The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley’s book, which we discussed today, is, like the Owens book we read, both readable and frustrating. Let’s start with readable: I think I finished the whole thing in two long sittings, and in under 24 hours. That says something about Ripley’s style but it also probably says something about the powerful way she set up her discussion of how American public schools stack up to a few of their foreign counterparts. I found myself turning eight or ten pages at a time while barely blinking. The way she weaved the stories of the three students — Kim, Eric, and Tom — in and out of her larger discussion of the different ways we think about education in the world was both deft and appealing. And, of course, it didn’t hurt to flip from page to page wondering when I’d learn something new about Tom’s experiences in school here in Gettysburg or about Korean teenagers stabbing their mothers in the neck and eating ramen in the living room with their friends while the body decomposed in a saran-wrapped bedroom nearby.

But I’ve learned something in my academic career, especially as I read more and more about education: very often light, readable writing about educational issues conceals too much of the complexity of education as a social activity, especially when it purports to provide solutions to the problems we face. Of course Ripley goes out of her way to say that she is pointedly not offering solutions to educational problems — “I’m just a reporter” she protests in the first appendix, right before offering up some solutions–but she clearly takes a position or two throughout the book. One is that she has very limited respect for American schools and teachers. I think the only genuine compliment I can remember Ripley lobbing at American teachers came from one of the students she interviewed for the book: that kid noted that American teachers actually get to know you, unlike teachers he had had back in Germany. I would agree that we do not do enough to attract students with the highest grades into teaching, but I do think that we attract a tremendous number of dedicated, conscientious, and thoughtful people into the profession and that’s a minor miracle considering how American teachers have been treated historically. It’s unrealistic to think that simply raising cut scores on the Praxis test will improve teaching; it’s also unrealistic to expect teacher education programs, many of which provide the universities with which they are associated a much-needed revenue stream, to turn away paying customers. If we want to get serious about reforming teacher education in a way that’s consistent with the approach taken in Finland, we’re going to have to start by considering how public colleges and universities pay their bills.

But there’s something else that bothers me about Ripley’s entire thesis: it’s based, for all intents and purposes, on the results of a single test. That test, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), evaluates the reading, science, and math skills of 15-year-old kids in about 75 countries. But just how many 15-year-olds are we talking about? The administrators of PISA will tell you that the number doesn’t matter — the sample does. So long as the sample of students taking the test is representative of the larger population of each country, we can be relatively certain that the reported results can be generalized to the entire population of a country. So even though we’re only talking about the scores of roughly 500,000 test-takers out of an estimated 1.85 billion school-aged kids worldwide, PISA’s proponents would have us believe that the samples they draw from are representative ones. Never mind that countries like Iceland barely have enough students in them to meet the minimum sampling requirements (5,000 students) set by the OECD, which administers the test, while some 75 million kids attend American schools; that’s a sampling problem in and of itself. Add the fact that this is also a complex test that requires fairly subjective human scoring. Think back to the Farley piece we read, and about how subjectivity clouds the results of “standardized” tests. Was anyone surprised that Ripley took it, scored her own exam, and found that she only missed one question after scoring it herself?

But there’s another point to be made here. Throughout the book, Ripley repeats the popular claim that American teachers and students like to blame our educational problems on poverty — and that we shouldn’t. Over and over, Ripley argues that poverty is no excuse because poor kids in other countries still fare better than poor kids do here. But she’s missing a crucial point: while child poverty is a substantial impediment to school success, and is, quite frankly, our national shame, it’s inequality that ultimately promises to undermine any efforts we might undertake to follow Finland’s lead. Sure, there are poor people all over the world — but you’d be hard-pressed to find a country with a larger gap between its richest citizens and its poorest ones, especially in a country as large as ours is. I’ll let Martin Conroy and Richard Rothstein of the Ecoonomic Policy Institute do the talking:

Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.

In other words, they conclude that if we accounted for social inequality the U.S. would fare much better on tests like PISA. Poor kids attending more equal schools elsewhere are essentially having a personal characteristic cancelled out by a social one. Put yet another way, if two poor kids show up to school — one in Pennsylvania and the other in Finland — and the Finnish kid receives breakfast while the American kid goes hungry, the personal characteristic of being impoverished is at least somewhat ameliorated for the Finnish kid. We have resources; we just don’t choose to distribute them in ways that will reduce the effects of child poverty, let alone the condition of poverty. Poverty might not be an excuse for “poor student performance” if we took serious steps to ensure that we mitigated its effects when kids showed up to school in the morning. Instead, we send kids into “radically unequal” schools, as historian David Labaree has said, and then expect schools to solve the problem of poverty on shoestring budgets of their own. At any rate, if we accounted for inequality we wouldn’t be at the top of the OECD’s rankings, according to Conroy and Rothstein, but our adjusted scores would rank us 6th in the world in reading and 13th in math. Hardly reason, I think many would conclude, to dismantle our public education system wholesale and sell it to the highest bidder. Read the rest of the report for yourself.

So what do we make of this? For one thing, every claim made by Ripley in her book — almost literally every single one, at least where education is concerned — is based on the results of one test. Finland has the smartest kids in the world, Korea’s are pretty smart too, and we rank somewhere behind even Poland. She’s got a lot to say here worth thinking about — we would be smart to give teachers greater autonomy and better pay, and a real evaluation system; it does make sense to improve the quality of our teacher workforce and to make school more meaningful so kids don’t spend their lives sleepwalking through their teenage years — but let’s start by comparing apples to apples. And let’s also ask some tough questions. Who benefits when schools are constantly under siege? To whom is power transferred, and from whom is it taken, when we compare American schools unfavorably to schools in other countries? This is where your semester-long immersion in the politics of education should come in handy.

Because Ripley is a journalist — and one with a book to sell, at that — it’s perfectly understandable that she would choose a pithy and attention-grabbing title for her book. But instead of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, she might have been on firmer ground calling it The Kids in the World Who Scored Best on a Test Taken By 0.000025% of the World’s Children and What We Can Do to be More Like Them if We Want To. That doesn’t answer the question of why we would want to be — maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t — but at least it would start a more honest conversation about how our system compares to the educational systems in other countries, and what, if anything, we might want to do about it. And it certainly doesn’t answer the question of what it would take to ensure that every kid in America, regardless of his or her socioeconomic background, had a decent shot at a good education after arriving at school in the morning. We’re going to have a much more difficult conversation about social responsibility and distribution of public resources before we can do that. We’re going to have to decide if we want to put our money where our mouth is.

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