Raising Minnesota: The Ripley technique!


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.

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.
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.”

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?


  1. To summarize:

    That "talented" oh-so-privileged Amanda Ripley truly is a twit.

    1. If the summary is "she's a twit," then I doubt Mr. Somerby would have written "In our view, Ripley’s proposals seem to make perfect sense, at least for middle-class students."

  2. Amanda Ripley praises Minnesota, but Minnesota does not appear to be serving its minority students.

    The obvious question is "Whose interests are served by ignoring minority students?" In Latin, that's "Cui bono?"

    This is a translation of this post.

  3. OMB

    That talented oh-so-courageous BOB truly packages fudge with the best of the intellectual story tellers.

    He has invented a claim that Ripley never made, that Finland is working miracles with immigrant students, and invented a statistic which doesn't exist, to prove Poland's progress is not what Ripley makes it out to be.

    In doing so has created a thrilling series that he thinks proves his narrative but in fact shows him to be capable of the same type of work as the "youngish inexperienced well behave girl" he decries. Blog con-fiction.

    If there are any Runnin' Rubes on Team BOB who want to refute me in a factual discussion rather than call names, come on down. My guess is, based on recent commentary threads, you'd rather discuss Confederate flag waving than education.


    1. Every now and then, Bob has to push the "R" button to get his hits up on the hope that people will also stop and read the wise things he is saying about Amanda Ripley.

    2. Bob quoted what Ripley said about immigrant children in Finland.

    3. Yes, Bob quoted what Ripley about visiting a Finnish school in which a third of the students were immigrants. He then proceeded to embellish what she actually said about test results in that school into fanciful claims he said you could "infer" from her actual words about immigrants in the school. The inferences, however, were his, not hers.

      Then in a later, very recent post he took the inference he said you could make and turned it into this flat out preposterous piece of FOX worthy bullroar: "In one thrilling passage, Ripley rather plainly suggests that Finland is working miracles with its immigrant kids." She never said or suggested in passages BOB quoted what BOB inferred and she never made a claim, simple or fancy about Finland as a whole working miracles with immigrants. And to play BOB for a moment, this doesn't mean we are saying anything good about Ripley or bad about Finniminnesotaland. We are saying BOB is exactly what he bitches about.


    4. Anon.@ 4:21

      On your quaint planet Earth you may call it "pushing the R button." On my planet Doom we once experienced a long and deadly civil war. Thereafter when invoking its memory to stir emotion we called a similar practice "waving the bloody flag."


    5. Some putrescent fucktard thinks Amanda Ripley doesn't say outlandish things about Finland.

      “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

      Or, that Finland did "rocket from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath?”

      Some scumbags are worse than Hannity. May they become as sick as me!

    6. Wow Josh. It takes a real big brain to combine a four letter word for the sex act and the root of the word for the developmentally disabled into an insult. Unfortunatately that makes you a BOBfan wannabe, not a real BOBfollower. None would engage in such an intellectually gratifying display while simultaneously revealing a lack of penetration of the lessons of Dr. King.

      Your comments suggest they are aimed at us, and can be inferred to imply we think Ripley does not say stupid things.
      In fact we think Ripley fudges with both her literary construction and her data presentation. We didn't realize it would take someone with a bigger brain than yours to see that from our past comments.

      Our problem is BOB does it. And he does it at the same time, with the same techniques and even within the same post while he lambasts Ripley for her failings.

      Wouldn't you please favor us by sharing your valued opinion on this thought we've had: Since Amanda Ripley makes preposterous claims with faulty data, there is no need for anyone in full possession of their faculties to ascribe invented claims to her or refute her with equally faulty or invented facts. Agree or disagree, Josh?


  4. Question: do students on Native American reservations take international tests, national tests, or tests administered by a state? As for Native Americans in public schools: is their performance ever disaggregated?
    Also, how many children in private schools (all types) or home-schooled children take these tests? Disaggregations possible there?
    Another query: is there any attempt, any way to disaggregate the scores of children of migratory agricultural workers? The children of recent immigrants?

