AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT BY LAW: Clueless in Pseudojournaliststan!


Interlude—Ripley does Premont: To our eye, Amanda Ripley seems a bit clueless about public schools.

There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be clueless—or gullible, perhaps just naïve. At the start of her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley says that she actively avoided writing about education until 2010, when Time assigned her to do a profile of Michelle Rhee.

She bungled that profile in basic ways. After that, she got taken in by DC’s rising test scores.

Ripley was a naïf about public schools as of 2010. But so what? Three years later, she is being actively promoted as an expert on the whole world’s public schools!

That said, she sometimes seems to write from a nation named Cluelessjournalistan. For an example of the work which defines that troubled land’s culture, consider Ripley’s lengthy report in the current Atlantic.

On-line, Ripley’s clueless work appears beneath the headings shown below. We’ll assume she didn’t compose them, but they capture the tone of the piece:
The Case Against High-School Sports
The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?
Is that true? To the extent that we lag at all, does the United States “lag in international education rankings” because we “spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student?”

Everything is possible! That said, it’s hard to know why such spending would explain the fact that we lag the world’s highest-scoring nations in tests of the world’s fourth-graders. Too much spending on dodgeball, perhaps?

Whatever! In truth, those headings don’t make much sense. But some editor in Upper Rubeistan bowed to that slumbering nation’s culture—a culture of simple-minded over-statement about matters our upper-class journalists don’t seem to care much about.

That said, let’s focus on Ripley herself. How clueless—how inexperienced, how gullible—does she sometimes seem in that lengthy article in an historic, widely-respected American journal?

To our long-suffering eye, Ripley seems very clueless, almost insultingly so. To demonstrate her point about the pernicious effects of high school sports, she wastes our time with a lengthy visit to a very small high school in Premont, Texas, a small town you’ve never heard of. A bit of background:

In the spring of 2012, the state of Texas was threatening to shut the Premont School District because of financial mismanagement and academic failure. As a result, an energetic new superintendent, Ernest Singleton, decided to suspend all high school sports, including football.

This saved the small district a lot of cash. Predictably, it also produced an educational miracle, a common occurrence in the true-believing nation of Feelgoodistan.

After high school sports were axed, the start of the last school year seemed very quiet at Premont High, student population 282. Soon, though, the miracles started, as they so routinely do when people like Ripley type pleasing novels about public schools:
RIPLEY (10/13): But there was an upside to the quiet. “The first 12 weeks of school were the most peaceful beginning weeks I’ve ever witnessed at a high school,” [Superintendent] Singleton says. “It was calm. There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after-school tutoring. I saw such a difference.”

[Premont High’s quarterback] missed the adrenaline rush of running out onto the field and the sense of purpose he got from the sport. But he began playing flag football for a club team on the weekends, and he admitted to one advantage during the week: “It did make you focus. There was just all this extra time. You never got behind on your work.”

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

Suspending sports was only part of the equation, but Singleton believes it was crucial. He used the savings to give teachers raises. Meanwhile, communities throughout Texas, alarmed by the cancellation of football, raised $400,000 for Premont via fund-raisers and donations—money that Singleton put toward renovating the science labs.

No one knew whether the state would make good on its threat to shut the district down. But for the first time in many years, Premont had a healthy operating balance and no debt. This past spring, the school brought back baseball, track, and tennis, with the caveat that the teams could participate in just one travel tournament a season. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” Coach Russell told me, “compared to 2 percent before.”
We’ve been reading portraits like this since the 1960s. People like Ripley produce these profiles in much the way other folk breathe.

How miraculous! Before, learning was occurring in only two percent of Premont High classrooms! Now that the football team is gone, the number has jumped all the way to 99 percent!

Who believes stories like that? Almost surely, Premont High doesn’t have enough classrooms for those figures to make literal sense. And of course, Ripley has no objective data from which she could derive a non-anecdotal assessment.

But how good it feels to read this tale about The Little High School That Did! We’ve been reading these tales our whole adult life. Consider the version of this tale we once read on the front page of the Washington Post.

The piece appeared in February 2006. Across the top of the Post’s front page, Jay Mathews, a major education writer, profiled a low-scoring elementary school which had suddenly turned things around.

Bannered across the top of page one, the story started like this:
MATHEWS (2/2/06): A Study in Pride, Progress;
Alexandria School Works Hard to Erase Academic Blot

News of the latest state test results blew softly through the remodeled halls of Maury Elementary School in June like a welcome breeze. Reports were that fifth-graders at Maury, the lowest-scoring school in Alexandria, had done much better on the writing test.

It was good to hear, but it would take more than a favorable rumor to boost the reputation of the little red-brick school on Russell Road and remove its "needs improvement" label, imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
A favorable rumor about improved scores had spread through this low-scoring school. (In paragraph one, that “rumor” was described as “news.” Whatever!)

