Reading Ripley: Praise for Poland’s poorest kids!


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.

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...
Ripley sounds a bit like Thoreau explaining why he went to the woods. Thoreau produced an interesting book; Ripley has done so too.

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.

The results suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world; perhaps poor kids could learn more than they were learning...
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.

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


  1. Aside from the ridiculous non-sequitur that is your last sentence of this post, nice expose of Ripley's shell game of a book.

    1. New to this fifteen-year-old blog and one of its recurring themes I see RC.

    2. Obviously, you don't know what a non sequitur is.

      Let me help you out, old timer: it's a statement that does not follow logically from what preceded it. What this blogger posted previous to this post does not change the fact that it is a non sequitur. The blogger mentions low-income students and he mentions "black kids." The only time the blogger mentions "the liberal world" and "R-bombs" is in the last sentence. It's a ridiculous non sequitur because of its lack of context within the post and it's sheer hyperbole masked as a factual declaration.

    3. If you consider this blog an ongoing conversation and read more than a single day's post, it is not a non-sequitur at all and CMike was merely pointing that out.

    4. "An ongoing conversation"? Much more like the rantings of an old goat standing on a soap box on a street corner who ran out of new things to say years ago.

    5. In that case, move on.

  2. Is there anyone who writes about or opines on public education who actually attended a public school?
    Sometimes I think the purpose of tony private schools must be to turn out "experts" on public schools.

  3. Django Unchained was not a documentary, Bob.

    Blacks never read in Africa because there was no written language (in the places in Africa that they came from). Are you looking for a reason why they do so crappy here in New Jersey despite 30 years of getting the lion's share of state education funds? Like these "300 hundred" years inculcated some lack of WHAT?? to read and write?

    Rural people were always less likely to know how to read and write, probably still are today around the world. People who have no relatives who can read and write are less likely to read and write. The US was never like East Germany, bringing black in and making them sit on leather chairs so dogs could pick up the sent and track them and grilling them about whether anyone had ever shown them an alphabet. The notion that black literacy was brutally suppressed in the US for 300 years is preposterous and that it has anything to do with education tests today is a con job to extort more money from everyone else. More money that can be thrown down a bottomless pit.

    We could cure cancers for the money we are wasting trying to educate kids in inner city schools here in New Jersey and that is on the heads of the heads of the elites using power to grab that money and direct it to useless wasteful spending.

    There are plenty of kids who aren't black (or Hispanic) who would be better recipients of the education money. They aren't rich; their parents don't provide them with every opportunity. They won't go to Ivy League colleges. If the money was directed at their opportunities or - in a state with the highest property taxes in the nation - if their parents could keep the money and use it directly to benefit them, the world would be a better place.

    Right now, its extortion and the gratitude we get for it is the constant threat of violent crime and riots.

    1. Wow, are you racist much or not?

  4. "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 will leave its trace."

    What exactly does that mean? Whats the "trace," exactly?

    1. Trace usually means a lingering sign or evidence of what may have happened before. You know, like a whip leaves scars. Sometimes it can be the absence of something as a result of what may have happened before. You know, like, due to Nazi policy based on racial superiority, there is hardly a trace of the once vast Jewish population in central Europe.

      Hope you found this helpful. And I hope the government folks in charge of you health care keep you well.

    2. You must have been hugging yourself with our goodie-goodness while you wrote that.

      Yeah, an intelligent person would find that credible, a 12 year old black kid in Newark, the beneficiary of 30 years of extorting the taxpayers of the rest of the state for "education" that results in 50% drop out rates is suffering from that "trace" of something that happened to some distant ancestor in, what, 1830? And what was that event anyway?

      Ridiculous and no one believes it. MOre nonsense to extort money from other people and hand it out to teachers, contractors, suppliers, all of whom are politically connected. Those are the only and true beneficiaries.

  5. You know, for a guy who insists that others be clear and succinct, Somerby is sure spending a lot of words and bandwidth on his seemingly never-ending series, while repeating memes he has said for many, many years in exactly the same way.

    And you know? For all that work and effort he put into it, I still can't see why the publication of Amanda Ripley's book stands as such a threat to public education as we know it today.

