Reading Ripley: Quick, look over there!


Norway becomes a distraction: Amanda Ripley doesn’t seem to care a great deal about our low-income kids.

They’re barely present in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Their special problems and circumstances are largely ignored.

The proposals she makes for our public schools seem suited to the needs of middle-class kids. Middle-class kids are important, of course. But so are low-income kids.

Right from the start of her ballyhooed book, Ripley seems eager to avoid discussing the needs of low-income students. Consider her instant use of Norway as a distraction, a beard.

The passage in question appears on page 6 of her book. As she starts, she refers to the idea that Finland may be a high-scoring nation because it has little child poverty:
RIPLEY (page 6): Education pundits had worked mightily to explain different countries’ wildly different results [on international tests]...

Take Finland, for example, which ranked at the top of the world. American educators described Finland as a silky paradise, a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved. They insisted that Finland had attained this bliss partly because it had very low rates of child poverty, while the United States had high rates. According to this line of reasoning, we could never fix our schools until we fixed poverty.
If you’re familiar with education debate, you may hear a certain tone there. Education pundits are “insisting” on an airy-fairy, bliss-driven portrait of wonderful Finland, Ripley says. And not only that! Their line of reasoning leads to a gloomy, “can’t do” conclusion:

We won’t be able to fix our schools until we achieve something much more daunting—until we eliminate poverty! That’s the gloomy place to which we’re taken if we listen to the pundits who are talking about child poverty.

On the rare occasions when Ripley’s book stoops to discuss low-income kids, this attitude tends to persists. On page 6, here’s how she seems to distract her readers from thinking about our high child poverty rate:
RIPLEY (continuing directly): The poverty narrative made intuitive sense. The child poverty rate in the United States was about 20 percent, a national disgrace. Poor kids lived with the kind of grinding stress that children should not have to manage. They learned less at home, on average, and needed more help at school.

The mystery was not so simply solved, however. If poverty was the main problem, then what to make of Norway? A Nordic welfare state with high taxes, universal health career and abundant natural resources, Norway enjoyed, like Finland, less than 6 percent child poverty, one of the lowest rates in the world. Norway spent about as much as we did on education, which is to say, a fortune, relative to the rest of the world. And, yet, Norwegian kids performed just as unimpressively as our own kids on an international test of scientific literacy in 2009. Something was amiss in Norway, and it wasn’t poverty.
There’s a rather obvious problem with the logic there.

Perhaps with a bit of suspicion, you’ll note the oddness of ranking a nation on the result of one science test. But let’s assume that we can trust Ripley’s basic presentation. Let’s assume that Norway spends a lot of money on its schools and has little child poverty, but doesn’t score especially well on international tests.

(Due to the government shutdown, we can’t give you a selection of scores for Norway on the three major international tests.)

Let’s suppose Norway has little child poverty but it also has mediocre test scores. This would suggest that poverty, at least as defined, probably can’t be a huge explanation for Norway’s lack of success.

If Ripley were writing a book about Norway, this would be a useful observation. But she isn’t writing a book about Norway! She’s writing a book about public schools over here in the U.S.

Are poverty and related issues a major factor here? By making us look over there (at Norway), Ripley distracts us from this seminal question at this early point in her book.

Might we offer an obvious point of logic? It’s possible that poverty is a big problem here, and that something else is causing a problem in Norway. That passage is a classic piece of misdirection, whether Ripley intended it that way or not.

Ripley talks about poverty issues a few other times in her book. In fact, poverty and its related issues actually are a very big factor in the performance of American schools. It’s silly to pretend that they aren’t.

Ripley doesn’t much seem to care.

Who is Amanda Ripley? According to the leading authority on her life, she grew up in New Jersey, then graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell, an Ivy League university. Her brother, screenwriter Ben Ripley, graduated from Stanford, then from the USC film school.

We’re going to guess that Ripley, like us, grew up in an upwardly mobile educational environment. Judging from her book, she doesn’t seem to have a strong vibe for beautiful children who don’t.

More to come on Ripley’s treatment of issues surrounding income and the related topic of race. On the whole, her book seems to be aimed at the educational needs of middle class kids and not so much at the needs of the rest.

Reviewers haven’t noticed this problem. In modern American pseudo-journalism, it’s all about pushing the standardized scripts handed down from the elites!

Update on that educational environment: As it turns out, Ripley prepped at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

According to the leading authority on the school, Lawrenceville is “one of the oldest prep schools in the U.S.” Famous alumni include Malcolm Forbes and Randolph Apperson Hearst.


  1. In my state, New Jersey, spending per child in the 31 poor districts is much higher than in the other 500 school districts. Officially, they say its 25% higher but if you go through the published numbers for total cost of school district divided by number of pupils, you get places like Asbury Park is about $30,000/yr per child. Average per pupil state wide is about $17,000/yr/child so the $23,000 in Newark is a lot more than 20% higher.

    Should the money be redirected away from the schools to something that would impact poverty? A family with 4 children in Asbury Park schools is costing state taxpayers $120,000/year and they're still living in poverty. Crazy.

  2. Lionel,

    If you pay a family not to be poor, it doesn't automatically make them educated, so this is not an either/or situation. If someone wins the lottery, it doesn't erase years of deprivation leading up to that point, so it doesn't automatically make them better able to benefit from school.

    As rich as the US is, why must we choose between education spending and poverty programs? Why cannot we ensure that no one struggles in poverty while also educating all of our children?

    Adequate funding for schools is a start, but that money needs to be spent effectively, on things that work. It is unclear to me whether the amounts you are quoting include spending for special education. Poor children tend to be more likely to need special services that are costly to provide. If a district has many such students, they will spend more but the money will not go toward things like computers, libraries, lab equipment and field trips, as it might in a school with fewer students needing such services. Do you know what your figures include?

    1. Lindy,
      Its now almost 30 years since the NJ Supreme Court decision which as of now gives over 56% of state education aid to districts that have 5% of the students in the state. Results are abysmal. Last year the state took over Camden schools, Newark schools were already taken over by the state.

      All we have to show for the billions spent is the highest taxes in the nation. That money could have gone to better uses. Its wrong to waste public funds like that. We're foregoing cures for horrible diseases - I honestly believe that. I honestly believe its tragic and wrong.

      There are lots of articles online about New Jersey education funding. They get EVERYTHING. Someone who works in the Newark schools told me there are unopened boxes of computers.

      Its a bipartisan thing, of course. I am sure there are plenty of Republican backers making a lot of money off the schools in those districts.

      Regarding poverty - how would you hold people accountable? Someone who already has one or more children they cannot support should not have any more children but they do.

  3. I wonder why TDH only mentioned Forbes and Hearst in an effort to build peace, love, and understanding for Ripley and Lawrenceville.

    How on earth could he overlook the Mortimers; Tinsley and Topper?

  4. Don't tell me Bob disappeared Tinsley and Topper Mortimer. What cruel, callous blogger could simply disappear these valued individuals?

  5. Wow, Lionel & Lindy. Topper and Tinsley. BOBfans are begging for more on the Lawrenceville Lass and her calls for Reform with Rigor.


    1. Nope, I just have to spread the word about the travesty of New Jersey education spending wherever possible.

  6. About that update on the talented Ripley's education.

    Wasn't this pointed out to you and your readers over a week before this post was written?