STALKING THE FAUX EDUCATION REPORTERS! Admittedly, they’re from the best schools!


Part 1—Who is Julia Ryan: Who the heck is Julia Ryan?

This weekend, we decided to check. Reason? We read Ryan’s latest news report on the web site of the Atlantic.

Ryan’s report appeared last Thursday. It attempted to inform Atlantic readers about the nation’s new NAEP scores.

We’d call Ryan’s news report/analysis piece an utterly clueless disaster. The work is so clueless, so under-informed, that a question crystallized for us:

Who in the world is Julia Ryan? More specifically, why is she writing about public schools for a famous old publication like the Atlantic?

Who is Julia Ryan? Skillfully, we tracked down some basic answers.

Inevitably, Ryan is a Harvard graduate. She’s a former reporter and “news executive editor” for the Harvard Crimson, the famous school’s famous student newspaper.

Every bit as impressively, Ryan did her prepping at Exeter. According to the leading authority on the school, “Phillips Exeter Academy is a highly selective, prestigious American private college preparatory school for boarding and day students between the 9th and 12th grade…The school has educated generations of the upper-class New England establishment and the American political elite, although the school has made an effort to move away from this reputation and diversify its intake in recent years.”

They said that. Not us!

So far, darlings, so very good! In our view, here’s where the problem begins:

Ryan graduated from Harvard in June 2013. Last May, she was still a college student, composing puddles of piddle for her school’s newspaper.

Are we being a judgmental there? During her senior year, Ryan teamed with another senior, Sarah Erwin, to pen “Listen Up,” an advice column for the lovelorn.

Below, you see the kind of piddle with which Atlantic’s new reporter burned her senior year. Not that there’s anything wrong with it!
ERWIN AND RYAN (4/9/13): Welcome to "Listen Up!," Flyby's weekly advice column, written by two jobless, washed-up seniors from their futon in Winthrop.


When we found ourselves questionless last week, we decided to create a focus group of Harvard students (i.e. we lured our friends to our suite with wine and M&Ms) to discuss some key questions facing our generation. After breezing through gay marriage, world hunger, and gun control, it was romantic interactions that most stumped our participants. This was not surprising: some studies show that five out of the five students who read this column do so primarily for advice about their love lives...
You can read more, including this “tutorial” from Ryan alone concerning key issues of SWUGLIFE.

Obviously, there’s nothing “wrong” with wasting your time writing silly stupid tongue-in-cheek shit about your classmates’ love lives. Here’s where the wrong comes in:

Scanning her complete file at the Crimson, we find no sign that Ryan, an English major, has any background in education policy whatsoever. There’s certainly no sign of any such background, or of any relevant knowledge or skill, in the work she has done for the Atlantic, which hired her to work this beat for reasons which go unexplained.

Let’s be clear! Ryan didn’t hire herself to compose unknowing, worthless reports about the public schools. In a saner world, it would seem extremely strange that the Atlantic did.

What’s wrong with Ryan’s newest report? As Marshall McLuhan said in Annie Hall, Ryan knows nothing of this work! Let us count the levels of cluelessness in this imitation of journalism, the blame for which rests with Ryan’s superiors at the Atlantic.

Bottom line: Ryan seems to know nothing—nothing at all—about how to analyze test scores. The errors start early in her piece, although the errors are fairly minor. It’s the inability to establish any context for her key questions which truly stands out.

Bottom line: Have American kids improved a lot or a little in reading and math over the past twenty years?

At the start of her report, Ryan raises that bottom line question herself. She then wanders all over the countryside, not knowing how to address the question and wasting her readers’ time.

In the process, she cuts-and-pastes chunks of information we would regard as highly misleading. That said, this monumental cluelessness isn’t Ryan’s fault. It’s the fault of the people who hired her to report on a topic she plainly knows nothing about.

Have kids improved a lot or a little over the past twenty years? That is a very basic question. Ryan raises this question throughout.

