The wages of hiring straight outta Harvard!


Part 2—Big-ass confusion in comments: It isn’t Julia Ryan’s fault that she got hired by the Atlantic to write about an important subject she seems to know nothing about.

Julia Ryan, Harvard ’13, didn’t hire herself! As for those who performed the hire, you can hardly blame them.

Darlings! Ryan prepped at Exeter, then moved on to Harvard, from which she graduated in June! To the withered beings who run what’s left of an historic American journal, those credentials made Ryan the perfect choice to write about low-income kids!

For whatever reason, and it isn’t her fault, Ryan is a type. Increasingly, our finer post-journalistic news orgs are hiring young women who went to the finest schools to work this degraded beat.

(We don’t know why they hire young women for this beat. But the pattern is rather clear.)

They went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown. In the case of Amanda Ripley (Cornell ’96), they even prepped at Lawrenceville! The fact that they don’t know squat about the world on which they’re being asked to report—well, that no longer seems to count for much in our post-journalistic world.

In our post-journalistic world, low-income kids can go hang in the yard. Increasingly, our finer news orgs serve as employment agencies for children of the elite, high-ranking if clueless college grads who need good jobs at good wages.

As the week proceeds, we’ll look at others in this faux education reporter class. For today, let’s marvel at the sheer confusion which resulted from Ryan’s latest attempt at a news report.

Let’s consider the massive confusion which can be found in comments.

Back to Ryan’s attempt at a news report—a news report concerning a subject she seems to know nothing about. When we left off yesterday, Ryan was trying to describe the nation’s new batch of NAEP scores.

As Ryan started her report, an obvious question was raised by her text. Have scores and skills increased a little, or a lot, over the past twenty years?

That is a very basic question. This is the way she began:
RYAN (11/7/13): Every two years, hundreds of thousands of American fourth and eighth grade students take a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The test evaluates students’ reading and math abilities through reading comprehension questions and grade-appropriate math problems.

The results of the test have provided a snapshot of American education since 1990. Over the last two decades, scores have been rising, but slowly. The 2013 results are out, and the national average scores have increased—just barely—since 2011. Here's what this year's score report says about the state of American education today.

Math and reading skills are improving—slowly

Math and reading skills haven’t changed much in the last two years, according to new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. Fourth and eighth grade students averaged one point higher on math than they did in 2011 on tests that are scored out of 500 points. Eighth grade students scored two points higher on average on the reading test, and fourth grade students showed no change in their average reading scores since 2011.
Over the last two decades, “scores have been rising, but slowly.” At this point, Ryan presented a graphic. It showed the score gains in reading and math on the NAEP over the twenty-plus years since 1990.

Hang on now! For reasons we will explain tomorrow, we would regard Ryan’s graphic as highly misleading. That said, its data are technically accurate. Ryan’s graphic showed score gains of this size:
Score gains on the NAEP since 1990
Grade 4 reading: 5 points
Grade 4 math: 8 points
Grade 8 reading: 22 points
Grade 8 math: 28 points
Although we’d regard them as misleading, those data are technically accurate. Having said that, our question remains:

Are those score gains a lot or a little? How much academic progress have you made if you gain 5 points, or even 28 points, on the NAEP scale?

People! A reporter has to explain that! In theory, five points can mean a lot or a little, depending on the scale in use. Example:

On the 2400-point SAT scale, a gain of 5 or even 28 points means very little, next to nothing. But on the NAEP scale, gains of those sizes suggest something quite different.

That said, Ryan knows nothing about this work, as Marshall McLuhan once said. She offered no way to estimate the significance of those score gains. Beneath her graphic, she wrote this, then moved to another topic which she failed to explain:
RYAN (continuing directly): But steady increases of one or two points every other year on NAEP math tests have added up to big changes since 1990. Fourth grade math averages have increased by 28 points and eighth grade math averages by 22 points over the last two decades.
In that passage, Ryan seems to say that the score gains in math represent “big changes.” She seems to be saying that American students have gained a lot in math since 1990, only a little in reading.

