Part 1—Who is Julia Ryan: Who the heck is Julia Ryan?
This weekend, we decided to check. Reason? We read Ryan’s latest news report on the web site of the Atlantic.
Ryan’s report appeared last Thursday. It attempted to inform Atlantic readers about the nation’s new NAEP scores.
We’d call Ryan’s news report/analysis piece an utterly clueless disaster. The work is so clueless, so under-informed, that a question crystallized for us:
Who in the world is Julia Ryan? More specifically, why is she writing about public schools for a famous old publication like the Atlantic?
Who is Julia Ryan? Skillfully, we tracked down some basic answers.
Inevitably, Ryan is a Harvard graduate. She’s a former reporter and “news executive editor” for the Harvard Crimson, the famous school’s famous student newspaper.
Every bit as impressively, Ryan did her prepping at Exeter. According to the leading authority on the school, “Phillips Exeter Academy is a highly selective, prestigious American private college preparatory school for boarding and day students between the 9th and 12th grade…The school has educated generations of the upper-class New England establishment and the American political elite, although the school has made an effort to move away from this reputation and diversify its intake in recent years.”
They said that. Not us!
So far, darlings, so very good! In our view, here’s where the problem begins:
Ryan graduated from Harvard in June 2013. Last May, she was still a college student, composing puddles of piddle for her school’s newspaper.
Are we being a judgmental there? During her senior year, Ryan teamed with another senior, Sarah Erwin, to pen “Listen Up,” an advice column for the lovelorn.
Below, you see the kind of piddle with which Atlantic’s new reporter burned her senior year. Not that there’s anything wrong with it!
ERWIN AND RYAN (4/9/13): Welcome to "Listen Up!," Flyby's weekly advice column, written by two jobless, washed-up seniors from their futon in Winthrop.You can read more, including this “tutorial” from Ryan alone concerning key issues of SWUGLIFE.
When we found ourselves questionless last week, we decided to create a focus group of Harvard students (i.e. we lured our friends to our suite with wine and M&Ms) to discuss some key questions facing our generation. After breezing through gay marriage, world hunger, and gun control, it was romantic interactions that most stumped our participants. This was not surprising: some studies show that five out of the five students who read this column do so primarily for advice about their love lives...
Obviously, there’s nothing “wrong” with wasting your time writing silly stupid tongue-in-cheek shit about your classmates’ love lives. Here’s where the wrong comes in:
Scanning her complete file at the Crimson, we find no sign that Ryan, an English major, has any background in education policy whatsoever. There’s certainly no sign of any such background, or of any relevant knowledge or skill, in the work she has done for the Atlantic, which hired her to work this beat for reasons which go unexplained.
Let’s be clear! Ryan didn’t hire herself to compose unknowing, worthless reports about the public schools. In a saner world, it would seem extremely strange that the Atlantic did.
What’s wrong with Ryan’s newest report? As Marshall McLuhan said in Annie Hall, Ryan knows nothing of this work! Let us count the levels of cluelessness in this imitation of journalism, the blame for which rests with Ryan’s superiors at the Atlantic.
Bottom line: Ryan seems to know nothing—nothing at all—about how to analyze test scores. The errors start early in her piece, although the errors are fairly minor. It’s the inability to establish any context for her key questions which truly stands out.
Bottom line: Have American kids improved a lot or a little in reading and math over the past twenty years?
At the start of her report, Ryan raises that bottom line question herself. She then wanders all over the countryside, not knowing how to address the question and wasting her readers’ time.
In the process, she cuts-and-pastes chunks of information we would regard as highly misleading. That said, this monumental cluelessness isn’t Ryan’s fault. It’s the fault of the people who hired her to report on a topic she plainly knows nothing about.
Have kids improved a lot or a little over the past twenty years? That is a very basic question. Ryan raises this question throughout.
Have skills improved a lot or a little? Beneath a somewhat ambiguous headline, this is the way she starts:
RYAN (11/7/13): American Math and Reading Skills Are Slowly Getting BetterHave scores and skills risen a lot or a little in the past two decades? In that passage, Ryan offers a rather ambiguous assessment.
