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Ripley’s Botched Attack on Ravitch: A Euro Is Not a Dollar

January 4, 2014

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:

2009 pisa pg 15

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.

Uh oh.

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.

  1. KenS permalink

    Excellent sleuthing!

  2. Janna permalink

    Thanks for replying to this often cited post as evidence that Diane Ravitch is wrong. This is the best decimation of that post I have seen. Great job as always.

  3. Harlan Underhill permalink

    I wonder why the Finnish poor have so few children and the American poor have so many. I wonder what the median age of the Finnish poor is. Could it be that the Finnish poor are mainly young people starting out? Is it perhaps a matter of intact young families vs. single parent American ‘families.’ It isn’t a “real family” unless there’s a married pair. Perhaps the so called poverty rate in Finland is mainly an artifact of the demographics.

    Second question: When it comes to poverty, whose responsibility is it to alleviate it? Is it the federal government? The local government? I’d like to hear more of your views on that.

    • Concerned Citizen permalink

      Finland has world-class sex ed, family planning, and healthcare services. The Finnish teen pregnancy rate is very low. Most Finnish women wait until they are ready (emotionally and financially) to have a child, they don’t get pregnant by accident.

      Finns are also unlikely to live in extreme poverty due to Finland’s strong social safety net.

      Please don’t narrowly define a “real family,” families come in all permutations. When you denigrate certain types of families you are also insulting the children in that family, who should not be stigmatized for the choices of their parents.

      • Harlan Underhill permalink

        Of course, you are right. One should not generalize about what is possible and not possible.

  4. jean sanders permalink

    quote: “Then again, I am not hung up on the almighty test score as proof of educational (indeed, human) value.”
    You have captured the essence here; there is a viewpoint that it is useful to define who is morally inferior; so, let’s do it with test scores. It is circular reasoning and the tests are used to say “who should go to the end of the food stamp line’… it boils down to views on human nature, the quality of life, and how should be doing the judging — the elite love to have test scores to prove that everyone else is inferior…. the powerful kings, bishops, potentates relied on divine will to state they were superior and everyone else inferior. Now we use tests to measure and define who is “untermenschen”…. this value system is horrid.

  5. Liz Lauter permalink

    I can’t wait to hear what Amanda Ripley’s response is! Be sure to share it.

  6. Ted permalink

    Yes, great schools could impact a lot, oh yeah, no doubt. Sidwell Friends school for all poor kids, I’m on board. But that is not what is going on. What is being foisted on the poor is the worst facilities, and generally not the A-team of teachers, in, not the staff at Sidwell or America’s top public high schools.

    What does it take to make a great school? Great money. You get what you pay for. Anyone who proposes they can do it on the cheap, tell them to prove it on a large scale on rich children at any education level. I won’t hold my breath.

  7. Charlotte Vrooman permalink

    I love your “statistical” intelligence!

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