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.