree to repeat these tales, even where the mandated stories are factually false.

One remarkable set of mandated stories concerns the state of the public schools. Yesterday morning, Jay Mathews advanced these mandated tales in the Washington Post.

Mathews is a well-known education writer. For many years, the Washington Post company has made its money from a subsidiary, Kaplan Inc., which is a corporate player in the education industry.

We don’t mean to suggest that this fact explains why Mathews wrote what he did. Within the upper-end press corps, virtually everyone writes what Mathews wrote, even when the claims involved in the mandated story are factually wrong.

Mathews’ piece was highly visible in yesterday’s Washington Post. Indeed, it was the featured piece in the high-profile Sunday Outlook section.

Mathews was reviewing a new book by Amanda Ripley, a youngish scribe who tends to write in mandated ways about the public schools. As is required by Hard Pundit Law, Ripley’s book explains, or pretends to explain, why American kids are so dumb as compared to their peers around the world.

Early in his high-profile review, Mathews advanced some Highly Familiar Mandated Standard Press Themes:
MATHEWS (9/22/13): Ripley is a talented writer who has done wide-ranging pieces on education and other topics for Time and the Atlantic. “The Smartest Kids in the World” may not please everyone in the education-geek world I inhabit, full of people who have been arguing for decades about class size and test validity, but it has the most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.

There have been several books on education overseas. Works like “Surpassing Shanghai,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Marc S. Tucker, provide all the wonky data and arguments about what lessons we might learn from Asia and Europe. But such writing can be dull. Ripley brings the topic to life by leading us into classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea, all of which have high international test scores and give their teachers rigorous training. She follows three American students who for various reasons got a year abroad that included time in high schools.

The book starts hopefully. Ripley introduces German statistician Andreas Schleicher. He is the creator of the Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam often cited by American politicians wanting to remind us how backward our kids are. The PISA test presents itself as a way to measure the teaching of creativity and critical thinking.

Ripley visits her exchange students: Eric in Busan, Korea; Kim in Pietarsaari, Finland; and Tom in Wroclaw, Poland. She spends a lot of space on each kid’s experiences and impressions, but these do not differ much from the often-reported experiences of U.S. foreign exchange students over the past 50 years: They found foreign schools much tougher than American ones and the students more likely to take school seriously than the average American kid. She also interviews leading education officials and experts in those countries to find out how their PISA scores got so good.

The most consistent U.S. failing Ripley discovers is our way of selecting and training teachers. If we erected barriers to education careers as high as those for lawyering, we would be better off.
The phrase doesn't exactly belong to Mathews himself, but there it is. In Ripley's new book, we now exploring “how backward our kids are.”

According to Mathews, Ripley takes us into “classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea, all of which have high international test scores.” She uses the PISA—and nothing else—as her source of international data.

Behaving as a good (elite) girl should, Ripley “interviews leading education officials and experts in those countries to find out how their PISA scores got so good.” Mathews reports the highly standard conclusion: “The most consistent U.S. failing Ripley discovers is our way of selecting and training teachers.”

Is there something wrong, or perhaps just imperfect, with the way we select and train our public school teachers? We have no doubt that there is! But there is something grossly wrong with the way we select and train our writers of well-received books—with the way we select and train our elite education writers.

For today, let’s focus on that latter problem—the problem of our journalistic elite.

Mathews is a very well-known education journalist. Unlike some who expound on these themes, he is an education specialist. His work on education is granted a very high profile.

Why then would Mathews tell Post readers that Poland has “high international test scores,” when the country plainly doesn’t? In fairness, Ripley doesn’t exactly make that claim in her book.

Why in the world did Mathews?

Why did Mathews tell Post readers that humble Poland—even Poland!—has “high international test scores?” We’re not sure, but when the New York Times reviewed Ripley’s book last month, their reviewer, Annie Murphy Paul, rather plainly conveyed the same impression.

The review appeared in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review section. With the true belief of a true believer, Paul pimped Poland too:
PAUL (8/23/13): Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic and an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation (where I am also a fellow), has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests—and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year.