That said, Ryan never made any attempt to explain why she would make those judgments. Predictably, this cluelessness on Ryan’s part led to massive confusion in comments.

Over the last two decades, have students improved a lot or a little? Ryan seems to voice a judgment, but she offers no explanation for her judgment. She gives her readers no basis on which to judge her assessment.

This leaves readers barefoot and clueless. In comments, one under-informed but observant reader was unconvinced.

This commenter makes a perfectly good observation. That said, the commenter is a million miles off in the weeds, which is Ryan’s fault:
COMMENTER (11/7/13): Between 1992 and 2013 the reading scores at the 8th grade increased by 3% (8/260). This seems insufficient given the big increases in per child costs, all those computers, and all that NCLB money, changes and tests. For 4th grade reading, a 2.3% (5/217) improvement also seems quite inadequate.
Another commenter tried to semi-challenge this observation. Thanks to Ryan’s ineptitude, he too seemed to have no idea what he was talking about.

That first commenter made a sensible observation. Looking at Ryan’s graphic, she saw that eighth graders averaged 260 in reading in 1992. This year, in 2013, they averaged 268.

From a starting point of 260, that didn’t seem like much of a gain. Later, this commenter extended her point, this time regarding an unexplained claim by Ryan concerning the gaps between states.

In this comment, the commenter refers to the Grade 4 reading scores of Massachusetts and Mississippi:
COMMENTER: The article oddly states, “There’s a huge difference between the strongest and weakest states." Yet the numbers provided do not seem to support the claim. For example, 253 vs. 231…So Mississippi is only 8.7% worse than Mass., which doesn't seem "huge." And what if you factor in the expenditures per child and the socioeconomic status of the family?

Even for the raw numbers you'd expect Mass. to beat Miss. by a much larger margin than a pathetic 8.7%. The real question is why isn't Massachusetts at least 50% better?
That is a perfectly sensible observation. In her report, Ryan asserted that the 22-point difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi is “huge.” But she made no attempt to explain that characterization.

On the NAEP scale, is a gain of 22 points a lot or a little? Is a 22-point difference “huge?” Throughout her report, Ryan rattles off judgments about such matters without ever explaining the basis for her claims.

Question: Was there any basis for Ryan’s claims? Did Julia Ryan have any idea what she was talking about? You can count us among the skeptics. But if she did have a basis for her judgments, she never explained what it was.

Atlantic readers were left in the dark. Massive confusion invaded the comments, shared by the commenter we have quoted and the second reader who tried to respond to her claims.

Is 22 points a lot or a little? It didn’t seem to occur to Ryan that she had to explain! That said, we doubt that Ryan even knew the way such score gains are commonly limned. And alas! This was hardly the only problem with the way she presented these test scores.

Question: When Ryan presented that graphic, did she know that she was presenting the average scores of public and private school students combined? We will guess she did not.

Question: Did Ryan know how the gain in Grade 4 reading would look if she chose to “disaggregate” public school scores? Again, we’ll tilt toward no.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you the size of the score gains if you look at public schools only, and if you disaggregate. We’ll even repeat that rough rule of thumb with which folk approach NAEP scores.

Warning! Tomorrow, our score gains will look very different, and very large—much larger than the gains Ryan posted. Did she know she was tilting the scale a bit when she posted that graphic, whose data are technically accurate?

Almost surely, she did not. To all appearances, Ryan was hired because of her pleasing diplomas. There is no sign that she knows anything at all about low-income kids, on whom she has been asked, through no fault of her own, to pretend to report.

Based upon her reports to date, there is no sign that she knows squat about SAT, TIMSS or NAEP scores.

In the post-journalistic world, low-income kids don’t count for much. The careers of those from the finest schools are seen as more important.

Our finest young grads need good jobs at good pay! Post-journalistic news orgs exist to provide that essential service.

