Reading Ripley: Who gives a rip about low-income kids?


In Ripley’s book, not so much: We’ve spent the past two weeks discussing Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

It’s one of the most fascinating texts we’ve encountered in fifteen years at the Howler. We don’t offer that as a compliment, although the book has its obvious merits.

This week and next, we expect to do shorter posts about more of the book’s many fascinating components. This week, let’s consider the way Ripley’s book ignores the situations and needs of our nation’s low-income kids.

In part, Ripley’s book is fascinating because of the things it omits. One example: It spends little time on elementary or preschool education. It focuses almost entirely on high school.

It also tends to overlook low-income and minority kids. Early in her book, Ripley introduces us to the trio of American exchange students on whom she will often focus:
RIPLEY (page 8): During the 2010-11 school year, I followed three remarkable American teenagers as they experienced smarter countries in real life. These kids volunteered to be part of this project as they headed off for year-long foreign-exchange adventures, far from their families. I visited them in foreign ports, and we kept in close touch.

Their names were Kim, Eric and Tom, and they served as my escorts through borrowed homes and adopted cafeterias, volunteer fixers in a foreign land. Kim traveled from Oklahoma to Finland, Eric from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania to Poland. They came from different parts of America, and they left for different reasons. I met Kim, Eric and Tom with the help of AFS, Youth for Understanding, and the Rotary Clubs, outfits that run exchange programs around the world.

I chose these Americans as advisers, but they turned out to be straight-up protagonists. They did not stand for all American kids, and their experiences could not reflect the millions of realities in their host countries. But, in their stories, I found the life that was missing from the policy briefings.
Minor point: the term “smarter countries” is cloying in the context of this book, where it is really means “countries with higher test scores.” But in the case of Poland, the phrase is especially absurd, since Poland doesn’t have higher test scores than the United States does.

Ripley is pushing a standard elite narrative about our public schools. Over and over in her ballyhooed book, she seems to be willing to stretch in service to this narrative. This is true when she tells readers, early on, that Poland is a “smarter country” than our own U.S.

(Sadly, reviewers have tended to understand how this embellishment system works. In the case of Poland, they have often embellished Ripley's initial embellishment, describing Poland as one of the world's highest-scoring countries. That isn't true on any international test. Embellishment is a giant part of our modern pseudo-journalism.)

Back to those three exchange students:

In her book, Ripley spends a lot of time describing the experiences of these three American teenagers, both in their American homes and schools and in their lives abroad. These stories are very interesting, but there is an obvious problem with this small sample of student experience.

Kim, Eric and Tom do “come from different parts of America” in one obvious respect. They come from three different states in three different parts of the country.

In another way, though, these interesting, vibrant students come from the same part of the country. All three of these terrific kids come from the white middle-class.

To state the obvious, there’s nothing wrong with being a white middle-class high school kid! From 1961 through 1965, we were white middle-class high school kids ourselves.

Many of our best friends in life spent three or four years at one time as white middle-class high school kids. Ripley’s subjects all seem to be admirable young people. But our society is heavily stratified, in various ways which don’t seem to interest Ripley a great deal.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about high school education. There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about middle-class education.

But lots of wonderful kids in our country come from backgrounds which are substantially different from the backgrounds of Ripley’s students. To our ear, Ripley doesn’t seem to see how many kids her book is leaving behind.

In our view, Ripley doesn’t display strong instincts about the role of income in our society, especially where issues of income blend with our brutal racial history. Unfortunately, different groups of American kids live in substantially different worlds, in ways that don’t seem to be true in Korea, Finland or Poland.

We’ll poke around with this topic all week. Tomorrow:

Norway as an excuse!


  1. There is nothing wrong with writing a book about middle class high school education -- as long as you explicitly recognize that limitation and don't generalize from that to ALL students and educational practices.

    1. Yep. Exactly. But now, Amanda Ripley is an "expert." She calls herself an "investigative journalist." Neither one is true.

  2. Timely and engaging analysis. Readers couldn't ask for more.

    1. Sarcasm detection fully engaged.

      If only it weren't so pointless: It's hardly the same thing, saying "the criticisms leveled in comments to Somerby's education posts have been mostly useless, often irrelevant, and frequently animated purely by a perceived need to attack Somerby for no reason other than to draw attention to one's own supposed cleverness" on the one hand, and on the other to say "readers couldn't ask for more; Somerby's perfect."

      There has been plenty of the former and none of the latter, except in the imaginations of those commenters who deflect recognition of their predictable, and predictably worthless, contributions by imputing a reflexive love of all-things Somerby to those who notice their shortcomings.

      Naming names is almost always desirable -- so despite the fact that his only desire is attention, let's go ahead and name KZ, the Pooper, as a chief offender.

      Observe the exemplary "October 7, 2013 at 6:46 PM" comment, below, which exists for no other reason than to suppose than that there exist a class of individuals called BOBfans -- people who have found KZ's writings useless, and who *therefore* are incapable of thinking for themselves.

    2. Dare I say that the very definition of "tribal" at least to me would be those who see the speck in the eyes of the other tribe, but not the beam in their own.