Mathews told the familiar story in slow, dramatic fashion. An energetic new principal had come to Maury. Would her efforts succeed?

Eventually, readers got the uplifting news. This passage explains the photos of beaming parents and children we saw at the top of page one:
MATHEWS: A new round of Virginia Standards of Learning tests were given in the spring of 2005. Those were the scores being examined by the state.

"There are many factors and calculations that have to be made to help with the final determination of AYP," said Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education.

During a recent interview in his office, Dawson leafed through copies of the materials he sent to Richmond and noted both the high and the low spots. Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in [reading] scores among third- and fifth-graders. The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent to 92 percent.

Dawson said he knew that information had been greeted with whoops of joy at Maury, but he tried to remain cool and objective, not unlike certain "Star Trek" characters. "Not to sound like Data or Mr. Spock," he said, "but I am not supposed to be emotionally involved."
“Whoops of joy” had greeted this news at the (formerly) low-scoring school. Ninety-two percent of Maury students had passed the state reading test! This explained why Maury was spread across the top of page one, celebrated as “a study in pride, progress.”

Ripley writes a variant of this ur-story in the current Atlantic. Unfortunately, when Mathews wrote this uplifting tale, his uplifting data were wrong.

Here at The Howler, we don’t live in Typewhatfeelsgoodistan. Long ago, teaching in Baltimore’s schools, we learned that a serious person has to be skeptical about these feel-good stories.

In the case of Maury Elementary, we checked the data and discovered a scam—a major, scandalous statewide scam that the Washington Post proceeded to hide. But make no mistake about a few basic facts:

At that time, only two grades were being tested in Virginia elementary schools, third grade and fifth. And uh-oh! At the third-grade level, Maury Elementary actually had the second lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia on that year’s reading test!

That reported 92 percent passing rate was an artifact of that remarkable statewide scam. In fact, Maury was still a very low-scoring school. Simply put, the Washington Post had been taken in by a statewide, state-run scam.

That was 2006. Seven years later, there is the very inexperienced Ripley writing the same familiar tale about a small high school in Texas. And there is the storied Atlantic, printing this gong-show journo porn under those silly headings.

No, Virginia and also Nebraska: Almost surely, the United States doesn’t “lag in international education rankings” because we “routinely spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student.”

It may well be that American schools invest too much in high school athletics. (Or not.) But that doesn’t explain why we lag in those rankings, to the extent that we do.

We hope it’s true that Premont High is developing a stronger academic culture. For ourselves, we wouldn’t assume that this is true just because The Superintendent Said.

We assume that Superintendent Singleton is busting his hump, trying to improve a district which had apparently been poorly run for a fairly long time. But only a fool would offer silly statistical claims which suggest that performance went through the roof from one school year to the next.

Only a fool—or a music man! Which fits Ripley best?

Ripley’s piece in the current Atlantic is fairly dumb all the way down. People like Ripley write that crap even as they pretend to “tell all” about world education.

Here is a genuine miracle story:

As recently as 2010, Ripley was still avoiding education, seeing it as a dull topic. Three years later, she has been anointed by U.S. elites as an authority on the whole world’s public schools!

Why would U.S. elites do that? And does Ripley novelize her high-profile book the same way she does down in Premont?

Next: Ripley on Ravitch and Rhee

Background reading: In January 2012, the New York Times profiled the struggling Premont schools. To read that discussion, click here.

In February and March of 2006, we spent a lot of time on that statewide scam in Virginia. For our interview with the head the state's school board, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06, with links to previous work.


  1. Understanding this common story-book reporting about schools means understanding its fatuity -- and its damaging effects.

    Bob Somerby is repeating himself here -- it's true.

    But as long as Somerby remains one of the vanishingly few children shouting to the courtiers that the Emperor has no clothes, we can surely forgive him his repetitions. Unless we are story-book trolls, that is.

    Somerby does not quote every statistic that pertains to VA, TX and NE educational testing, it's very true. But the few that he selects demonstrate quite tellingly against the competence of the couriers -- and against their story-book tales.

    So as long as Somerby's criticisms remains unheeded by the courtier class, we can understand that their fables based on misinformation and cherry-picking will continue to be far more damaging than any shortened syllables in his scream: The Emperor Is Still Naked!

    Unless we are story-book trolls ourselves, of course.

    1. Even though this comment, as a whole, sounds like a cry for help, I cannot resist:

      "Somerby remains one of the vanishingly few children shouting to the courtiers that the Emperor has no clothes"

      It would help if BOB didn't imagine himself to be a young child, but recognized he was geezer in his front yard dressed in his skivvies alternately yelling that the
      emperor has no clothes and telling the young kids they weren't qualified to be on his lawn.