Tomorrow: Regarding those score gains, the rest of the story

Coming: Amanda Ripley (Lawrenceville ’92) and others from the finest schools regarding “tracking” and “ability grouping”


  1. Julia Ryan clearly isn't the best source to turn to for learning or verifying anything about education. Ryan is characteristic of what education reporting has become: she's a newbie from the Ivy League (Harvard) who writes some serious drivel.

    Ryan recently reported on the release of this past year's SAT scores. Instead of actually doing some leg work, some investigating –– you know, some real reporting –– here's what Ryan told readers:

    "For the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of SAT-takers received scores that qualified them as 'college-ready'.”

    All Ryan did was report to readers the pap she got from the College Board. People like Ryan actually seem to believe this nonsense.

    What Ryan might have told readers is that the SAT is basically worthless. It is, in a very real sense, a huge scam.

    The National Center for Education Statistics tell us this about the SAT:

"The SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is not designed as an indicator of student achievement, but rather as an aid for predicting how well students will do in college." 

    The problem, however, is that the SAT is a very poor predictor of college success.

    College enrollment specialists find that it predicts between about 3 and 14 percent of the variance in freshman-year college grades (and after that zilch). As one college enrollment specialist quipped, "I might as well measure their shoe size." 

    Princeton Review does a lot of test prep work, and its founder John Katzman said
“The SAT is a scam...It has never measured anything. And it continues to measure nothing...does it measure intelligence? No. Does it predict college grades? No. Does it tell you how much you learned in high school? No.”

    Author Nicholas Lemann –– whose book The Big Test is all about the SAT –– said the SAT “...has been fetishized. This whole culture and frenzy and mythology has been built around SATs.”

    The thing that the SAT measures best is family income. Colleges use SAT scores for two purposes: to make themselves "look good," and to leverage financial aid. As Matthew Quirk noted in The Atlantic, "schools make thousands of decisions based largely on [SAT] test scores...That students are rejected on the basis of income is one of the most closely held secrets in admissions."

    As I've noted previously, the College Board is "all in" on the Common Core. It says it's products (PSAT, SAT, Advanced Placement) are "aligned" with the Common Core. Its president, David Coleman, helped to develop Common Core.

    So, if educators are opposed to the Common Core (and its eventual massive testing requirements), they will have to divorce themselves from all of the hyped-up, faulty products it churns out. Are the ready and willing to do that?

    Meanwhile, don't look to writers like Julia Ryan (or the "talented" Amanda Ripley) for any insight or help.


  2. In anticipation of tomorrow's post I want to point out another way in which I believe Amanda Ripley misleads her readers. She several times speaks of Finland's "rigorous high school graduation" test. As far as I can tell, Finland has no high school graduation test. Rather, there is is a University Matriculation (entrance) exam, yet Ripley obscures this fact by repeatedly conflating graduation and matriculation, using the terms interchangeably in the same paragraph or sentence. I always understood that you need to take a matriculation exam to be admitted to a university, not to graduate from high school. It is entirely voluntary. You complete (graduate from) high school. You take a test to enroll in college (matriculate means "enroll" in Latin) . It's sort of like claiming that the SAT (in the USA, privately administered) is required for high school graduation. See Ripley pages 183, 186 and footnote on p. 287 and also



  3. In Finland, there appear to be two kinds of high school ("upper secondary") certificates. There is a "ylioppilastutkinto" (matriculation certificate) and also a "lukion päästötodistus (school-leaving certificate), of which the latter would seem more like our high school diploma. I wish someone who knows more would clarify this.

    Parenthetically, Finnish "upper" secondary (confusing since there is no "lower" secondary) school is more like our community college, since it serves a slightly older student population. - E

  4. Bob is an expert on education, particularly, education of disadvantaged children, so he's well aware of how poor the media's "expert" reporting is on this subject. Is education unique, or are media "experts" equally ignorant of other subjects? IMHO the media (including Bob) do a poor job of explaining insurance issues, such as Social Security. Bloggers who claim to be gun experts often criticize what they see as naïve inaccuracies in media's coverage of weapons.