The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors.
We note that the well-behaved Paul is on the dole at the New America Foundation, the same script tank which keeps the well-behaved Ripley afloat. Like Ripley, Paul seems to have no academic background in public education.

Despite this fact, Paul “writes a weekly column about learning for, and also blogs about learning at,,, and”

Let's be clear—Paul admits to doing those things. That said:

According to Paul, students in Poland “handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance” on international tests. According to Paul, that much-maligned nation “has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time.”

Neither of those claims is true. In fairness, Ripley doesn’t exactly make either claim in her book. Why then did Paul leap to make these assertions, just as Mathews later did, even as she praised the “canny” practice of building a book around the anecdotal experiences of three—Count ’em, three!—American exchange students?

Can we talk? Finland and Korea actually are high-scoring nations on international tests. Those international tests include, but are not limited to, the PISA.

In our view, Ripley displays a remarkable cluelessness as she attempts to determine why Finland does so well. But in that instance, she is at least discussing a country which actually does have high test scores.

Finland and Korea are high-scoring nations. For better or worse, Poland is not.

Why then did Mathews and Paul rush to say what isn’t true? Have we told you that our public discourse tends to be novels, novels all the way down?

Tomorrow: Poland’s international test scores

Who is Annie Murphy Paul: Paul graduated from Yale in 1995, an American Studies major. For unknown reasons, she was a Senior Editor at Psychology Today by 1998.

In 2006, she got a master's degree from the Columbia Journalism School. Somewhat comically, the degree came from Columbia’s Mid-Career Master’s Program.

Horrifically, Paul “is now at work on Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, to be published by Crown in 2013.” She also believes, or is willing to say in high-profile locations, that Poland “has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings!”

Why would someone as brilliant as Paul make that inaccurate statement, right in the Sunday Book Review? We'll ponder that puzzle all week, but our society staggers under the burden of this relentless conduct.


  1. "Here is that remarkable fact: Certain mandated standard stories are required by Hard Pundit Law. Journalists agree to repeat these tales, even where the mandated stories are factually false."

    It's not their job to correct the falsehoods.
    If people don't get the truth, it's Obama's fault.

    Just ask Chuck Todd!

  2. "The phrase doesn't exactly belong to Mathews himself, but there it is. In Ripley's new book, we now exploring “how backward our kids are.” Somerby

    No, Bob. A phrase describing of how a test is used by American politicians, in a description of the founder of that test, does not mean we are exploring how backward our kids are in Ripley's book.

    But it is nice to know the fortyish woman who wrote the book is a
    "youngish scribe...who we find behaving as a young (elite) girl should."

    1. Seems to me the book is trashing teachers again, by claiming that other countries do a better job educating their kids because they start with better teacher selection. It does this on the basis of false comparisons with Poland (which does not do better than the USA) using a test the understates the accomplishments of kids compared to other international tests. Either bias or incompetence could explain why the different results on other tests are not discussed, but neither explains why Poland is touted as exceeding US performance.

      I think Ripley started with the three exchange students and built her book idea around them. That isn't exactly how research is done, just as one doesn't start with a preconceived conclusion and then select facts to support it and advance an argument. That is, however, how propaganda is written. With propaganda one must always ask -- toward what am I being led and for what purpose?

      Haven't you heard that 40 is the new 20? I would call someone that age youngish -- the phrase good girl is sarcastic and implies that she is following the rules laid down for proper behavior, which is the premise of the post -- not that a woman writing a book must be called young or a girl in order to demean her. When you do not share the political understandings of a group of people, as you clearly are out of step at this site, it is understandable that you would miss the nuances of the prose. Force-fitting Somerby into a sexist mold in order to discredit him with liberals isn't going to work here because most of the audience reads too closely to buy your garbage.

    2. Read the book, have you?

  3. The book, Likely to Succeed, which I know too well, is rubbish as any person looking at test results should understand immediately.

