THE PROGRESS, THE GAPS AND THE SCANDAL: Who gives a fig about black kids?


Part 2—Ripley falls into a gap: According to our most reliable testing program, American students have made a lot of progress in basic skills over the past twenty years.

Consider the nation’s black kids.

Your nation is full of good, decent, admirable, impressive black kids; we see such kids all over Baltimore every day of the week. Here are the most reliable math scores for this particular “demographic,” running through the most recent available data:
Average scores, black students, Grade 8 math, NAEP
1996: 239
2007: 259
2011: 262
According to a widely used rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is equal to one academic year.

We regard that as a very rough rule of thumb. But black eighth graders gained 23 points in math on the NAEP during that fifteen-year period. That’s a very large rate of progress.

This apparent progress is totally AWOL in Amanda Ripley’s new book. At one point, Ripley suggests that Minnesota achieved an unusual amount of progress in math from 1995 through 2007. In a rather typical pattern, she lists various things Minnesota did that “the other states” did not.

In fact, Minnesota’s score gains in math during that period are slightly smaller than those of the nation. But it’s the first rule of Journalist Club:

You do not talk about the progress! The progress must be disappeared.

For background on this potent rule, see yesterday's post.

Alas! Along with those apparent gains, we also get the gaps. The gaps are still quite large, as we noted yesterday, although they’ve been getting smaller.

The achievement gaps have been getting smaller. But data like these are painful:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP:
White students: 292.57
Black students: 261.84
Hispanic students: 269.45
We regard that ten-point rule as a very rough rule of thumb. Even so, despite the progress, the gaps remain painfully large.

(Partial reason: White students have also been scoring better as the years roll past!)

Members of Journalist Club will often discuss the gaps. The daps produce the gloomy tales our modern elites dearly love.

To her credit, Ripley doesn’t dwell on the gaps as much as some members of Journalist Club. In part, this is because she shows amazingly little interest in understanding key facts about our public schools—for example, in knowing why black kids don’t do as well in school as their white counterparts, despite the narrowing of the gaps.

In Journalist Club, folk don’t spend a lot of time worrying about “the blacks!” Such concerns are non-existent on MSNBC, where our nation’s pseudo-liberal multimillionaire hacks can be found.

Ripley devotes amazingly little time to this remarkable part of our educational culture. Why do the black/white, Hispanic/white gaps remain so large?

Finally, on page 158, she offers her one attempt to explain the situation. Her attempt to explain is very brief. Quite quickly, her logic founders.

As usual, she considers only the PISA, her choice as The One True Test. The PISA tests 15-year-old students:
RIPLEY (page 158): African-American students did poorly on PISA, heartbreakingly so. On average, they scored eighty-four points below white students in reading in 2009. It was as if the white kids had been going to school two extra years. The gap between white and African-American students showed itself in dozens of other ways too, from graduation rates to SAT scores. Generally speaking, up to half the gap could be explained by economics; black students were more likely to come from lower-income families with less-educated parents.

The other half was more complicated. Black parents tended to have fewer books and read less to their children, partly because they tended to be less educated. Then, when black students walked out of their homes and went to school each day, the disparities compounded. African-American kids were more likely to encounter inferior teachers and lower expectation in school, and they were disproportionately tracked into the lowest groups for reading and math lessons.

Each day, African-American kids got the message in many schools around the country. It was subtle, but it was consistent: Your time is not previous, and your odds are not good. Those kinds of signals took up residence in kids’ brains, echoing in the background whenever they contemplated what was possible...
From there, Ripley transits abruptly to “one long-term study of Australian teenagers,” in which “researcher found that teenagers’ aspirations at age fifteen could predict their futures.”

Just like that, we’ve transited to a favorite theme of elite “education reformers.” It’s all about expectations!

“Kids who had high expectations for themselves, who planned to finish school and go on to college, were significantly more likely to graduate high school,” Ripley says as she continues, describing the findings of that one study of kids in Australia. Let’s see if we fully grasp the logic of that key finding!

Did we understand that correctly? According to Ripley, kids who planned to go to college were more likely to finish high school?

As the young people like to say, “No shit, Sherlock!” Sadly, this is the kind of piddle we’re constantly served by elites inside Journalist Club.

Above, we’ve shown you Ripley’s full explanation for our black-white achievement gap—a gap which has been getting smaller but remains painfully large. She describes the gap as “heartbreaking,” then devotes three paragraphs to it.

