Part 5—Who paid for Ripley’s trip: Amanda Ripley prepped at Lawrenceville, like Malcom Forbes before her.

In 1996, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, whatever that means, from Cornell. Or so Wikipedia says!

That pedigree may explain the way Ripley opens her ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Darlings! As she starts, Ripley explains that she used to sniff at the very idea of writing about public schools.

To Ripley, it just wasn’t done!

Below, you see the way Ripley opens her book. Whenever the analysts read the highlighted statements, they emit low mordant chuckles, with the occasional spit-take:
RIPLEY (page 1): For most of my career at Time and other magazines, I worked hard to avoid education stories. If my editors asked me write about schools or tests, I countered with an idea about terrorism, plane crashes, or a pandemic flu. That usually worked.

I didn’t say so out loud, but education stories seemed, well, kind of soft. The articles tended to be headlined in chalkboard font and festooned with pencil doodles. They were brimming with good intentions but not too much evidence. The people quoted were mostly adults; the kids just turned up in the photos, smiling and silent.
You can’t really blame a scholar like Ripley for avoiding a topic like that!

In this passage, Ripley has started building a pleasing framework around herself and her person. She is conning us rubes as she does, though it’s all for a good cause, of course.

On page 2, she starts presenting the long list of misstatements and non sequiturs which drive her book. On that page, she offers the largest misstatement in the history of books—a clownish mischaracterization of a graphic which appears on page 3.

In her statement on page 2, she mischaracterizes the educational history of miraculous Finland. As she does, she pretends that she is explaining her reason for writing her book.

The puzzling misstatements continue. On page 4, Ripley laments the fact that American kids “know far much less math” than the typical child in New Zealand.

Really? Below, you see the average scores from the 2011 TIMSS. On the TIMSS, 500 is set as the international average, with a standard deviation of 100:
Average scores, 2011 TIMSS, math
Grade 4: United States 541, New Zealand 486
Grade 8: United States 509, New Zealand 488
Whatever! If you want to review the “evidence,” you can do so here.

On page 7, we get another set of suspect characterizations of Finland’s miraculous history. No sourcing is offered in endnotes. The string of suspect or plainly inaccurate statements continues throughout the book.

Let’s return to page one! After explaining her initial avoidance, Ripley explains, or pretends to explain, how she developed her interest in education reporting.

Back in 2008, she says, she was assigned to write a profile of Michelle Rhee for Time. Today, the profile is famous for its cover photo, which showed Rhee wielding a broom. In the profile itself, Ripley committed one of the strangest errors in the history of magazines.

In this passage, Ripley is describing Rhee’s three years as a second- and third-grade teacher in Baltimore. The highlighted statement strikes us as flagrantly bogus:
RIPLEY (12/8/08): The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them.”
The highlighted passage is quite astounding. Plainly, that isn’t what Rhee had always said, in writing no less, about her miraculous teaching.

In fact, Rhee had always said, in writing, that 90 percent of those kids ended up scoring at the 90th percentile or higher. To people who had the first freaking clue, that claim always seemed absurd on its face. We noted this fact in real time.

(A few years later, evidence surfaced supporting the notion that this self-glorying claim had been total crap all along. But here’s what Rhee’s resume had actually said: “Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” This written claim was widely reported in 2007.)

Gack! What to do? Rhee had made a highly implausible claim. In part, she had ridden to success on the strength of this act of self-glorification. What was an education reporter to do, in a world whose billionaires were in love with Rhee’s fanciful statements?

Simple! Ripley and/or her editor simply disappeared Rhee’s boast! By the time Ripley got through, Rhee had made an impressive claim about her own achievements. But Rhee’s claim, while still impressive, was no longer absurd on its face.

Why would a journalist clean up a statement that way? We can’t answer that. But Ripley has a history of making amazing misstatements.

Of course, in our post-journalistic world, that may be the way a young journalist gets ahead!

As Ripley continues at the start of her book, she keeps explaining, or pretending to explain, the way she decided to write it. On page 7, she offers those additional claims about miraculous Finland. Then, she tells us this:
RIPLEY (page 7): I kept wondering what it would actually be like to be a kid in those mystical lands of high scores, zero dropouts, and college graduates. Were Finnish kids really the Nordic robots that I kept reading about?...

I decided to spend a year traveling around the world on a field trip to the smart-kid countries. I wanted to go see these little bots for myself. What were they doing at ten on a Tuesday morning? What did their parents say to them when they got home? Were they happy?
Ripley “decided to spend a year traveling around the world on a field trip to the smart-kid countries.” She makes it sound like she did Europe on six dollars a day, backpack crammed with pencils and paper.

You have to go to the end of Ripley’s book, to the third page of her Author’s Note, to find a glancing reference to the funding she received from the New America Foundation, a Bill Gates-funded think tank.

As far as we know, Bill and Melinda Gates are completely sincere in their views about public education. But their funding, which has been immense, has stronly tilted the playing field in the world of upper-class hustlers with their hands out.

According to Susan Ohanian, the Gates Foundation has given $5.9 million to New America in the last four years. New America lists the Gates Foundation as one of its five biggest funders.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. There is something wrong with the adventure tales and blatant misstatements which animate Ripley’s book.

If you want to read an edited version of Ripley’s upbeat origins tale, you can do so courtesy of New America. Why did she scorn education reporting? What made her adopt a new attitude?

You can read that edited version here. Without the slightest hint of irony, the edited excerpt from Ripley’s book appears beneath a comical heading: In The Tank.

