Part 4—Our less advantaged great kids: We don’t always believe the stories in Amanda Ripley’s new book.
Don’t get us wrong! Her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is an interesting book; the book is well worth reading. It proposes two or three gentle education reforms—reforms which may make perfect sense in large swaths of our society.
That said, we don’t believe some of Ripley’s stories. And she basically disappears a large bunch of American kids.
Let’s start with the first tale we don’t quite believe. We’ve mentioned this story before. It starts on page 1 of the book.
At the start of her book, Ripley describes the way she came to write it. Starting with an assignment for Time in 2008, she develops an interest in public school education. Over time, her interest grows.
Over the course of several years, Ripley is increasingly puzzled by the wide divergence she finds in the academic outcomes of the world’s public schools. Finally, a light bulb goes off in her head!
In the passage below, Ripley explains what happened. We don’t quite believe this story, in which Ripley refers to a chart which appears on page 3 of her book.
That chart displays “test scores” for fifteen nations, dating from the 1960s through the present time. In this passage, Ripley describes the chart which “blew her mind” and led her to write her book:
RIPLEY (page 2): Then one day I saw this chart and it blew my mind.Apparently, these are the days of miracles and wonder, just as Paul Simon said!
The United States might have remained basically flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath. And what was going on in Norway, right next door, which seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty? And there was Canada, coming up from mediocrity to the heights of Japan. If education was a function of culture, could culture change that dramatically—that fast?
...Compared to most countries, the United States was typical, not much better nor much worse. But in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening.
In Ripley's book, that chart is woefully under-explained, as we noted in an earlier post. Most strikingly, you can see “test scores” rising and falling in various nations as the decades roll by. But there is no way to tell how large the corresponding academic gains are.
The chart shows countries scoring higher and lower, but how large are the academic gaps between the various test scores? Finland seems to gain about 35 points over the course of fifty years. The United States seems to gain about ten.
That said, how much additional learning and knowledge should we associate with a gain of 35 points? Ripley doesn’t explain that point, robbing us of a chance to know how important those score changes are.
Much more strikingly, Ripley grossly misdescribes what the chart on page 3 shows.
According to Ripley’s text, miraculous Finland rocketed “from the bottom of the world to the top,” apparently in a short time. Inspiring Canada “came up from mediocrity.”
But if you look at the actual chart, that isn’t what you will see! On the actual chart, Finland’s “test scores” start in the 1960s—and Finland is already scoring at a very high level compared to the other nations. By way of contrast, Canada’s test scores start in the early 1980s—and they seem to be about twenty points lower than Finland’s initial scores were.
Did that chart blow Ripley’s mind? Does that chart explain her reasons for writing this book? Since she grossly misdescribes the chart, we’ll sign up as skeptics.
That said, her bogus description does set up a classic adventure tale. Based on the chart, the tale isn’t true. But it makes for a thrilling story.
Ripley’s book is built around the claim that Finland came rocketing up from the bottom of the world, shooting to the top in a very short time. “Something incredible” took place in that land. Ripley sets out to explain it.
Because of that chart, which blew her mind, Ripley says she spent a year touring three foreign countries, trying to figure out how these incredible events occurred. But incredibly, she misdescribes what the chart shows about “test scores” in Finland and Canada.
The chart sits on page 3 of the book. Anyone can peruse it.
Whatever! Ripley’s book, which promotes two gentle reforms, is almost like a new literary form, a form you might call “con fiction.” In this new form, people backed by ranking elites feel free to tell us things that aren’t true, as long as their embellished tales lead us to embrace the reforms those elites have selected for us.
In Ripley’s case, her chosen reforms make perfect sense—until you consider the millions of kids her book has disappeared. This takes us to a second bogus tale in her frequently slippery book.
This second key story appears on page 17. It concerns the scores the United States achieved on the first PISA tests, back in the year 2000.
In this story, Andreas Schleicher bats away the ignoble idea that our mid-range scores can be attributed in some way to the diversity of our student population. What a silly notion! As we showed you yesterday, this is the way Ripley says Schleicher refuted that claim:
RIPLEY (page 17): Across the ocean, the United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance that would be repeated in every subsequent round [of PISA testing]. U.S. teenagers did better in reading but that was only comforting, since math skills tended to be better predictors of future earnings.In this novelized tale, unnamed Americans “blame” the diversity of our student population for our “lackluster results.” Schleicher to the rescue! “In his meticulous way,” the hero of Ripley’s book-length tale bats this claim away.
Even in reading, a gulf of more than ninety points separated America’s most-advantaged kids from the least-advantaged peers. By comparison, only thirty-three points separated Korea’s most-privileged and least-privileged students, and almost all of them scored higher than their American counterparts.
U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige lamented the results. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” he said. He vowed (wrongly, as it would turn out) that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s new accountability-based reform law, would improve America’s standing.
Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results. In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.
“Immigrants could not be blamed America’s poor showing,” Ripley defiantly tells us. She goes on to make a grossly misleading, slippery statement about the role of immigrant children in public school test scores worldwide.
