Ripley’s Botched Attack on Ravitch: A Euro Is Not a Dollar
In December 2011, writer Amanda Ripley published a post in which she tried hard to discredit education historian Diane Ravitch’s claim that the US poverty level is a factor in the 2009 PISA rankings.
Even though Ripley’s piece is over two years old, I only read it yesterday. In her smug attempt to discredit Ravitch’s interpretation of the role of US poverty upon US PISA scores, Ripley makes a gross blunder in her supposed comparison of poverty between American and Finland (when poverty is defined as “below median income”).
Ripley advances the premise, “great schools are among the most effective anti-poverty measures known to humanity.”
Ripley does not bother to define what makes a “great school.” From the focus of her post, apparently a “great school” is one that delivers high standardized test scores.
I believe that “great schools” are well-funded; that the focus of “great schools” is not on standardized test scores; that “great schools” respect their teachers and the teaching profession; that “great schools” foster growth of the entire student– physically, emotionally, morally, AND academically, and that “great schools” have community roots.
For Ripley, what matters are the standardized test scores. She criticizes America “for spending far more money” than countries who outscore our “rich kids.” Ripley does not clarify how much of that “far more money” comes from private pockets in order to pay for private schools.
Ripley is high on “smug” and low on clarification.
As for the amount of per-pupil spending for public schools: The US could certainly cut that amount by discontinuing transportation, subsidized breakfast and lunch programs, special education funding, and wrap-around services such as support programs for homeless students and mental health programs.
I wouldn’t advise it. Then again, I am not hung up on the almighty test score as proof of educational (indeed, human) value.
However, Ripley is enamored by the standardized test score, and she thinks Ravitch has it wrong in citing poverty as the primary issue needing addressing.
Ripley takes issue with Ravitch’s use of the information on this table as evidence that US students in the lowest poverty (below 10%) bracket outscore Finland:
Ripley then tries to argue that Ravitch is using “two different definitions of poverty” and provides her own version of a conversion of the US free-reduced lunch qualification to an international comparison of poverty defined as “earning less than 50% of the median income in that country.” (Ripley does not bother to account for the variance in quality of living for Americans “below median income” versus Finnish “below median income.” However, let’s just set that aside.)
Here comes Ripley’s blunder:
The (American) free/reduced-price lunch figure measures the number of kids from families making 185% of federal poverty line, right? So that means a family of 4 needs to make less than about $40,000 to qualify. …
…Ravitch is comparing the test scores of kids from families that earn more than $40,000 in the U.S. to the scores of all kids in Finland (where the median household income is about $40,000). [Emphasis added.]
I followed the link Ripley provided, and it led me to 2009 gross income in Finland– in Euros, not dollars.
To find the median income in this chart, one must divide the total number of households [x 1000] in the population by 2 (in this case, 2531.5 /2 = 1265.75). The median falls just on the edge of two income categories: 20,000 to 39,999 euros and 40,000 to 59,999 euros.
Thus, the 2009 Finnish median income is 39,999, but not in dollars.
I looked up the 2009 Euro-to-dollar exchange rate and found that for the worst month, February 2009, the rate was .78 euros per dollar. (I used the worst rate so as to not make the Finnish “poor” look richer by using a better 2009 exchange rate for the euro.)
The amount, 39,999 (“below 40,000”) euros, converts to $51,269– noticeably higher than the “below $40,000” converted American “poverty rate” Ripley was trying to match.
It gets better.
Ripley cites an American family of four making less than $40,000 in her conversion.
The 2009 Finnish income chart that Ripley cites shows that the families making the median income of just at 39,999 euros have an average family consisting of 1.66 members– with 1.44 of those members being adults.
Thus, the Finnish family in 2009 and at the median income of 39,999 euros (or $51,269) had only .22 children.
Another way to think of this is that only one in five such Finnish households had a single child.
What’s more: The poorest Finnish households (19.6%) (0 to 19,999 euros, or $25,640) tend to have no children (between .02 and .05 per household), which means the poorest Finnish have virtually no children taking international tests.
On the other hand, the wealthiest Finnish households (10%) with 2009 gross incomes from 90,000 to 140,000+ euros (or$115,385 to $179,487+) tend to have the most children (between.98 and 1.01 per household), which means that the top 10% wealthiest Finnish produce the most children taking international tests.
“Great schools” did not “make” these Finnish children wealthy any more than “poor schools” “make” the Finnish poor to not reproduce.
Ripley, before you tried to “rip” Ravitch, you should have carefully read the information in your own link.
A euro is not a dollar.
The Finnish poor can only be represented on international tests if they first birth the children.
Poverty does matter, and it is not the schools’ responsibility to “fix” it. It sure would be nice if both government and philanthropy (and smug pro-reform bloggers) would focus their attention on other Finnish attributes, such as its profound respect for teachers and the teaching profession and the virtual absence of standardized testing.
Then again, as you well know, Ravitch has been saying as much for years.