    1. Yes, it is bad in other areas too. I cringe when I read writing on psychology, my field. As Bob points out about Mooney's translation of Haidt's work, filtered through the interviewer, the cautions, limitations, and even the intentions of the original researchers are distorted and sometimes lost. Further, there are some assumptions and background knowledge relevant to the field and these things are never explained by journalists.

      In our recent comments, someone stated that how someone is talked to in a lower income home has no impact on their performance in school. A great deal of research suggests the opposite. There are quite a few differences between parenting in low and high SES homes that have an impact on later school performance. Above, someone says that the SAT predicts nothing -- that isn't exactly true. For many years it was strongly correlated with IQ to the point that Mensa accepted it as a qualifying exam. It has changed, however. They also stated that accounting for 12-13% of variance is trivial. That suggests people don't know how to interpret such statistics. Not much in psychology that we consider important accounts for that much variance. Human behavior is very hard to predict and there are not usually any single factors that predict strongly. Further, SAT is not used alone by any school that I know of. It is combined with a bunch of other information in admission decisions. These increase predictive validity.

    2. Are you kidding me? The SAT is virtually worthless in predicting college "success." The very best predictor, bar none, is the UNweighted high school grade point average. Coupling the SAT with that adds little.

      College enrollment specialists say that in their studies the SAT predicts between 3 and 14 precent of the variance in freshman year grades, and after that nothing. As one college enrollment specialist quipped, "I might as well measure their shoe size." 

      Worse, "the College Board don't just sell hundreds of thousands of student profiles to schools; they also offer software and consulting services that can be used to set crude wealth and test-score cutoffs, to target or eliminate students before they apply...That students are rejected on the basis of income is one of the most closely held secrets in admissions..."

      The SAT is, in essence, a proxy for family income.

      John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review, a test-prep company that specializes in helping students prepare for and "beat" the SAT, says this about the test:

      ""The SAT is a scam. It has been around for 50 years. It has never measured anything. And it continues to measure nothing."

      And you're going to defend it? And Mensa? As one Mensa member pointed out, "Mensa boasts a frightening abundance of people who have thrown every last remnant of rationality and common sense overboard and have committed themselves entirely to plainly ridiculous ideas."

      No kidding.

  5. Here is another one:

    1. Another one of what?

    2. Another Atlantic education writer with an elite education and little knowledge of education.

  6. Here Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg on the Finnish "miracle," comparing education in Finland with that in the U.S. Notice slide 3, not including the introductory slide.


    1. oops...Here's Finnish educator....

  7. Here's the gist of what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg says about teachers and poverty:

    "Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in 'child life satisfaction.' Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday."

    Richard Rothstein cited this important research a decade ago:

    "Twenty years ago, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, two researchers from the University of Kansas, visited families from different social classes to monitor the conversations between parents and toddlers. Hart and Risley found that, on average, professional parents spoke more than 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, the children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50 percent greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children."

    He added:
    "Deficits like these cannot be made up by schools alone, no matter how high the teachers' expectations."

    The lass of the Lawrenceville school, Amanda Ripley, seems to think they can, and teachers should be held accountable for it.

    And what about Ripley's education? She went to Cornell, whose founder said it was a place where “any person can find instruction in any study.” Any person, that is, with $45,238 (in-state) or $61,618 (out-of-state).

    She attended the expensive, private Lawrenceville School. Current tuition is $53,320, but only $44,100 for day students. Hold on, that’s not all. Add in “a required medical fee of $755 for boarders and $470 for day students, and a technology fee of $465 for boarders and $315 for day students.” Parents also have to buy tuition refund insurance. The Lawrenceville School suggests the tuition is really a bargain because the “annual cost to educate a student at Lawrenceville is $70,000.”

