Interlude—Ripley does Premont: To our eye, Amanda Ripley seems a bit clueless about public schools.
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be clueless—or gullible, perhaps just naïve. At the start of her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley says that she actively avoided writing about education until 2010, when Time assigned her to do a profile of Michelle Rhee.
She bungled that profile in basic ways. After that, she got taken in by DC’s rising test scores.
Ripley was a naïf about public schools as of 2010. But so what? Three years later, she is being actively promoted as an expert on the whole world’s public schools!
That said, she sometimes seems to write from a nation named Cluelessjournalistan. For an example of the work which defines that troubled land’s culture, consider Ripley’s lengthy report in the current Atlantic.
On-line, Ripley’s clueless work appears beneath the headings shown below. We’ll assume she didn’t compose them, but they capture the tone of the piece:
The Case Against High-School SportsIs that true? To the extent that we lag at all, does the United States “lag in international education rankings” because we “spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student?”
The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?
Everything is possible! That said, it’s hard to know why such spending would explain the fact that we lag the world’s highest-scoring nations in tests of the world’s fourth-graders. Too much spending on dodgeball, perhaps?
Whatever! In truth, those headings don’t make much sense. But some editor in Upper Rubeistan bowed to that slumbering nation’s culture—a culture of simple-minded over-statement about matters our upper-class journalists don’t seem to care much about.
That said, let’s focus on Ripley herself. How clueless—how inexperienced, how gullible—does she sometimes seem in that lengthy article in an historic, widely-respected American journal?
To our long-suffering eye, Ripley seems very clueless, almost insultingly so. To demonstrate her point about the pernicious effects of high school sports, she wastes our time with a lengthy visit to a very small high school in Premont, Texas, a small town you’ve never heard of. A bit of background:
In the spring of 2012, the state of Texas was threatening to shut the Premont School District because of financial mismanagement and academic failure. As a result, an energetic new superintendent, Ernest Singleton, decided to suspend all high school sports, including football.
This saved the small district a lot of cash. Predictably, it also produced an educational miracle, a common occurrence in the true-believing nation of Feelgoodistan.
After high school sports were axed, the start of the last school year seemed very quiet at Premont High, student population 282. Soon, though, the miracles started, as they so routinely do when people like Ripley type pleasing novels about public schools:
RIPLEY (10/13): But there was an upside to the quiet. “The first 12 weeks of school were the most peaceful beginning weeks I’ve ever witnessed at a high school,” [Superintendent] Singleton says. “It was calm. There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after-school tutoring. I saw such a difference.”We’ve been reading portraits like this since the 1960s. People like Ripley produce these profiles in much the way other folk breathe.
[Premont High’s quarterback] missed the adrenaline rush of running out onto the field and the sense of purpose he got from the sport. But he began playing flag football for a club team on the weekends, and he admitted to one advantage during the week: “It did make you focus. There was just all this extra time. You never got behind on your work.”
That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”
Suspending sports was only part of the equation, but Singleton believes it was crucial. He used the savings to give teachers raises. Meanwhile, communities throughout Texas, alarmed by the cancellation of football, raised $400,000 for Premont via fund-raisers and donations—money that Singleton put toward renovating the science labs.
No one knew whether the state would make good on its threat to shut the district down. But for the first time in many years, Premont had a healthy operating balance and no debt. This past spring, the school brought back baseball, track, and tennis, with the caveat that the teams could participate in just one travel tournament a season. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” Coach Russell told me, “compared to 2 percent before.”
How miraculous! Before, learning was occurring in only two percent of Premont High classrooms! Now that the football team is gone, the number has jumped all the way to 99 percent!
Who believes stories like that? Almost surely, Premont High doesn’t have enough classrooms for those figures to make literal sense. And of course, Ripley has no objective data from which she could derive a non-anecdotal assessment.
But how good it feels to read this tale about The Little High School That Did! We’ve been reading these tales our whole adult life. Consider the version of this tale we once read on the front page of the Washington Post.
The piece appeared in February 2006. Across the top of the Post’s front page, Jay Mathews, a major education writer, profiled a low-scoring elementary school which had suddenly turned things around.