      This comment must have been inspired by the Kristof bubbleland post. It is either the best example of bubbleland or a brilliant snark addict who admired BOB's suggestion that comment sections should be read for amusement.

      KZ (Buck nekkid on the Throne of Doom)

    2. "Go away" -- That's the one thing you can't tell a troll like K-"the Shits"-Z.

      Well, that, and anything else.

    3. Hey Anon @ 2:19, what two thiongs do BOB Somerby and Amanda Ripley have in common?


    4. KZ, don't you wonder how much actual reading the Bobettes have done of actual education reporting which is being done in newspapers across the land before they reached the precise conclusion their fearless leader has reached that not only is none of it worthwhile, but all of it is clownish and incompetent?

      How brilliant they all are!

    5. Clueless, Anonymous @6:00pm.

      The adjective of choice is clueless. Especially, but not exclusively, when the reporter is a youngish something
      or other.

    6. "when the reporter is a youngish something
      or other."


    7. Good point, Cecelia. I should have added chastisement for Anon. @ 6:00 pm for not calling them Bobistas. Except that would suggest Sandanista, and confuse people with the Stalinists over at Salon.


  2. Ripley wrote: The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student

    This is a tricky statistic. Every high school student takes math, but only a minority are on sports teams.

    1. When athletics are outlawed, only outlaws will be athletic.

  3. In order to decide whether high school athletics are responsible for decreased academic performance, you would need to compare schools with high and low athletic spending, controlling for the wealth of the district and a variety of student characteristics (family income, English speaking ability). This story about Premont is sort of a before-after comparison, but too many things were changing along with the removal of football, including the level of funding, school administration and policies, and threat of closure. In the NY Times article, it discusses "staffing changes" contingent on improvement of test scores, so teachers were being threatened with firing, which affected morale and motivation of teachers. Premont's original problems are attributed to a lack of state funding and the poverty of families in the community, not an over-emphasis on sports. In statistics, we would call sports spending a spurious correlation if performance varied along with such spending, and no one would think it was causal. If you want to do a before-after comparison, you would have to reinstate football while holding all the other changes constant, and see whether academic performance decreases again. Then you might be able to claim football had an effect.

    I think the reason why reporters cannot reason about this stuff is that they didn't like their science classes when they were in school. Science is supposed to teach students how to answer empirical questions about cause and effect. I think there is some self-tracking among students interested in writing, the humanities, and the arts.

    There are lots of studies showing that when you encourage students to participate in programs like athletics, band, pep squad, chess club, art, model UN, service clubs, and so on, they become more engaged in their academic studies as well, there are reduced drop out rates and grades improve.

    I was especially struck by the implication that violence decreased when football was eliminated, as if football players are hooligans that cause fights even among non-players. that is really simple-minded thinking and no data were offered to support that, except anecdote, but every reader will think of stereotypes about bullying by athletes, and resentment of popular jocks will be mobilized in support of that claim. Except now the idea is that being a jock makes you dumb, not that dumb kids go into sports (an idea directly contradicted by studies showing that brighter kids make better athletes and that there is no correlation between IQ and sports ability).

    David, not all high school kids take math. It is only required through the completion of algebra II, which many kids finish in 8th or 9th grade. Some middle schools include 9th grade, so high school is 10-12. Only college track kids take more math after that. I find it ironic that sports is one of the main users of statistics and most sports fans know more about stats than the average person.

    1. "I think the reason why reporters cannot reason about this stuff is that they didn't like their science classes when they were in school." Lindy

      Yes, and what you think is partly verifiable with careful control of the correct variables. The remaining reporters actually liked their science classes but were no good at the subject and are now out for revenge against the scholarly athletes, who they falsely feared were going to beat them up.

      But of course, I don't know if there is a statistical significance between reporters who did and did not like
      science. Even if I did I wouldn't understand what it meant. "Only college track kids (took) more math" to be able to do that. I got dizzy running around the same damn circle, so I quit track in middle school.


  4. Great news for BOB! Unlike Premont, Texas, which you never heard of, 40% of American 4th graders had heard of Pseudojournaliststan when asked on the Gold Standard* NAEP Geography test. Unfortunately 23% of 12th graders could identify its location on a blank world map, perhaps including most of the cohort of 10% which could not identify where the US was located.

    KZ (* On Doom we gave up the Gold Standard in '32)

    1. So, is the education of children all a big joke to you?

    2. According to the Child who Points Out the Emeperor Has No Clothes, comment sections are to be read for amusement.



  6. Premont's problem was declining town population and school enrollment. The administration did not cut back staff and facilities fast enough.

  7. "Here at The Howler, we don’t live in Typewhatfeelsgoodistan."

    Lol, you sir most certainly do not. I love this. But then, aren't we all citizens of Crappy-press-corps-stole-2000-election-and-since-then-we-entered-an-alternate-hell-dimension-istan?