    Its campus is 700 acres. It has its own golf course. It has a 56,000 sq.ft. science building, and a music center, and a visual arts center, and a history center. Multiple dorm buildings with their own dining halls. It has a field house that includes “a permanent banked 200-meter track and three tennis/basketball/volleyball courts.” But wait! That’s not all. “Two additional hardwood basketball courts, a six-lane swimming pool, an indoor ice-hockey rink, a wrestling room, two fitness centers with full-time strength and conditioning coaches, and a training-wellness facility are housed in the wings of the building as well as a new squash court facility, hosting ten new internationally zoned courts, which opened in 2003.” Not exactly cheesy.

    So, what is education like at Lawrenceville? Small classes, “intimate...with a maximum of 12 students.” The guiding philosophy is one that “values discussion and debate.” Lawrenceville claims to help its students “develop high standards of character and scholarship” and “strong commitments to personal responsibility.

    I think Amanda Ripley’s own education past indicates two things clearly:

    1. She really has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to public education, and “reform.” She’s a charlatan. An impostor. A poser.

    2. Either Ripley was a poor student at Lawrenceville, or she didn’t get her money’s worth.

  8. So who has the Atlantic hired to write about high income kids?

    1. Let us certainly hope it will never be a recent grad from a public school and public college. Especially one from a household eligible for free or reduced school lunch. They could never be qualified from personal experience
      to do so. Nor, for that matter, issues like investments or income and inheritance taxes, since they have no familial or social experienece with those matters.

  9. I'm confused. You write:

    "In that passage, Ryan seems to say that the score gains in math represent “big changes.” She seems to be saying that American students have gained a lot in math since 1990, only a little in reading.

    That said, Ryan never made any attempt to explain why she would make those judgments. Predictably, this cluelessness on Ryan’s part led to massive confusion in comments.

    First, in the passage you quote she did say "big changes." There was no "seems to" about it.

    Second, in the passage you quote she does not mention math at all so I am not sure how she could seem to be saying anything about math gains, large or small.

    Third, since you say her comments were what she "seems to say" or "seems to be saying" how can you ask for an explanation of a judgement only seemingly reached because it was only seemingly said.

    Any clarity you could provide would be helpful.

  10. The lesson here is that the Media is a for profit corporation hiring people who can pump out the verbiage to fill up pages with stories that a basically dumb consumer is not able to dissect in a meaningful way. Or maybe they can. How many people read newspapers? Every time these newspaper people pick up their paychecks I'm sure their thinking to themselves, 'fooled them again.'

  11. I know that Bob despises Alex Cockburn, but his dad, Claud, did make an excellent observation:
    `All stories are written backwards,' he once observed. `They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist's point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.'

  12. It is interesting that the corporate reformers are now letting a ray of light through thei ideological armor -- they are admitting that US scores have not really been plunging as they used to assert, but rather rising. Though slowly, according to them.

  13. OMB (BOB at his Faux Best)

    "To the withered beings who run what’s left of an historic American journal, those credentials made Ryan the perfect choice to write about low-income kids!" Harvard BOB...this post

    "Ryan is typical of the people who are being hired to write about low-income schools." Harvard BOB, preceding post.

    "There is no sign that she knows anything at all about low-income kids, on whom she has been asked, through no fault of her own, to pretend to report." Harvard BOB...this post

    Can we talk? Here's the large problem with BOB.

    There is absolutely no evidence that Ryan was hired to write about low income kids. There is no evidence she is pretending to write about low income kids. In fact, there is no evidence she wrote about low income kids in the Atlantic post BOB is picking apart. Because she didn't write about them. Not a word.

    She did however, discuss scores by race and ethnicity, which BOB has attacked others for overlooking. She did write about the racial gap, which BOB has lamented that others ignore. BOB failed to mention that for the second straight post. Maybe he'll get to it later this week.
    We just don't know.

    Did BOB know he was misleading his readers when he repeatedly harped on a topic that wasn't relevant to this post he attacks? Did BOB know he was leaving out issues he always demands be included
    but are left out by more experienced reportorial hands than those of the priveleged Ms. Ryan?