      And thus, when a person says, "Hey, what's that beam in your eye?" he is quickly dismissed as "useless."

      After all, it is much easier to dismiss entirely that which we find uncomfortable than it is to consider that the "outsider" might have a point or two.

    3. Anonymous @ 8:57

      I am not sure of what to make of your analysis, but
      it was not timely. You did seem to engage in quite a bit of effort though, so hats off for that.

  3. These kids and their families are like the kids on TV shows: upper, upper middle class. Our elites are always shoving very wealthy people in front of us as though they are ordinary people.

    I hope Bob writes some more about this "brutal racial history" business with regard to education. Last week he said something about 300 years of trying to "eliminate" literacy, i.e., that it was the reason or a reason for the lousy education results (despite massive spending. Here in Jersey we spend 50% more per kid in those inner city schools.) They came from places in Africa that never developed written language - that might be a stronger psychological, cultural factor but that doesn't target white people for owing something to blacks, of course. The plantations were rural; it might be hundreds of slaves living with one white person (as on Jefferson's place). White farm kids didn't have school buses picking them up either. Maybe some of them learned how to read and write from family.

    History does not explain the current education monstrosity in these minority (lets be honest: we are talking black) schools. I believe Bob used to have a quote on the masthead of the old Daily Howler: "Something we were withholding made us weak." That is so true in any discussion of the racial situation in the US. This insistence that racism is causing education or social problems is weak. No one really believes it but people want to pat themselves on the back and hug themselves that they are so good because the wag their fingers at other people and call them "racists," like Cokie Roberts, daughter of an ardent segregationist Congressman, calling Tea Partiers' opposition to Obama "racist." Its all so nasty, cruel, hypocritical and dishonest.

    Yapping about race and racism makes some people feel good about themselves but obviously hasn't done anything for educating black kids. More the opposite.

    1. Why don't you spell out the REAL reason for the lousy education results?

    2. Lionel is a TDH treasure.

    3. Lionel,

      Assuming you are sincere -- the lack of a culture of literacy was not because Africa had no written languages. It was because slave owners actively discouraged literacy with laws and with beatings. After slavery, literacy was discouraged with disparate funding of African American schools and with exclusion from jobs requiring literacy and with Jim Crow laws and punishment of people who didn't "know their place" or who were "uppity." After the civil rights movement, disparate funding continued, there was an absence of African American role models, absence of encouragement and opportunities for children, and a growing recognition that literacy preceded school, beginning in the first year of life. A tradition of low literacy means parents cannot read to their kids in the first year of life, do not have a habit of reading or books in the home, and do not use as large a vocabulary so kids hear less words. Further, limited experiences in early years mean that children do not have concrete experiences to link the words to -- what is an elephant if you have never seen one before? So early childhood education programs are a relatively new phenomenon. With these realizations and interventions, there have been increases in school performance on the major tests, slowly closing racial gaps. So, the money is not being wasted in your NJ schools -- you just cannot get miracles in later grades without improving what happens in the first year or two of life. Disparities are cumulative and intervention later is more costly. History can and does explain the current situation in our schools. It also explains why some kids do not have academic goals and see themselves as limited so they have less motivation to do well in school, and it explains why they turn to other sources of self-esteem, including ones that may be self-defeating in the long run.

      It is a crime that white adults like yourself know so little about the history of racial disparities in the US that they would not be aware of these circumstances. It is perhaps a failure of our education system that there is a gap in racial understanding. Too bad our tests don't measure that gap. It wouldn't favor you, Lionel, and you would experience what it feels like to always be behind others and feel like a failure, from your first days at school, for reasons no one can or will tell you.

    4. Sounds like you are excluding Egypt from Africa, as many white people do. Writing systems existed there, of course, and influenced Greek and Roman culture. Absence of writings from flourishing cultures, like the Kingdom of Mali whose leader, Mansa Musa, pilgrimmaged to Mecca and funded the Renaissance with his liberal tithing along the way, does not imply they had no written language -- only that it did not survive, perhaps due to climate. He maintained a Muslim library, like that in Jerusalem that preserved Greek authors during the dark ages.

    5. The black people brought here as slaves came from places in Africa where there was no written language. Might there have written languages that "did not survive?" Who knows but so what? There were no written languages there at the time of slavery.

      And they were not Muslims, either.

    6. Quick questions, Lionel.

      What do you consider to be the "time of slavery"?

      And during this "time of slavery" while there were "written languages" in Europe, what was the state of literacy?

      After all, of what use is a "written language" to a population who could neither read nor write?

    7. Anonymous 4:52 I am sure you think of yourself as a real goodie goodie.

      We have been dumping money into the inner city school districts here in New Jersey. They do not improve, they get worse. The state took over the Camden schools within the last year. The state had to take over the Newark schools, too.

      Its a tremendous waste. If only we could have invested that money into kids and families who care about education and value learning. There is a big cost beyond the financial cost.

    8. irishguy,
      You're missing my point. If the current state of lousy educational results with black kids has a historical-psychological-cultural component in that they don't value education/literacy because the ancestors weren't literate, well, the ancestors weren't literate before slavery either.