Have skills improved a lot or a little? Beneath a somewhat ambiguous headline, this is the way she starts:
RYAN (11/7/13): American Math and Reading Skills Are Slowly Getting Better

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.
Have scores and skills risen a lot or a little in the past two decades? In that passage, Ryan offers a rather ambiguous assessment.

According to Ryan, “scores have been rising, but slowly,” since 1990. Does that mean they’ve risen a lot or a little? At this point, readers have no real idea. Ryan has given them no way to tackle that basic question.

(Note: Ryan doesn’t seem to know that the NAEP is more than forty years old. See below.)

At this point, Ryan provides a graphic about reading and math scores since 1990—a colorful graphic which has basically been cut and pasted from the new report on the NAEP by the National Center for Education Statistics. As presented in the Atlantic, the graphic includes seven asterisks which go unexplained and an apparent link to something called “the full trend line”—a link which doesn’t work.

Whatever! Returning to that bottom line question, Ryan's graphic indicates that Grade 4 reading scores have gone up 5 points, from 217 to 222, since 1992. That’s technically accurate, as we’ll note tomorrow.

According to Ryan’s graphic, Grade 8 reading scores have risen 8 points. Since 1990, math scores have risen by 22 points in Grade 4 and 28 points in Grade 8, this same graphic shows.

That graphic raises an obvious question: Is a five-point gain a lot or a little on the NAEP scale? How about a gain of 22, or even 28 points?

Incredibly, Ryan never makes any attempt to address this blindingly obvious question. Here’s the fairly obvious reason:

Despite her position at the Atlantic, Julia Ryan doesn’t know squat about public schools or education policy. She doesn’t have the slightest idea how to interpret or analyze test scores.

She has no background in these topics. She possesses no apparent skills and no apparent knowledge.

Simply put, Ryan doesn’t know what she is talking about. If you care about low-income children, it’s an insult that this fine, young upper-class person was hired to fill this spot.

We’re going to look at Ryan’s work all week. We’ll review her work for the Atlantic and for the Crimson, where she gave the world a peek at the values of her class.

We’ll ask you to marvel at the fact that Ryan was hired to handle the public school beat by a major, historic American journal. But we’ll ask you to notice something else:

Ryan is typical of the people who are being hired to write about low-income schools.

At Time, at the Nation, at the Atlantic, even at the New York Times, the same pattern obtains: Fine young people from upper-class backgrounds are being hired to write about kids in low-income schools.

For whatever reason, these are almost always fine young upper-class women. Admittedly, they went to the finest schools—to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to Brown and to Cornell.

Beyond that, they seem to have no idea how to analyze public school issues. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Their editors don’t seem to care.

Amanda Ripley prepped at Lawrenceville, then went to Cornell. We’d say she’s the prime example of this superficially credentialed but utterly clueless “education reporter” elite.

Their work is awful, horrendous, inept. They don’t know squat about low-income schools, although they're good at repeating the claims of elites.

Having said that, a dirty little secret obtains:

Within the world of the upper-class “press,” absolutely nobody cares.

Tomorrow: Julia Ryan’s hapless attempt to answer that bottom-line question

Just for the record: The National Assessment of Educational Progress began testing in 1969, not in 1990. Ryan’s apparent confusion stems from this:

She is discussing the so-called Main NAEP, a study which began in 1990. The NAEP’s original Long Term Trend study, which continues through the present day, began testing in 1969.

This is a fairly trivial matter. It’s the kind of trivial matter an education reporter for the Atlantic ought to know about. So too with Ryan’s mistakes in an earlier report about the TIMSS or the TIMMS, or whatever the damn thing is.

Why are people of this high social/low journalistic caliber being hired to write about schools?


  1. "Why are people of this high social/low journalistic caliber being hired to write about schools?"

    Why were people of this high social/no educational training hired to teach in low income minority schools?