Long story short: As often seems to occur, Ripley almost surely knows something she isn’t telling us here. Here it is: Immigrant students can actually help a nation’s test scores, depending on where the children come from and depending on the country’s immigration policies.
Due to the government shutdown, we can no longer access the PISA Data Explorer. For that reason, we’re working from memory here. But when we checked this matter last week, immigrant students in Canada, Australia and New Zealand outscored those countries’ native-born students on the 2009 PISA. If we understand this matter correctly, those countries tend to get their immigrants from Asian nations, and their policies tend to bring in immigrants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
Ripley seems to be saying less than she knows about how immigrant kids affect test scores. But that would be the more modest problem with that passage from page 17. Far more heinous is the plainly implied claim that the “diversity” of our student population is defined by our immigrant kids.
That is an utterly ludicrous notion, but Ripley smuggles it in.
Back when those first PISA scores were released, did someone really “blame” our scores on the diversity of our students? That’s an ugly way to put it, and Ripley forgets to name the people who did this.
Who is Ripley talking about? Even in endnotes to her book, she doesn’t cite an example. In the absence of actual names, we’ll take two guess about this general matter:
First guess: when people did discuss our diversity, they did so to explain and elucidate a problem, not to “blame” a group of kids. Second guess: they may have discussed two large groups of kids who virtually define the “diversity” of our student population as it’s conventionally defined.
Thanks to the shutdown, we can’t disaggregate those 2000 PISA scores today. But below, you see the PISA reading scores from 2009.
The bracketed numbers are painful to see, very hard to accept. They define the brutal racial history of our struggling, improving nation.
They also define an educational challenge—a challenge Ripley disappears in her elite-powered book:
Average scores, PISA reading, 2009:Let’s be clear. A lot of black kids are succeeding brilliantly in our public schools. The same is true of Hispanic kids. We’re looking here at average scores of very large populations.
[United States, Asian-American students 541]
[United States, white students 525]
New Zealand 521
The Netherlands 508
United States, all students 500
United Kingdom 494
OECD average 493
Czech Republic 478
Slovak Republic 477
[United States, Hispanic students 466]
[United States, black students 441]
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, average scores by black kids and by Hispanic kids have risen by large amounts over the past forty years. The gains have been large in the last twenty years. The “achievement gaps” with white kids have been cut roughly in half, but substantial gaps remain.
That said, you can see the way these scores broke down on this PISA reading test. In this realm, we are a very highly stratified society:
Our Asian-American students slightly outscored Korea and Finland. Imagined regional warts and all, our white students trailed miraculous Finland by only 11 points. (At several places in her book, Ripley seems to imply that 40 points on the PISA scale is roughly equal to one academic year.)
Ripley’s proposed reforms may make perfect sense for most schools serving these populations. In her book, she travels the world with three exchange students. All are white, middle-class high school kids.
Ripley’s reforms may make good sense in the world of our middle-class students of all races, colors and shapes. Those kids may do better with “smarter” teachers and with increased academic “rigor.”
That said, our country’s black and Hispanic kids, taken as populations, are living in different worlds. It isn’t clear that Ripley’s proposed reforms are the perfect or even the most important ticket for most of those American kids.
Through that slippery story on page 17, Ripley disappears these kids. She turns them into invisible children. She doesn’t trouble us with their worlds or with their needs, or with the situations which may be holding their achievement back.
Instead, she’s off in Finland with a middle-class kid who could be pushed much harder. (When it comes to middle-class kids of all races and ethnicities, we tend to agree with that.)
Make no mistake: When you look at those PISA scores, you’re looking at our brutal American history. No living person created that history, but we all live with its effects.
Resolved: If a nation spends three hundred years trying to eliminate literacy from a population, that population’s literacy will suffer. Beyond that, state-empowered poverty isn’t likely to help.
(For what it’s worth, African-American ethical literacy inspired the entire world during the last century. Dr. King joined Gandhi and Mandela as the moral giants of the century. Rather plainly, Dr. King’s astonishing moral literacy extended all through the wider black population. Moral literacy is a very powerful force in the world.)
Ralph Ellison said he was an invisible man. So with many of our black and Hispanic students, all through Ripley’s book.
Coming: What reforms might help the (invisible) kids in our nation’s low-income schools?
A quick side trip: When the 2000 PISA results were released, who “blamed” the diversity of our students for the imperfect results?
In 2011, Ripley wrote about this same topic in the Atlantic. On that occasion, she said that (unnamed) “American officials” had “defended their schools—blaming poor performance on the relative prevalence of immigrant families in the United States.”
Wow! That claim seems strange, especially given the things said by Paige, our top education official. (Above, see text from Ripley's book.) We note that Ripley doesn’t repeat that specific claim in her book.
In her book, Ripley only says that some Americans “blamed” the diversity of our students for our PISA scores. She no longer says that American officials did this. She no longer says that these Americans specifically blamed our immigrant kids, although that’s where she goes to defeat this charge.
Still, who “blamed” our deserving students at all? Even in the endnotes to her book, Ripley doesn’t say.
Reading this book, we often feel we’re involved with a new literary form. Because we lack a better name, we’ll call it “elite con fiction.”