    Almost surely he did not. If he did, he would be a deceiver and a hypocrite. Clearly Harvard BOB is not. Guess he just missed that.

    Surely he knows the lass is Irish surnamed. Wonder if he guessed whether or not she went to Mass.


    1. We can talk. Here's the problem with your unvaried performance art: TDH's thesis is that if you don't know how to do the disaggregation thing, then your reporting on education with be worthless. Ryan probably wasn't asked specifically to write about low-income kids in her Atlantic piece, but she was asked to write about test scores in the US. Failure to understand those scores in the light of the socio-economics is journalistic malpractice. It's like being assigned a story on the Civil War and neglecting to mention slavery.

      Now, if you'd like to challenge that position, that would be fine. It would have the advantage of moving your nonsense from performance art to criticism. Although It probably wouldn't be as much as making phony charges of hypocrisy.

    2. dr, BOB has said disaggregation is important. But he did not discuss that in this post. He made a demonstrably ridiculous assertion about Ryan's hiring, and what she pretended to write about.
      He has no way to know the former, and I'd bet the farm it is false. There is no evidence of the latter, because she didn't write, much less pretend to write, about the subject.

      And lets talk some more dr. Bob hasn't alked much about low income kids either. Most recently when he has has has been attacking the definitional reporting of the only available demographic that measures income. Quite frankly BOB is much more comfortable discussing test scores using the R factor.


    3. KZ, Sorry, that last line should have read "wouldn't be as much fun.

      Don't go betting any farms. Clearly, Ryan was hired to write about education because she's on staff and wrote an article about education. It's probably true that she wan't hired to write only about education. I take it your point is that TDH is claiming that the magazine hired Ryan as its education reporter or to cover the education beat exclusively. This kind of close reading is what I call performance art and what others call trolling.

      TDH is more comfortable discussing test scores using the categories reported, race and ethnicity. Ryan appears comfortable not understanding the significance of the categories, or at least comfortable enough to churn out the article that she did. If you'd care to make the case that Ryan's article does not constitute journalistic malpractice, I'd be happy to listen. Or if you'd rather bash TDH, then make the case that his own blog entires miss the point as badly as Ryan's article does.

      Otherwise, your comments are kinda like that mime in the park. Mildly annoying and entertaining only to yourself.

      Well, and to me. Nobody likes mime more than I do. Except my wife. And a few of her friends.

  14. OMB (A Comment about the Massive Faux Commentary Confusion)

    Anyone with a desire for insight into the relentlessness with which
    BOB pursues the trick should follow the link back to Ryan's original article and read the comments.

    "Let’s consider the massive confusion which can be found in comments."

    All of the comments BOB quotes are from the same person, who wrote seven of the thirteen total comments. That commenter does, as BOB says, seem to be "off in the weeds." And the guy who BOB claims tried to semi-refute him may be off the weed. Neither of that seems to be Ryan's fault, as BOB claims. To make such a claim would be like blaming BOB for anything yours truly, deadrat, or any of the the myriad anonymice ever says

    Massive confusion amongst just one guy writing over half of a paltry field of thirteen comments? Mass deception would be a better word for it. Big Ass Time.


    1. Is it TDH's fault that you can't tell the difference between massive confusion and mass confusion? Or is that not a mistake on your part, but a deliberate distraction? The analysts want to know.

      TDH explicitly calls out the number of the confused -- only two. But they are indeed massively so. Now, it's not necessarily Ryan's fault that her readers are confused, but their confusion is about a crucial point that Ryan failed to explain.

      Is this really not clear to you? Or is any accusation, no matter how absurdly false, OK as long as it prolongs your career in performance art on this blog?

  15. The Best in Class Article Writing Services
    Many people prefer writing the articles on their own for the website. However, it is not possible to achieve the targeted number of articles required for marketing. In addition, the quality of articles required for marketing purpose should be high. When one write articles in bulk, the quality starts deteriorating after a certain point. It is a wise decision to hire article writing services for the desired level of marketing. There are a number of service providers available in the market for writing article.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.