Getting Ripped: There’s more where that came from!


On to Minnesota: In her ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley tells a thrilling story about miraculous Finland.

Admittedly, the story’s exciting. It just doesn’t seem to be true.

In terms of international test scores, has Finland “rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath?”

“Until fairly recently,” was Finland “a largely illiterate nation?” Based on “historical test results,” did “change...come within a single generation?”

In all cases, the answer seems to be no. For background, see yesterday’s post.

As we’ve told you, Ripley has written an interesting book. It makes some suggestions which seem quite sensible, at least for most American middle-class students.

(Ripley almost completely ignores the problems and needs of our many kids who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.)

That said, Ripley’s book is larded with claims and suggestions which simply don’t seem to be true. Here are a few examples we’ve already discussed:

Finland’s miraculous rise: Ripley’s portrait of Finland’s miraculous rise just doesn’t seem to be true. More specifically, it doesn’t seem that Finland was ever a low-scoring nation at all, let alone a nation at “the bottom of the world.”

Finland’s success with its immigrant kids: In one thrilling passage, Ripley rather plainly suggests that Finland is working miracles with its immigrant kids. That just doesn’t seem to be true.

Poland’s dramatic ascent: In another passage, Ripley notes the progress Poland recorded on the PISA reading test from 2000 to 2006. In her book, Ripley hypes “the metamorphosis model of Poland, a country on the ascent, with about as much child poverty as the United States, but recent and dramatic gains in what kids knew.”

That’s the story Ripley is telling in the following passage. This presentation is exciting, but it’s absurdly misleading:
RIPLEY (page 127): Like the United States, Poland was a big country whose people distrusted the centralized government. Yet something remarkable had happened in Poland. From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish 15-year-olds shot up by 29 points on the PISA exam. It was as if Polish kids had somehow packed almost three-fourths of a school year of extra learning into their brains. In less than a decade, they had gone from below average for the developed world to above. Over the same period, U.S. scores had remained flat.
“Something remarkable had happened in Poland,” Ripley says in this passage. She then reports a 29-point gain in Poland's reading score on the PISA from 2000 to 2006.

She doesn’t report what happened next. On the 2009 PISA, Poland’s reading score dropped by eight points. She gives you the most exciting story. She omits the most recent facts.

She also omitted this fact: From 2003 through 2009, American scores on the PISA’s three tests rose by a larger amount than scores from Poland did. Compare that fact with the passage shown above.

Ripley tells quite a few stories which don’t seem to be true. These stories are often basic to the narrative thrust of the book.

And then, there’s the most ridiculous part of the book—its focus on only one of the three international tests in which the world’s nations take part.

The world’s developed nations take part in three sets of international tests—the PISA, the TIMSS and the PIRLS. Ripley discusses only the PISA, the test on which American students have scored least well.

Ripley discusses only the PISA. Except when it serves her ideological and narrative interests, as when she boasts about Minnesota’s world-class performance in math.

Tomorrow, we’ll review what Ripley says about Minnesota. We’ll also look at some of what she leaves out.

Ripley has written an interesting, elite-sponsored book. It’s too bad it isn’t most true.


  1. It's worth noting that her emphasis on the PISA test is very troubling for many reasons ( One thing worth noting is that Finnish college math teachers don't think their students are prepared for college math (not enough formalism I think).

  2. The "talented" and oh-so-privileged Amanda Ripley is a charlatan – a poser – of the first order. She call herself (cough) an "expert" in matters of education. She passes herself off (wink) as an "investigative journalist." She's not. But many in the mainstream press fall for the masquerade.

    While Ripley peddles corporate-style "reform" to the American media and public, three things ought be remembered.

    1. The "talented" Ms. Ripley attended a high school that was very private, and very expensive, and might easily have been mistaken for a swank country club. Her formative years were, to say the least, cushy.

    2. Ripley argues that Common Core standards ("rigor) and better teachers (and merit pay) are necessary to ensure American "economic competitiveness" in the global economy. This is the very same nonsensical snake oil being promoted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

    3. There's simply no evidence to back up what Ripley (or the Cmaber, or the roundtable) says.

    Meanwhile, as The Post reports today, "A majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades...Children from low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states." Then there are all those students in inner-city schools.

    The Post continues: "In a large swath of the country, classrooms are filling with children who begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers, who lack the support at home to succeed and who are more than likely to drop out of school or never attend college."

    To hucksters like Ripley, the answer is to toughen up and make the schools "do better."

    However, to those who know better, who aren't out pushing sales of a new book on the "Smartest Kids," the pernicious effects of poverty are well understood. For example, Michael Rebell at Columbia notes that the spike in poverty has dragged down international test scores, including the one (PISA) that Ripley uses to try and make her case (but she does a very poor job of it).

    Richard Rothstein, at U-Cal Berkeley, says that "reform" efforts that emphasize more testing, "rigor," and increased "accountability" for teachers (pretty much the "reform" advocated by Ripley) have been a failure.

    But my-oh-my, the "talented" privileged Ripley says nary a word about that. She parrots the delusional rants of Eric Hanushek, who thinks that higher taxes on economic plunderers –  the big bankers and hedge-funders – impair economic growth.

    The U.S. already is economically competitive, typically in the top five as ranked by the World Economic Forum. When the U.S. drops in the rankings the WEF cites things like weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, suspect corporate ethics,) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street’s financial implosion), unsustainable levels of debt, a “business community” and business leaders who are “critical toward public and private institutions,” a lack of trust in politicians and a political process that lacks transparency, and “a lack of macroeconomic stability” caused by decades of fiscal deficits and debt that “are likely to weigh heavily on the country’s future growth.”

    But according to Ripley, the schools have to fix all that.

    1. Oh my Lord. It is not Ms. Ripley's fault that those kids are poor. Whose fault is it? I don't accept that its any of my fault.

      Maybe first things first find out whose fault it is that there are poor kids in America. Get serious about nailing that down. Keep on blaming and guilting people who have nothing to do with making anyone else poor and nothings ever going to change.

      Maybe she didn't intend for her book to speak to anything to do with those "poor" kids. They get PLENTY of attention and resources. Maybe she thinks education in America could do better for some other kids.

  3. We know, we know. You think Somerby's overdoing it with Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

    We understand the complaint! But Ripley’s book is a remarkable text, a Rosetta Stone which helps us see the nature of modern “journalistic” practice.

    Tomorrow, we’ll review what Ripley says about Minnesota. We’ll also look at some of what she leaves out.

  4. No such thing as no tomorrow in Minnesota!