THE PROGRESS, THE GAPS AND THE SCANDAL: “Pshaw,” the widely praised author said!


Part 4—Where do our gaps come from: We still have large achievement gaps here in the U.S.

(For details, see yesterday’s post.)

We have large gaps between different states. We have large gaps based on family income.

We still have large gaps based on race. Black kids and Hispanic kids have been scoring much better in recent decades. But white kids have been improving too.

The gaps based on race have gotten smaller, but they’re still quite large.

This raises a fairly obvious question—where do our large gaps come from? By now, almost everyone knows the answer(s) to that question. That’s why it can be annoying—even cause for something like anger—to read Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

Almost surely, Ripley is one of the nicest people in the world. That said, she has no experience in public schools; she’s done little education reporting. Perhaps for those reasons, her cluelessness is on wide display all through her widely praised book.

Ripley does have lots of experience with the fatuous norms of modern post-journalism, Time magazine style. She seems well versed in the standard scripts of modern “education reform.”

Perhaps for these reasons, she rolls her eyes, all through her book, at the actual sources of our large gaps. It’s maddening to see a child of our highest elites behave in this low-IQ fashion.

Let’s be clear. Ripley hails from the kinder, gentler wing of “education reform.” Her motives may be entirely good. That doesn’t make her less clueless.

Where do our large achievement gaps come from? Let’s be honest—everyone knows the basic answers to this question by now.

Everyone knows the answers, but so what? “Pshaw,” Ripley seems to say, all through her uninformed book.

Where do our large achievement gaps come from? Let us count the sources:

Do our large achievement gaps come from low income or poverty?

Pshaw, Ripley says early on. When poverty is suggested as a source of our gaps, she distracts our attention to Norway:
RIPLEY (page 6): 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.

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.
Why doesn’t Norway have better test scores? We have no idea! But low income is an obvious part of the problem over here.

Pshaw, Ripley quickly says, batting away an obvious fact, one “reformers” prefer to avoid.

Do our large achievement gaps stem from inadequate funding?

Pshaw, Ripley says, in an absurdly overstated passage.

In this early passage, Ripley is discussing results of the 2000 PISA. She makes some decent points about spending. She also overstates wildly:
RIPLEY (page 17): In essence, PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything— everything—depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments. As in all other large organizations from GE to the Marines, excellence depended on execution, the hardest thing to get right.

Kids around the world took the PISA again in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012...Each time, the results chipped away at the stereotypes: Not all the smart kids lived in Asia, for one thing. For another, U.S. kids did not have a monopoly on creativity. PISA required creativity, and many other countries delivered.

Money did not lead to more learning either. Taxpayers in the smartest countries in the world spent dramatically less per pupil than on education that taxpayers in the United States did.
In this instance, Ripley is working with a fairly good point. Forget the international comparisons! Even in the United States, per pupil spending correlates imperfectly with apparent per pupil success.

At least two states which spend the least per pupil are among the highest scoring states after disaggregation. (Texas and North Carolina; for spending per pupil, click this.) It’s silly to assume that more spending will automatically go to good use.

Ripley is working with a fairly good point, but she wildly overstates it. Spending on education doesn’t make kids smarter? Money doesn’t lead to more learning? If those absurd claims are true, why does anyone spend any money on public schools at all?

This is Ripley’s best point. She wildly overstates it.

Do our large achievement gaps result from immigration?

Pshaw, Ripley says. As she does, she offers several of the most disingenuous passages in a book which is full of such work.

One such passage is found on page 17. For our previous post, click this.

In another such passage, Ripley gives the false impression that immigrant students in Finland are outperforming that country’s national average. For our previous post, click here.

In another disingenuous passage, Ripley drops an extremely brief discussion of race, veering off into a discussion of immigration in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hint: Immigrant children in those countries tend to come from the Asian tigers.

For those playing at home, the passage appears on page 159. Let’s skip it for today.

What about our racial achievement gaps?

Pshaw, Ripley seems to say. Don’t even ask!

Let’s be fair! Starting on page 158, Ripley devotes two paragraphs to the special situations faced by many American black kids. (Faced by many, not by all.) In her third paragraph, she veers off into a long-term study of teens in Australia. Instantly, this leads to a favorite cry of “education reformers:”

It’s all about expectations!

Unfortunately, it isn’t all about expectations. Due to her lack of experience, Ripley may not understand that. But she spends amazingly little time wondering about the large achievement gaps which still obtain along racial lines in this country, which has a brutal racial history, as several people have noted.

Soon, Ripley is rolling her eyes at people who are aware of this situation. As she discusses immigrant students in Finland, she veers off into some standardized propaganda.

In the passage shown below, she is discussing Heikki Vuorinen, a Finnish teacher whose public school serves quite a few immigrant kids. The heroic Vuorinen doesn’t “want to think about their backgrounds too much,” he is quoted heroically saying.

“There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them,” the heroic teacher heroically says. Then we get handed this crap:
RIPLEY (page 162): I’d never heard a U.S. teacher talk that way. To the contrary, state and federal laws required that teachers and principals think about their kids as different; they had to monitor their students’ race and income and report that data to the government. Schools were judged by the test scores of kids in each category. Most principals knew their ratios of low-income and minority kids by heart, like baseball players knew batting averages. There were important reasons for all this labeling: the U.S. government was trying to highlight injustice in order to fix it. Still, I wondered how much that raised consciousness has suppressed expectations along the way.

