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[Susan notes: I just sat in disgust as I looked at the way the New York Times featured Amanda Ripley's book. Fortunately, these letter writers did something. Kudos. ]

Published in New York Times

To the editor

The title of Amanda Ripley's recently reviewed book, "The Smartest Kids in the World" (Aug. 25), is misleading because it is based on the assumption that scores on tests of international competition allow valid inferences to be drawn about the intelligence of students and the quality of schools. What these instruments actually measure is a testing meritocracy, rather than a talent meritocracy. The distinction is crucial, but it is given short shrift despite differences in values, culture and history between countries.


Los Angeles

The writer’s Reality Check blog is published in Education Week.

To the Editor:

Amanda Ripley's book and Annie Murphy Paul's review both shortchange the American education system. Paul speaks of “American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school.” But that 25 percent is vastly disproportionately Latino and African-American.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), in 2009 the United States ranked 25th in math and 21st in science of 34 O.E.C.D. countries. However, when the American students in science were disaggregated by white, Asian, Latino and black by PISA in 2006, whites and Asians ranked seventh in the world, behind Finland, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands — but ahead of South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Studying the Finns makes sense, but focusing attention on the groups that are behind should be a much higher priority.


Vineyard Haven, Mass.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and the author of "Jews, Confucians and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism."

To the Editor:

I was an English teacher in the early 1990s in the Czech Republic. I taught at a four-year academic high school, the kind of school referred to as a "classical gymnasium." Only the most academic students attended this kind of school. The majority of teenagers attended what were called technological schools, where students learned a trade, anything from plumbing to secretarial work to home economics. Similar systems exist throughout Europe and Asia.

In the United States, every student has the opportunity to attend a four-year academic high school.

When American test scores are compared with those from Europe and Asia, all American students are weighed against a small academic elite. If every European or Asian student, in both kinds of schools, were tested against every American student, the scores would even out.

Ultimately, both approaches achieve essentially the same result: only an elite has the good fortune to attend rigorous schools and succeed at a university. But America’s system, for all its flaws, is far more egalitarian and flexible. In America you are not permanently tracked at 14 into a particular stratum of society. Educators and politicians need to look at the bigger picture and all the facts before deciding on policy.


Devon, Pa.

Walt Gardner, Lawrence Harrison, & Mariga Temple-West

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