  4. Hope kids' reading skills are never tested using education stories for material. They'll drift off in the middle and scores will plummet.

  5. In Ripley's defense, she doesn't focus on Poland in her book because Poland has test scores higher than America's. Bob's right: it doesn't. Ripley focuses on Poland because Poland has greatly improved on PISA since the test was first administered in 2000. The US has improved, too, but not as much as Poland.

  6. Poland's reading skills are 500, exactly the same as those of the USA. It's math scores are higher though. Poland improved because it had a terrible system of early tracking, now, like Finland, all students get the same education basically for a longer time. However, contrary to the NYT article, Finland does not require tests for graduation from high school. It requires them for admission to an academically oriented university. You can count on newspaper reporters to get things wrong. It reminds me of the two parblind newspapermen from Time LIfe in Pogo. The photographer, a duck, always had his camera lens pointed at the floor. A recent BBC article on PISA also touts Poland, reporting (erroneously) that its scores surpass those of the USA. I also noticed a press release from Pearson about the Polish "miracle", which gave the impression that the rise in scores was due to financial incentives held out to the teachers (I bet that was an incentive, all right -- to cheat.) Getting back to the Times article, it also hints at this, in reporting on the Korean cram school "teacher" who makes millions of dollars. How much do you want to bet that the BBC and Times articles are partially based on press releases from Pearson, et. al. -- Ellen

    1. Actually, Anonymous @ 9:19 pm, Poland's scores are not statistically different from America's scores in any subject tested on PISA.

    2. Actually Anon @ 9:23 there is no statistical significance in any differences.

  7. Amanda Ripley is hardly an education "expert." But she seems to get that treatment. There are times when she seems lucid, for example, writing in her piece titled in "Brilliance in a Box," that "Classrooms in countries with the highest-performing students contain very little tech wizardry, generally speaking."

    In that same article, she cites an analyst for the OECD, who says that ""In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms... those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets."

    Indeed, U.S. school systems expend billions each year for iPads and iPods and computers and "data-tracking systems" that have little if any impact on student achievement. That money might have gone for school nurses, adding teaching assistants, reducing class sizes, bolstering professional development, investing in pre-K educational programs...

    But Ripley usually comes to specious conclusions about school "reform."

    She cites a goofy McKinsey report that says the U.S. must recruit more teachers from "the best and the brightest," which gets defined by McKinsey as those with high ACT and SAT scores. Apparently the McKinsey "analysts" didn't do their homework, because both the ACT and SAT predict little and measure nothing more than family income.

    McKinsey favors the same public education “reform” agenda –– charter schools, standardized testing, merit pay for teachers –– as The Washington Post and Michelle Rhee, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce...and Amanda Ripley.

    As Bob Somerby notes, Ripley relies exclusively on PISA scores. PISA tests 15-year-olds.  There is argument about what PISA really
    measures.  There are criticisms of its methodology. Stefan Hopmann andGertrude Brinek of the University of Vienna observe that much of PISA’s methodology remains secret and they “question if some basic elements of PISA are done well enough to carry the weight of, e.g., comparative league tables or of in-depth analyses of weaknesses of educational systems.”

    What does seem clear is that PISA seems to assess poverty and other
    socioeconomic factors that influence education.  According to UNICEF, theU.S. has a child poverty rate of more than 22 percent, much higher (in some cases more than double) than the rate in other developed nations.


    Ripley has glorifies “accountability” measures that are more likely to undermine public education than to nurture and improve it.  Finland abandoned high-stakes testing decades ago and it’s the top-ranking nation on most international assessments. Moreover, in Finland the citizenship purpose of public schooling is taken seriously. In Finland, the goal of education reform is equity, with all of the attendant policy programs aligned. Education is seen “as an instrument to even out social inequality.” That is simply not the case in the U.S.

    Maybe that’s the real revolution waiting to happen in American public education.

    P.S. Jay Mathews may be a nice man, but when it comes to truthful education reporting, he's a twit.

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