Every two years, hundreds of thousands of American fourth and eighth grade students take a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The test evaluates students’ reading and math abilities through reading comprehension questions and grade-appropriate math problems.
The results of the test have provided a snapshot of American education since 1990. Over the last two decades, scores have been rising, but slowly. The 2013 results are out, and the national average scores have increased—just barely—since 2011. Here's what this year's score report says about the state of American education today.
Math and reading skills are improving—slowly
Math and reading skills haven’t changed much in the last two years, according to new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. Fourth and eighth grade students averaged one point higher on math than they did in 2011 on tests that are scored out of 500 points. Eighth grade students scored two points higher on average on the reading test, and fourth grade students showed no change in their average reading scores since 2011.
According to Ryan, “scores have been rising, but slowly,” since 1990. Does that mean they’ve risen a lot or a little? At this point, readers have no real idea. Ryan has given them no way to tackle that basic question.
(Note: Ryan doesn’t seem to know that the NAEP is more than forty years old. See below.)
At this point, Ryan provides a graphic about reading and math scores since 1990—a colorful graphic which has basically been cut and pasted from the new report on the NAEP by the National Center for Education Statistics. As presented in the Atlantic, the graphic includes seven asterisks which go unexplained and an apparent link to something called “the full trend line”—a link which doesn’t work.
Whatever! Returning to that bottom line question, Ryan's graphic indicates that Grade 4 reading scores have gone up 5 points, from 217 to 222, since 1992. That’s technically accurate, as we’ll note tomorrow.
According to Ryan’s graphic, Grade 8 reading scores have risen 8 points. Since 1990, math scores have risen by 22 points in Grade 4 and 28 points in Grade 8, this same graphic shows.
That graphic raises an obvious question: Is a five-point gain a lot or a little on the NAEP scale? How about a gain of 22, or even 28 points?
Incredibly, Ryan never makes any attempt to address this blindingly obvious question. Here’s the fairly obvious reason:
Despite her position at the Atlantic, Julia Ryan doesn’t know squat about public schools or education policy. She doesn’t have the slightest idea how to interpret or analyze test scores.
She has no background in these topics. She possesses no apparent skills and no apparent knowledge.
Simply put, Ryan doesn’t know what she is talking about. If you care about low-income children, it’s an insult that this fine, young upper-class person was hired to fill this spot.
We’re going to look at Ryan’s work all week. We’ll review her work for the Atlantic and for the Crimson, where she gave the world a peek at the values of her class.
We’ll ask you to marvel at the fact that Ryan was hired to handle the public school beat by a major, historic American journal. But we’ll ask you to notice something else:
Ryan is typical of the people who are being hired to write about low-income schools.
At Time, at the Nation, at the Atlantic, even at the New York Times, the same pattern obtains: Fine young people from upper-class backgrounds are being hired to write about kids in low-income schools.
For whatever reason, these are almost always fine young upper-class women. Admittedly, they went to the finest schools—to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to Brown and to Cornell.
Beyond that, they seem to have no idea how to analyze public school issues. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Their editors don’t seem to care.
Amanda Ripley prepped at Lawrenceville, then went to Cornell. We’d say she’s the prime example of this superficially credentialed but utterly clueless “education reporter” elite.
Their work is awful, horrendous, inept. They don’t know squat about low-income schools, although they're good at repeating the claims of elites.
Having said that, a dirty little secret obtains:
Within the world of the upper-class “press,” absolutely nobody cares.
Tomorrow: Julia Ryan’s hapless attempt to answer that bottom-line question
Just for the record: The National Assessment of Educational Progress began testing in 1969, not in 1990. Ryan’s apparent confusion stems from this:
She is discussing the so-called Main NAEP, a study which began in 1990. The NAEP’s original Long Term Trend study, which continues through the present day, began testing in 1969.
This is a fairly trivial matter. It’s the kind of trivial matter an education reporter for the Atlantic ought to know about. So too with Ryan’s mistakes in an earlier report about the TIMSS or the TIMMS, or whatever the damn thing is.
Why are people of this high social/low journalistic caliber being hired to write about schools?