  5. In order: Yes. Yes. Yes & No. Yes Yes. Yes.

    1. The above comment was an attempt to answer mch.

      Try here: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/dataset.aspx

    2. Thanks, Anonymous @3:46. I did some digging, but to make good use of all the info at your link -- well, I need expertise and massive time I don't have. Still, helpful. The NAEP site is well-designed -- people should not fear it (despite my demure here).

  6. Ripley was quoted in a NYTimes editorial today so I was hoping Mr. Somerby saw it.
    It's a horrible piece of work. It has everything that's terrible and facile about school reform all rolled into one.
    "Miracle" charter school? Check!
    Teacher-bashing? Check!
    Name-dropping of billionaire? Check!
    Quoting of current faddish ed reform book? Check!
    It's Bill Keller. Absolute dreck.
    Journalists should worry less about raising standards for teachers and more about raising standards for journalists.

    1. So please tell us. What in Ripley's quote did you find objectionable. Since you didn't link to the editorial column
      I will reproduce her comment below and you can comment so other readers can benefit from your objections.

      Ripley is talking about higher standards for schools of education.

      "What I hadn’t realized was that setting a high bar at the beginning of the profession sends a signal to everyone else that you are serious about education and teaching is hard,” Ripley told me. “When you do that, it makes it easier to make the case for paying teachers more, for giving them more autonomy in the classroom. And for kids to buy into the premise of education, it helps if they can tell that the teachers themselves are extremely well educated.”

    2. It is not easy to become a teacher, so the quote makes no sense on that point. Teacher's pay and how they run their classroom are multi-faceted, complex issues, so the quote makes no sense on that point. The last sentence is very misguided and shows a complete lack of understanding of how kids learn, so the quote makes no sense on that point. Kids learn when the subject is broken down into easy to understand sections and when they are instilled with confidence; neither of which requires extremely well educated teachers.

    3. We do not need to further restrict entry into the field of teaching because it is already hard enough to become a teacher.

      Having higher performing students become teachers does not make it easier to argue they should be better paid or given more authority or lattitude in performing their jobs.

      Knowing your teachers are well educated does nothing to help students see the value of education.

      Thanks for giving me the confidence and skill to understand your answer.

    4. I think you sort of get it, in that just like Ripley's work, your comments are empty.

  7. Bill Keller is the son of the former Chief Executive of Chevron Oil. Like Bloomberg's former Schools Chancellor, Cathie Black, he attended only Roman Catholic schools. (Ms Black, exclaimed, on going inside one of the schools she was hired to manage, "Why, it's clean!"). Likewise, I doubt Bill Keller has ever come within 1,000 feet of a public school, let alone gone inside one.

    It is an absolute scandal that people like Keller are making these pronouncements. In fact, I can hardly believe he and Ripley are as stupid as they appear and tend to think that they are engaged in some sort of campaign of what they consider to be are "noble lies", assuming that they are not entirely malevolent. In any case, the NYT has become a paper strictly of the 1 percenters who live in a bubble on the upper East Side, Palm Beach, and Short Hills -- and this goes double for its editorial staff.

    1. Anon @ 11:16

      What was your father's highest professional achievement and
      who was his chief employer. What schools did you attend?
      Name a recent former public school chief in the community where you live and provide us with a source for quotes we can mine for something stupid that person might be shown to have said. Allow me to express doubt you have come within 1,000
      feet of a job which required you make a profit or supervise more than a handful of people.

      If exercising one's right to have and express an opinion is a scandal you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can believe you are as stupid and bigoted as you comment makes you appear and your malevolence is obvious to all.

  8. My father worked for IBM and until his retirement headed the group that wrote the manual for the mainframe. My grandfather was a public school principal and a lawyer, as was my great-grandfather, a judge. Both my grandmothers and one of my great-grandmothers were elementary school teachers. I sent both my children to public schools.

    Bill Keller and Cathie Black have the right to their private and public opinions. They don't have the right to their own facts. They should be called out when they overreach and mislead the public just like anyone else.

    1. My! We have gone from pronouncements being scandals to a right to private as well as public opinions. I am glad they don't have a right to their own facts and applaud your willingness to call them out. Just be sure next time to list any facts upon which you plan to do the calling.