    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    10. So what is your point? Black kids are genetically/inherently too dumb to educate, so why bother?

    11. I'm surprised you don't get the point. The explanation for the lack of regard for literacy - if there is a psycho/cultural explanation that goes back in history - is so much more likely to be that blacks come from societies that didn't have written language than that literacy was suppressed here in the US.

    12. Lionel

      You can go ahead and drop the psycho/cultural explanation. In their (the slaves) native lands, english literacy did not exist. When they were transported to America, perhaps divinely ;), where english literacy did exist, they were rudely prohibited from literacy, try as they might. Sometimes they were given opportunities, sometimes very slim opportunities - read Frederick Douglass' autobio, it's better than anything mlk jr wrote (pfff it's better than anything ml wrote!) - and they were able to become quite literate! Couldn't hurt to read some Jared Diamond too, to find out more about how cultures, technologies, and knowledge developed.

    13. Lionel,

      From Wikipedia: "The importance of oral culture and tradition in Africa and the recent dominance of European languages through colonialism, among other factors, has led to the misconception that the languages of Africa as a whole either have no written forms, or have been put to writing only very recently."

      Note the word "misconception". The article describes the writing systems that predated colonialism and were widespread in areas including those where slaves were taken. Today, Western writing systems are in widespread use because of colonialism.

      In order for a theory to be true, it must not only be plausible but must be supported by evidence. Yours is not because: (1) the premise that there were no writing systems in Africa is wrong; and (2) the premise that literacy was suppressed by slave owners in the USA is documented.

      You can use Wikipedia as well as anyone else. Why not just look up an idea when you get a brainstorm like this one?

    14. Anonymous 8:33 - Please give me the name of some books that were written in the areas of Africa from whence the black people came. We are talking about reading books.

    15. Lionel, we didn't have very many books in Europe until Gutenberg, and not that many more books for long after.

      But again, what is your point? That today's African-Americans come from cultures that millenia ago didn't write books, so why bother spending money trying to educate them today?

    16. Anonymous 3:32 - You think the issue is whether black people are CAPABLE of reading?

      I referred to a recent article by Bob S about education and included something to explain the lousy test scores, something about literacy "eliminated." They came to this country with no concept of literacy as we know it (reading books/sentences/you know - reading).

    17. I am asking you once again for your point, especially after your comment above:

      "We have been dumping money into the inner city school districts here in New Jersey. They do not improve, they get worse."

      This may come as a shock to you, but the ancestor of mine who got off the boat during the potato famine couldn't read or write either.

    18. irishguy
      Wish I could think of a way to explain the point to you. Seems futile.

      Yes, the Gutenberg Bible. That no doubt did spread literacy in Europe. That there was a written bible/religious tracts in the first place spread regard for literacy. If you knew how to read and could read the religious tracts was an advantage in life.

    19. Not the Gutenberg Bible, you idiot. THE PRINTING PRESS!!

      Before the printing press, "books" were extremely scarce, and in fact, non-existent in the form we know today.

      And FYI, people have tried to tell you that slaves had so "little regard" for literacy that they risked physical torture at the very least and even their very lives to learn how to read and write.

  4. We were promised a Drum beating!

  5. OMB

    It would seem regular BOBfans except for Lionel and Friends are reserving their commentary for the substantive versions of the next two weeks worth of shorter poking around this fabulous book. With only two sweeping recommendations for mild reform thoroughly debunked in the polite BOB style during the first two weeks of probing, thouse of us on pins and needles for more hope that third mild reform is poked out of hiding while disappeared children reappear during the next two weeks.

    KZ (From Doom, where all our satellites orbit in less than a fortnight)

  6. Here’s the gist:

    The “talented,” privileged Amanda Ripley got what she looked for...sort of.

    Ripley, herself a product of an upper-income, private, country club-type high school education, chose three suburban middle-class kids through which to “investigate” the “quality” of American public education. Through one set of test scores (PISA).

    What emerges from Ripley’s “investigation” is a“vision” of "reform" that is congruent with that dispensed by charlatans like Wendy Kopp (herself a product of privilege) and Eric “Supply-Side” Hanushek.

    Ripley wanted to use PISA (and there’s a reason she selected PISA) to show that American public education was “in crisis.” But there was really no there there. As Jay Mathews at The Post put it in his review of Ripley’s book, “Ripley seems to realize toward the end that she put too much faith in the PISA...Upbeat statements about the test tend to disappear.” But never mind about that. Ripley presses ahead with her nonsense. Her webpage touts her “groundbreaking research” (snort!) into why some kids learn a lot and others “so very little.” That “research” leads Ripley to (sigh) conclude that:

    1. we need more “rigorous” standards” (think Common Core);

    2. we need “better” teachers (think Teach for America); and

    3. we need “accountability” (think testing and merit pay).

    Amanda Ripley’s “vision” is the same as that promoted by Jeb Bush, and Margaret Spellings, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable, and Joel Klein. And Arne Duncan.

    Amanda Ripley! Believe her or not.


    1. Excellent work. Now see if you can stretch it to 10 posts, each of which are 4 times as long.