    1. Well then, it's clear you are not an educator. Thank god Mr. Somerby continues his education meme. If he hadn't, people like you would have stepped into the big pile of crap the school reform movement laid at your doorstep. Because of Mr. Sombey's work, you are not igmorant.

    2. Yes, I thank God every morning that thanks to "Mr. Someby" and only because of "Mr. Someby" I am not "igmorant."

    3. Oh, excuse me. In my non-igmorance, I misspelled Mr. Sombey's name.

  6. OMB (Gilded Lillies)

    When last we left BOB twisting test results to prove Ripley twists test results, he was pounding on Poland, or rather pounding on Ripley's praise of Polish PISA takers.

    Bob hates the book. After a dozen (is the exact number statistically significant?) posts, we all, BOBfan and BOBcritic alike, know that.
    Even the most ardent BOBcritic such as your Humble Zarkon can see
    BOB makes a decent case that Ripley plays the game of fudging with numbers to support a narrative on behalf of vague recommendations to improve education in the United States. Unfortunately, Bob does so as well, in a manner which utilizes the exact same technique he went to great lengths to criticize Ripley for using. BOB artificially shortens time periods comparing test results in order to create a disputable fact which supports his narrative. Sadly he did this after he was called out in commentary by yours truly for doing so. This puts him in the category of the adorable Maddow or the deplorable Hannity.

    BOB, you had fudge the numbers to make this statement back on September 28:

    "In the talented Ripley’s scam-ridden book, “the Polish miracle” (Ripley’s phrase) is said to be a miracle of improvement. But from 2003 to 2009, American students showed more improvement on the PISA’s three tests than Polish students did."

    First, the facts don't support this. American scores improved more on only two out of three tests, which snarky Zarky noted in a comment at a later date. But the scores differences are minor, so why quibble, right?
    Well except you went to great lengths to call Ripley's work a scam two days earlier, on September 26. Here are your own words:

    "Ripley told us how much Poland improved from 2000 to 2006. But how odd! The most recent PISA test results come from 2009. Why didn’t Ripley give us the full enjoyment which would inevitably result from making a full nine-year comparison?

    Perhaps you can guess at the answer! These are Poland’s average scores in reading over that nine-year period:

    Average score, Poland, PISA reading test
    2000: 479
    2003: 497
    2006: 508
    2009: 500

    Oops! The six-year gain was 29 points—but the nine-year gain was 21! With a “miracle” to sell, Ripley disappeared the drop in scores on the most recent test."

    So how did BOB produce his "Howler miracle" to disprove Ripley's "Polish miracle?" Well, two days later he forgot all about his own argument that nine years of test results would be valuable. With a miracle to sell, BOBdisappeared the rise in scores from the first test.

    The result of this shell game, in which BOB criticizes Ripley for dropping 2009 then himself drops 2000, creates the Howler miracle.
    If you use the full nine years, US students did not outgain Polish students on any test. In fact, on two of the three tests, US students lost ground to themselves.

    All this was pointed out in comments before, but BOB has chosen to ignore that and today restates the Howler miracle with minor, but fudgeable alterations. In this post BOB has disappeared the three separate PISA tests and merged results. Of course 2000 results remain, in BOB's signature phrase, a fact DISAPPEARED:

    "American scores improved slightly more on the PISA from 2003 to 2009 than Polish scores did."

    Yes, BOB, if you cumulatively add the improvements from three different tests and conveniently drop that year which creates the nine year trend you found to be critical back on September 26th when ripping Ripley on another point, your statement would be rated Partly True by Politifact standards. If you want to shout and dance over data that shows American kids losing ground to themselves by the standard you yourself advanced? To use your own phrase from this series, readers might think they are getting conned.

    KZ (Daizabaal to my close friends)

    1. So KZ, did Ripley cherry pick the data or not? According to the three major international assessments comparing educational achievement, are US students inferior to their international peers?

    2. Teacher 1, in Question 1 you "seem" ( a favorite BOB mind reading word used when he is not accusing others of mind reading) to want me to pass judgement on Ripley's numbers.