Bannered across the top of page one, the story started like this:
MATHEWS (2/2/06): A Study in Pride, Progress;A favorable rumor about improved scores had spread through this low-scoring school. (In paragraph one, that “rumor” was described as “news.” Whatever!)
Alexandria School Works Hard to Erase Academic Blot
News of the latest state test results blew softly through the remodeled halls of Maury Elementary School in June like a welcome breeze. Reports were that fifth-graders at Maury, the lowest-scoring school in Alexandria, had done much better on the writing test.
It was good to hear, but it would take more than a favorable rumor to boost the reputation of the little red-brick school on Russell Road and remove its "needs improvement" label, imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Mathews told the familiar story in slow, dramatic fashion. An energetic new principal had come to Maury. Would her efforts succeed?
Eventually, readers got the uplifting news. This passage explains the photos of beaming parents and children we saw at the top of page one:
MATHEWS: A new round of Virginia Standards of Learning tests were given in the spring of 2005. Those were the scores being examined by the state.“Whoops of joy” had greeted this news at the (formerly) low-scoring school. Ninety-two percent of Maury students had passed the state reading test! This explained why Maury was spread across the top of page one, celebrated as “a study in pride, progress.”
"There are many factors and calculations that have to be made to help with the final determination of AYP," said Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education.
During a recent interview in his office, Dawson leafed through copies of the materials he sent to Richmond and noted both the high and the low spots. Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in [reading] scores among third- and fifth-graders. The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent to 92 percent.
Dawson said he knew that information had been greeted with whoops of joy at Maury, but he tried to remain cool and objective, not unlike certain "Star Trek" characters. "Not to sound like Data or Mr. Spock," he said, "but I am not supposed to be emotionally involved."
Ripley writes a variant of this ur-story in the current Atlantic. Unfortunately, when Mathews wrote this uplifting tale, his uplifting data were wrong.
Here at The Howler, we don’t live in Typewhatfeelsgoodistan. Long ago, teaching in Baltimore’s schools, we learned that a serious person has to be skeptical about these feel-good stories.
In the case of Maury Elementary, we checked the data and discovered a scam—a major, scandalous statewide scam that the Washington Post proceeded to hide. But make no mistake about a few basic facts:
At that time, only two grades were being tested in Virginia elementary schools, third grade and fifth. And uh-oh! At the third-grade level, Maury Elementary actually had the second lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia on that year’s reading test!
That reported 92 percent passing rate was an artifact of that remarkable statewide scam. In fact, Maury was still a very low-scoring school. Simply put, the Washington Post had been taken in by a statewide, state-run scam.
That was 2006. Seven years later, there is the very inexperienced Ripley writing the same familiar tale about a small high school in Texas. And there is the storied Atlantic, printing this gong-show journo porn under those silly headings.
No, Virginia and also Nebraska: Almost surely, the United States doesn’t “lag in international education rankings” because we “routinely spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student.”
It may well be that American schools invest too much in high school athletics. (Or not.) But that doesn’t explain why we lag in those rankings, to the extent that we do.
We hope it’s true that Premont High is developing a stronger academic culture. For ourselves, we wouldn’t assume that this is true just because The Superintendent Said.
We assume that Superintendent Singleton is busting his hump, trying to improve a district which had apparently been poorly run for a fairly long time. But only a fool would offer silly statistical claims which suggest that performance went through the roof from one school year to the next.
Only a fool—or a music man! Which fits Ripley best?
Ripley’s piece in the current Atlantic is fairly dumb all the way down. People like Ripley write that crap even as they pretend to “tell all” about world education.
Here is a genuine miracle story:
As recently as 2010, Ripley was still avoiding education, seeing it as a dull topic. Three years later, she has been anointed by U.S. elites as an authority on the whole world’s public schools!
Why would U.S. elites do that? And does Ripley novelize her high-profile book the same way she does down in Premont?
Next: Ripley on Ravitch and Rhee
Background reading: In January 2012, the New York Times profiled the struggling Premont schools. To read that discussion, click here.
In February and March of 2006, we spent a lot of time on that statewide scam in Virginia. For our interview with the head the state's school board, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06, with links to previous work.