State “rocks international test:” In a recent piece at Slate, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell said he thinks of his books as “intellectual adventure stories.”
(For our previous post on this topic, click here.)
In a separate interview, Gladwell described the kind of non-fiction reading he enjoys. Janet Malcolm is one of his favorite writers, he says: “Even when she is simply sketching out the scenery, you know that something wonderful and thrilling is about to happen.”
Should non-fiction writers attempt to craft “adventure stories” where “something wonderful and thrilling is [always] about to happen?” We think that’s a dangerous method.
What if nothing “wonderful and thrilling” has actually taken place in some area, but the author wants to tell an adventure story anyway? Might an author start to embellish, invent or cherry-pick facts in pursuit of a thrilling tale?
We see those instincts on display all through Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Despite the stories Ripley tells, these things didn’t actually happen:
Finland didn’t go from the bottom of the world to the top on international test scores.
Finland isn’t working miracles with its immigrant students.
Based on current evidence, Poland isn’t rocketing up through the international standings, at least not to the extent Ripley would have you believe.
These claims help turn Ripley’s ballyhooed book into a thrilling “adventure story.” Beyond that, they help Ripley promote certain types of reform her elite sponsors favor.
In our view, Ripley’s proposals seem to make perfect sense, at least for middle-class students. (She largely ignores the needs of low-income kids. Our modern elites are like that.) But her thrilling claims don’t seem to be true—and embellished presentations of this type litter her ballyhooed book.
Just consider Ripley’s portrait of Minnesota’s thrilling advance.
In her book, Ripley follows three American teen-agers who become exchange students in foreign countries. One of the three, known only as Eric, hails from Minnesota.
Eric spends a year in South Korea, where he encounters that country’s “pressure cooker model” of education. In the passage shown below, Ripley discusses Eric’s good fortune in coming from Minnesota.
Lucky Eric! Minnesota has a strong, much-improved math program, Ripley says in this passage. She hails Minnesota as our number-two state in math. It’s right on the heels of Japan:
RIPLEY (pages 72-73): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.In that passage, Ripley tells another thrilling story. In 2007, Minnesota “rocked a major international test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan!” This seems to have happened because Minnesota had come to “believe that math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.”
When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.
In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.
What was Minnesota doing that other states were not? The answer was not mystical. Minnesota had started with a relatively strong education system. Then they’d made a few pragmatic changes, the kind of common sense repairs you would make if you believed math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.
Over the next several pages, Ripley describes the way Minnesota had toughened its math program in the previous dozen years. This explains why the land of lakes was able to rock that test.
In certain ways, Ripley’s story is accurate. Minnesota is one of our higher-scoring states in math, at least before we “disaggregate” the state’s test scores.
(Minnesota’s black and Hispanic kids do not score well in math, even compared to their counterparts from around the nation.)
It’s also true that Minnesota’s performance in math improved substantially from 1995 to 2007. But so did the performance of quite a few other states, along with the performance of the United States as a whole.
(Unless you cherry-pick your data, Minnesota didn’t show more improvement during that period than the U.S. as a whole.)
Some of what Ripley says in that passage is accurate. But much of that passage is misleading, arguably to the point of being false. Two more examples:
From that passage, a reader may get the impression that Minnesota is doing a better job teaching math than any state except Massachusetts. Unless you cherry-pick your data, it’s very hard to defend that claim.
(This is not a criticism of Minnesota. It’s a criticism of Ripley for disappearing the other states which seem to be performing as well as Minnesota, if not better.)
From the last sentence in that passage, a reader will also get the impression that “all” of Minnesota’s kids are scoring well in math. Hearts will soar, but that isn’t the case. As populations, black and Hispanic kids in the state aren’t approaching world class status in any way at all. As noted, they don’t perform any better in math than their peers from around the nation.
Ripley’s portrait of Minnesota is littered with false impressions. Those false impressions help her tell a thrilling story, a thrilling story which builds her case in support of certain types of reform.
That story makes for a very good read, the kind of read Gladwell says he enjoys. Unfortunately, the story she tells is often false or misleading.
All week long, we’ll look at the bungling which transpires as Ripley tells a thrilling tale, heroically raising Minnesota. Many false impressions are spread as Gladwell receives his cheap thrills.
Tomorrow: Which major test did Minnesota rock? Why didn’t Ripley name it?