      I said BOB makes a convincing case that Ripley is playing with the numbers in a less than straightforward way, Unfortunately because BOB plays with his numbers in the exact same way he attacks Ripley for playing with hers, I have no reason to believe BOB isn't making everything he writes about Ripley's book up. I haven't read it.

      I only know what BOB has written. He has cherry picked his numbers. He has presented them falsely When called on it, he issued no correction as he frequently calls upon others to do and instead merely rewords his false claim. He has contradicted himself.
      When called on it he ignores it and tries to reinforce his same misleading point.

      Question 2, are US students inferior to their international peers based on 3 major international assessments? No. I could write ten posts to tell you why I have that opinion. I won't. But thanks for asking.


    3. Well, to borrow a oft-repeated phrase from Somerby himself to answer your question:

      "I have no idea. And neither does Somerby."

    4. Are you answering Teacher 1's questions to me? Because if you are "we don't need you to do that."
      We're sure you are a very nice person although we have never met. You should not take our suggestion about replying as applicable only if you have not previously exited your vehicle.


    5. Well, KZ, I happen to think that questions in an open combox, even if directed to an individual, are open to the floor.

      No, you have no need for anyone to pull Teacher1 off you lest he puts you in a vegetative state. You can handle yourself.

      But I can't resist throwing my dos centavos into the fray.

    6. Well Anon. I hope someone does not correct your French like they did another commenter who used Spanish in a post today.


  7. As I've said repeatedly, Amanda Ripley got what she looked for, and frankly, she didn't look for much (other than to write a book about the "Smartest Kids," hype it by claiming she performed "groundbreaking research," and then cash in).

    Ripley is a charlatan, though to be sure, a "talented," privileged one. Sort of like Wendy Kopp.

    Ripley has quite an educational background. Ivy League at Cornell. And high school at the expensive, private Lawrenceville School. Current tuition is $53,320, but only $44,100 for day students. But that’s not all. Add in “a required medical fee of $755, and a technology fee of $465.” Parents also have to buy tuition refund insurance. The Lawrenceville School suggests that tuition is really a bargain because the “annual cost to educate a student at Lawrenceville is $70,000.”

    Its campus is 700 acres. It has its own golf course. It has a 56,000 sq.ft. science building, and a music center, and a visual arts center, and a history center. Multiple dorm buildings with their own dining halls. It has a field house that includes “a permanent banked 200-meter track and three tennis/basketball/volleyball courts.” That’s not all. There are also “Two additional hardwood basketball courts, a six-lane swimming pool, an indoor ice-hockey rink, a wrestling room, two fitness centers with full-time strength and conditioning coaches, and a training-wellness facility as well as a new squash court facility, hosting ten new internationally zoned courts, which opened in 2003.” Not exactly shabby.

    What is education like at Lawrenceville? Small classes, “intimate...with a maximum of 12 students.” The guiding philosophy is one that “values discussion and debate.” Lawrenceville claims to help its students “develop high standards of character and scholarship” and “strong commitments to personal responsibility.

    But Ripley uses only 3 students and 1 test (PISA) to generalize about American public education. Amanda Ripley’s own educational past indicates three things clearly:

    1. She really has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to public education, and “reform.” She’s an impostor. A poser.

    2. Ripley may have immersed herself in amenities at Lawrenceville, but she didn't learn very much..

    1. oops...TWO things very clearly....

    2. You have certainly repeated the description of Lawrenceville many times since September.
      Doesn't it kind of bother you that Somerby did not mention it until last Tuesday? Many of his readers could have used that information a lot earlier.

  8. Trust me, you don't want to be a poor kid in Poland. I came to US from Poland and know what Im taking about. I am sorry, but us people don't know what is a meaning of being poor.

  9. Have you seen the latest PISA results? Poland made big progress: reading 518 points - best in EU (ex aequo with Finland & Ireland) - previously 500;
    maths 518 (best in EU, ex aequo with Holland, Estonia, Finland) - previously 495. So the progress is undeniable, whichever way you look at it. We (I am from Poland) must be doing something right, on the other hand believe, most of people here are not too happy about our educational system...