Go ahead—click that link. We are not making that up.

We’d planned to move from here to Ripley’s views on “tracking.” In her book, she argues that we need more “rigor” in our schools. She argues that we should raise the academic requirements for our public school teachers.

Each idea seems fine to us, although the question of what constitutes “rigor” in various settings goes undiscussed. For her third major point, Ripley argues that we should avoid “tracking,” although it isn’t especially clear what she means by the term.

Here, as with other topics, we were struck by Ripley’s apparent lack of sophistication about American schools. In a wide array of ways, Ripley doesn't seem to know a great deal about the wide array of our schools. But then again, there's no reason why she would know that.

Until 2008, Ripley always avoided education reporting. She has no background in the field.

In our view, this lack of background shows all through her book.

That said, much of our education reporting is now being done by people who fit Ripley’s profile. Yes, they went to the finest schools—but they have no particular background in education, and we’d say it shows.

Two cases in point:

Last June, Vivian Yee wrote a front-page report in the New York Times about “ability grouping” in schools.

Yee, who is a bright young person, graduated from Yale in June 2012. It isn’t her fault that she was given this highly specialized assignment in a field where she has no particular background.

It isn’t Yee's fault that she got this assignment less than one year out of college. But as we read her report, we’d say that her lack of experience showed.

So too when Dana Goldstein commented on Yee’s report.

Unlike Yee, Goldstein is an actual education reporter, or so the marquee says. She graduated from Brown in 2006, having wintered in Paris in 2004. At Brown, she studied European intellectual and cultural history with a focus on gender, according to the leading authority on her life.

Unlike Ripley, Goldstein failed to prep. She admits that she attended a public high school in Ossining, New York. Like Ripley, she seems to have no particular background in public education.

She took the free trip to Finland in December 2008—admittedly, not at high season.

Goldstein was a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, just as Ripley was. These fine young people are all being funded out of the same bags of funds.

Last June, Goldstein commented on Yee’s front-page report. Goldstein seems like a very nice person, but we thought her piece was striking in its cluelessness. We were struck by Goldstein’s apparent lack of familiarity with the wide array of American public schools.

These people went to the finest schools. But they’ve never set foot inside a classroom, unless the classroom is in Helsinki and they’re taking the tour.

More on Goldstein’s work to come. Goldstein seems like a very nice person. But we would call this whole strange guild a form of post-journalism.


  1. How can Rhee's students have lost it all in 4th grade? I know students lose a grade or two over summer vacation, mostly in math, but how would a student lose everything? I can see them failing to make progress, but I don't see how a child loses cognitive ability once acquired. I also don't see how Rhee can equate good or bad teaching with superficial things like cell phone use. As reported, Rhee did terrible her first year, couldn't control her classroom at all. Should she have been fired for that? Based on what I've heard about her, she would fire a teacher like she was. What does Rhee mean by engagement? How do you accomplish engagement if expectations are much higher than children can meet? Under those circumstances kids give up. What is Rhee's solution to that?

  2. Correction -- they lose a month or two, not a grade or two over summer. Sorry.

  3. Test scores .

    Bone-gnawer- test scores have nothing to do with education - although it is an important bone to gnaw on for bone-gnawer.

    1. Test scores don't measure everything, but neither are they meaningless.

      Bone-gnawer is an ugly term. I assume you know that and are a troll expressing Bob-hate.

    2. "Bone-gnawer is an ugly term>

      So is "troll expressing Bob-hate."

      What a maroon!

    3. Fish gotta swim, trolls gotta troll.

  4. Note Ripley's careless writing. She says, "[Rhee] and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests." The bottom percentile is the zeroth. It's the 1% who score the lowest. Maybe Ripley meant the bottom quintile. Or. maybe she meant students in relatively low percentiles. But, she certainly didn't mean what she wrote.

    1. Maybe the progress was due to the other teacher's efforts. Does that other teacher corroborate Rhee's claims?

  5. Scores in second grade are not meaningful, since these are rank beginners, who catch on at different rates. They typically don't begin to hit their stride until third grade. My kids hardly knew how to read in second grade -- by fourth or fifth they were reading above grade level and by high school were Merit finalists.

  6. Apparently the education beat is where newbies get sent? Everyone has to start somewhere, of course, but do these youngsters have editors? How old are their editors, and how much experience on the education editing beat do they have? Obviously newspapers and journals don't think education is a terribly important beat, because they most likely aren't sticking 23 year olds on the arms control or terrorism beats.

  7. Yes, but don't these people have editors? And can't they, as reporters, seek out feedback from real experts? Isn't that what real reporters, not public relations people, are supposed to do?

  8. Alison Mitchell, the national editor at the NYT, oversees that paper's education reporting.

  9. Newspapers' statistical reporting in other areas suffers from problems similar to those Bob points out wrt education. E.g., here's a front page article from my local paper. It's clear that the EPA proposes to reduce the biofuel mandate by 3 billion gallons, but there's no way to tell how significant that reduction is, either as a percent of total biofuel mandated or as a percent of total fuel volume.

    1. Wikipedia shows that in 2013, the law required 16.55 billion gallons of biofuels. However, the law requires that this amount rise year by year, reaching 24 billion gallons in 2017. The newspaper article doesn't give year by year figures or explain when the 3 billion gallon cut takes effect. I wouldn't be surprised if this "cut" turned out not to be a reduction, but rather a smaller increase.

      This biofuels article illustrates that media's statistical analysis is defective in areas other than education.