Even there, Ripley can’t avoid displaying her general cluelessness with regard to educational issues, about which she knows very little. Did you spot a minor gap in this inexperienced writer’s logic?

We did! Here it is:

In that passage, Ripley stresses the size of the gap between achievement levels of black and white students. One paragraph later, she rails at the idea that black kids, who are years behind their white counterparts, are “disproportionately tracked into the lowest groups for reading and math lessons.”

Displaying fashionable pique, she suggests that this “tracking” delivers a negative message to black kids. There is no question that that may be true. But in her fashionable anger, she fails to acknowledge the way the actual problem she described might occasion that undesirable “tracking.”

She then transits to the creed of the elite: It’s all about expectations! As we’ll see later this week, Ripley pushes that preferred message at various points in her book.

Like everyone in Journalist Club, Ripley shows amazingly little interest in the lives of black kids. She spends a year traveling the world to learn about kids in Korea and Finland. As she does, she displays an amazing lack of interest in the lives of millions of good decent kids over here.

All three students she follows abroad are middle-class white high school kids. When she briefly tries to discuss the problems facing many black kids, her logic breaks down by her second paragraph.

We’ll take a guess. Very few people in Journalist Club know that they don’t give a fig about black kids. (Hispanic kids are discussed even less in Ripley’s book.)

That said, their actions make it clear. It doesn’t really enter their heads to puzzle about the lives of such kids.

Where those achievement gaps come from? As we continue this week, we’ll try to discuss that question.

Tomorrow: Fleshing out what Ripley said

Still to come: Disaggregating the 2011 TIMSS

How many years was it: When Ripley discusses the 2009 PISA reading test, she says the 84-point black/white gap represents “two extra years” of schooling.

Where did that number come from? In an endnote, Ripley says this: “In general, thirty-nine score points in PISA is considered the equivalent of one year of formal schooling.”

Such rules of thumb should be regarded as rough approximations. Still and all, there you are.

In math, the black/white gap was larger that year—92 points. That would be more than two years.

We agree with Ripley’s term: we think those gaps are “heartbreaking.” That’s why it’s a scandal when someone like Ripley is assigned to write a book like this, for which she’s manifestly unqualified. That’s why it’s a scandal when education writers agree to ignore her world-class howlers, which start on page 2 of her book.

Ripley echoes the preferences of modern elites; education writers rush to echo Ripley. It’s a scandal that Journalism Club works this way, but it plainly does.

On MSNBC, the whole gang is silent. Given the way we love our R-bombs, why do you think that is?


  1. Tracing the reasons for academic underperformance of minority children inevitably leads back to criticism of both parenting and social inequities. You cannot criticize parenting without being culturally insensitive. You cannot criticize problems like income inequality without rocking the boat for the 1%. Both sets of problems seem unsolvable so there doesn't seem to be a constructive solution and that is depressing. I think greater investment in early childhood education can help, but that would mean spending more public money and how is that going to happen with our current emphasis on austerity? That's why I think journalists aren't talking about this -- these are weeds no one wants to wander about in. I am looking forward to seeing what Somerby thinks is the problem and what he thinks should be done -- what the journalists should be talking about more.

  2. "Parenting and social inequities". Lindy says you can't criticize problems like income inequity "without rocking the boat for the 1%". And if you criticize minority parenting you risk sounding "culturally insensitive" (i.e., racist.) Therefore, according to Lindy, our problems seem unsolvable.

    Are they really so unsolvable as all that? The fact is that minority performance has improved substantially, even in the face of tremendous inequity. The problem is that it has not improved enough. I agree that "criticism" of parenting comes across as blaming the victim, however that does not mean there are not constructive solutions. Minority parents and minority children are motivated, like all parents, to want the best out of life for their children and themselves. Perhaps we should listen to what they have to say, instead of trying to impose solutions on them from above.

    As far as the tender sensibilities of the one per cent. Let our hearts not bleed too much for these malefactors of great wealth. They are not the victims, but the perpetrators, and if anyone deserves criticism, it is they.

  3. Bob, I think you have a typo in one of your quotes from Ripley's miss-mash that makes her look even more idiotic than she may well be. In the sentence, "Your time is not previous, and your odds are not good", surely she wrote "precious" did she not?