Little regard for our own: In Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, the author visits American exchange students in Korea, Finland and Poland.
At the end of Chapter 1, Ripley defines the nature of her pursuit. In the following passage, she refers to average scores on the PISA, the set of international tests around which she chooses to structure her book
RIPLEY (page 24): Most successful or improving countries seemed to fit into three basic categories: 1) the utopia model of Finland, a system built on trust in which kids achieved higher-order thinking without excessive competition or parental meddling; 2) the pressure-cooker model of South Korea, where kids studied so compulsively that the government had to institute a study curfew; and 3) 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.Ripley sounds a bit like Thoreau explaining why he went to the woods. Thoreau produced an interesting book; Ripley has done so too.
Still, PISA could not tell me how these countries got so smart, or what life was like for kids in those countries, day in and day out, compared to life America. Children’s life chances depended on something beyond what any test could measure. Were Korean girls and boys driven to learn, or just succeed? There was a difference. Did Finnish teenagers have as much character as they had math skills? I had the data, and I needed the life.
I set out to visit Finland, Korea and Poland to see what the rest of the world could learn from the kids who lived there...
That said, her tendency to embellish the facts appears in the passage we have posted, as in many others. “PISA [scores] could not tell me how these countries got so smart?” Even on the PISA, Poland isn’t “smarter” than the U.S., and its kids score much less well than Americans kids on the TIMSS and the PIRLS, the major international tests Ripley chose to ignore.
Regarding the claim that Poland represents a “metamorphosis model,” American scores improved slightly more on the PISA from 2003 to 2009 than Polish scores did—and 2009 was the most recent set of scores Ripley had to work with.
Ripley gilds the narrative lily through a great deal of her book. Still, her visits to those foreign countries are intriguing, even after we adjust for her constant embellishment and for the anecdotal nature of her observations.
Thoreau says he went to the woods “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Ripley says she went to Finland “to see what the rest of the world could learn from the kids who lived there.” In our view, she saw a lot of interesting things about the way kids in Finland live. We only wish she had spent more time thinking about the way some kids live right here in this country.
Specifically, how do our low-income children live, right here in our own country? How do the circumstances of their lives affect the prospects of bringing more “rigor” to their lives in school? Ripley says she wants to bring more “rigor” to American schools. We think that’s a great idea. (We’d also more like to see more joy, more love of exploration.)
How might we bring more rigor to the academic lives of our low-income kids? In her globe-trotting book, Ripley rarely thinks about the nature of their lives. Perhaps for that reason, her book seems to have few ideas about how to serve that important purpose.
Ripley rarely discusses our low-income kids. She rarely discusses the preschool or elementary years, though these are the years when our low-income kids fall behind their middle-class peers. At one point, she praises Poland’s low-income children, kicking a bit of sand in the faces of our own 90-pound weaklings:
RIPLEY (page 136): By 2009, Poland was outperforming the United States in math and science, despite spending less than half as much money per student. In reading and math, Poland’s poorest kids outscored the poorest kids in the United States. That was a remarkable feat, given that they were worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids.Duh. Obviously, low-income kids can learn more than they’re learning. In theory, everybody can learn more (and enjoy school more) than is now the case. We’ll note again that Ripley is gilding the lily with her comparisons between Polish and American test scores. On the 2009 PISA, Poland’s scores were better in math and science, but only by statistically insignificant amounts. In reading, the two countries had the same average score.
The results suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world; perhaps poor kids could learn more than they were learning...
On the other major international tests, American kids outscore kids in Poland by rather large amounts.
Meanwhile, are the poorest kids in Poland “worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids?” We’re going to guess that’s a bit of stretch. Socioeconomic status is difficult to compare from one country to another. Ripley’s notes provide no source for this particular claim.
Is it possible that our low-income kids face obstacles which Polish kids don't? Among America’s low-income kids, two such factors seem to obtain. Some of our low-income kids are black; their country spent 300 years trying to eliminate literacy from this particular group. Lunatic history of that type will in fact leave its trace.
Other low-income kids are immigrants or children of same. They may come from low-literacy backgrounds. They may not speak the language.
As Ripley notes, there is little racial/ethnic diversity in Poland; few people immigrate in. The Poles never set out to deny literacy to one whole part of their population, although they may have had some other disgraceful problems. They don’t bring immigrants in from low-literacy backgrounds.
How are our low-income kids affected by our peculiar history? Fairly late in her book, Ripley spends a few paragraphs discussing the world of America’s black kids. Many of these kids are doing very well in school. But many still are not.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Ripley says in the few little paragraphs in which she deigns to discuss these kids, in whom she displays little interest. If we might borrow Ripley’s own language:
In this country, black children’s life chances “depend on [things] beyond what any test could measure.” The liberal world shows amazingly little interest in these aspects of American life, despite its love of the thrilling R-bombs with which it litters the land.
Tomorrow: Ripley discusses black kids