Diane Ravitch, one of the most popular education commentators in the United States, had insisted for years that Americans should think about students’ backgrounds more, not less. “Our problem is poverty, not schools,” she told a roaring crowd of teachers at a D.C. rally in 2011. Kids were not all the same, in others words, and their differences preceded them.
There are important reasons for all this “labeling,” Ripley writes, even as she snarks about the people who do it and mischaracterizes their intent.

Meanwhile, guess what! Very unfortunately, American kids are not all the same, and their differences do precede them. In our view, it’s extremely unfortunate that children get told that they have, or belong to, a “race.”

But you can’t discuss our public schools unless you acknowledge a basic fact: our brutal history has created Three Americas within our student population.

As populations, our black, white and Hispanic kids are not the same. If you refuse to discuss that obvious fact, you refuse to discuss reality.

Many “black” kids are doing brilliantly in school. Many “white” kids are struggling. But on average, as populations, the two groups are still quite different. The achievement gaps are still large, even though they’ve gotten smaller and will be gone someday.

Meanwhile, what about Ravitch? We think she does tend to overstate, as everyone does on occasion. For ourselves, we think our schools have lots of problems; we think poverty is a problem too. But that’s what Ravitch thinks, of course. Ripley’s paraphrase of that one brief statement is snarky and disingenuous.

In that passage, Ripley wishes away the unfortunate role our brutal history has played in creating our gaps. As she continues, she wishes away the role played by poverty too:
RIPLEY (continuing directly): In Finland, Vuorinen said the opposite of what Ravitch was saying in America.

“Wealth doesn’t mean a thing,” he says. “It’s your brain that counts. These kids know that from very young. We are all the same.”
Except we aren’t all the same. Even at very young ages, neither are our brains. And family income is very important. Ripley, who comes from a high-income background, may not fully understand that.

Is it true that wealth doesn’t mean a thing? Perhaps that’s true in Finland, which is highly egalitarian. But gaze upon our gap over here. Ten points is roughly equal to one academic year:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP:
Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch 269.0
Students who aren’t eligible 295.4
For reasons everyone understands, family income plays a large role in our educational outcomes. Everybody knows this by now, except one heroic teacher in Finland and the new star of the elites.

The scandal lies in the way our “education writers” have agreed to praise the flimsy work performed in this book. Ripley seems to be clueless and/or scripted.

Why has she been widely praised?

Tomorrow: Where does literacy come from?


  1. Stitch together all the pieces on the Ripley book (thus far and yet to come) and you'd have another book, at least an e-book. Sell it on Amazon and skip this year's pledge drive.

    1. Tried that with "War on Gore." Didn't work.

    2. What did "War on Gore" not work at? I think it does a good job of providing convincing information about how Bush was elected and how Gore was undermined by the mainstream media.

      I think Bob has other ways of supporting himself and this blog is for venting and trying to make the world a better place. Tony Danza's new book about his half-year he spent teaching a 2-hr a day English class (with a co-teacher), is an example of the kind of "book" someone throws together when trying to earn a living.

    3. "I think Bob has other ways of supporting himself and this blog is for venting and trying to make the world a better place."

      Half right.

  2. Ripley argument about poverty and Norway is an obvious logical fallacy. My god! She isn't just actively clueless, she's dead dog dumb!

    You cannot disprove the claim that poverty causes poor educational outcomes by pointing out that bad outcomes sometimes occur in the absence of poverty.

    All she has shown is the unremarkable fact that wealth doesn't automatically cause a good education.

    1. Talk about dead dog dumb.

      "All she has shown is the unremarkable fact that wealth doesn't automatically cause a good education."

      You mean spending, don't you, not wealth. Or do you put BOB in the Ripley category for saying:

      "For reasons everyone understands, family income plays a large role in our educational outcomes. Everybody knows this by now, except one heroic teacher in Finland and the new star of the elites."

      KZ ( Amused at the level of intellect brought to the BOBcomment table by his adoring fans.)

    2. Shorter KZ (he's a closet BOBfan!):

      Somerby is basically right. But you're stupid like all people, except me, who agree with him.

    3. KZ proves to be a grade A moron with this comment. Let me try and spell it out for you like a child so you can follow:

      Thesis: Poverty is a substantial cause of poor academic results

      Ripley: False! Norway is wealthy and has poor educational outcomes. Therefore poverty does not cause poor educational outcomes.

      Me: Ripley's argument is a logical fallacy. Her example does not disprove (or have any relevance to) the thesis that poverty causes poor educational outcomes.

      If you are still to slow to see it KZ, here's an analogous logical argument:

      Thesis: Torrential Rains are a substantial cause of flooding.

      Ripley: False! Nevada does not have torrential rains and experienced massive flooding (the Hoover Dam burst).

      Me: Ripley's argument is a logical fallacy. Her example does not disprove (or have any relevance to) the thesis that torrential rain causes flooding

      KZ: Bob once said that burst dams affect flooding! Gotcha!!

  3. The passage about Ravitch is the most disgraceful thing in Ripley's book. I wonder how Ripley can look at herself in the mirror in the morning. -E