    1. Because Bill Gates saw To Sir With Love and thought that it was a documentary.

      Because modern education reform is a substitute for economic and social development in low SES communities and it makes donors feel good. It also provides another way to loot local and state government budgets by private sector actors looking for another way to make a buck.

      And sadly, it's the way that Third Way grifters like the Clinton's keep the cash coming to keep themselves in the spotlight. Bob, Bill Clinton's Third Way welfare reform damaged those deserving scholar's parents as surely as his coddling of Wall Street damaged the middle and working class

    2. Thinly disguised anti-Clinton diatribe. Why don't people like this Anonymous care about education of low-income kids?

    3. This question ties in well with a blog Somerby did on a piece by Megan McArdle in which she likened today's journalists as being a "Mandarin Class".

    4. Really Cecelia? How?

    5. Teach for America recruits the "best and brightest" to teach low-income kids for a few years because someone (Wendy Kopp, one of the great charlatans of education) conceived of it as a senior thesis. Naturally, Kopp never thought it a good idea that SHE might put HERSELF in the classroom.

      The idea caught on because too many people like to believe in simple "solutions" to complex problems. And those "best and brightest" kids who go from the Ivy League to a couple of years in classrooms? They use that time on their resumes for law school and Wall Street as a form of "community" service.

    6. This is an interesting commentary thread. I wonder if those adding their views realized the question applies to the initial job offer to a Harvard graduate named Somerby?

  2. Why don't journalists work their way up to top jobs any more? In what other field do people start in such visible positions?

  3. I would argue that the Ivy League are not the "finest" schools. They have traditionally been the schools of the children of the rich and powerful. Big difference. Given what has graduated from that school and risen to prominence, I don't think the schools are all that. All people are buying for that sheepskin is not the quality of the instruction or the "rigor," but connections, which are significant.

    1. That's a powerful and eminently plausible argument.

  4. Cue the comments that will ignore the uselessness* of the report, and the poor light into which The Atlantic is cast for its decision to run the thing, but which will instead assure us the real thing of note is that the author is a young female and that therefore Somerby's criticism proves his sexism.

    * "Useless" for learning something about the state of US primary education, but nevertheless potentially valuable, as Somerby rightly notes, for the pretense of giving a shit.

    1. In the absence of commentary whatsoever, I'd say
      your preemptive attack was a colossal victory.

      Or maybe those who have learned a thing or two about Somerby's manipulated numbers and selective ommissions in presenting the work of others won't care about this latest deceptive and disturbed series from the git go.

    2. I agree, today's post is disturbing. It should be.

      But what exactly is deceptive about it?


  5. Bravo. I'll take it one step further. Stop helping us. Please.

    We're full-up with edu-pundity and edu-fads out here in public school land. Find some other hobby.

  6. Is Mainstream Media Hiring from Write for America?

  7. Part 1

    Julia Ryan, like her "talented" journalistic cousin Amanda Ripley, – and I'm using the term journalistic VERY loosely – is a real tool.

    Not long ago Ryan had a piece in The Atlantic titled "This Year's SAT Scores Are Out, and They're Grim." That piece illustrated just how little Julia Ryan knows about education. It was horrendous. Inept.

    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 SAT (an acronym that now stands for absolutely nothing) is a test that is NOT tied to the high school curriculum. So it doesn't measure "achievement."

    It's a test that has extremely limited predictive power. It is –– to paraphrase the National Center for Education Statistics –– a very poor predictor of "how well students will do in college." 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." 

    Julia Ryan told readers nothing of the kind, however. Instead, she wrote this snarky (and demonstrably false) sentence: "For the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of SAT-takers received scores that qualified them as 'college-ready'.”

    Princeton Review does a lot of test prep work. Here's what Princeton Review founder John Katzman said about the SAT:


“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. Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure? No. It's measuring nothing.”

    Author Nicholas Lemann –– whose book The Big Test is all about the SAT –– said this about the SAT’s severe limitations:

    “The test has been, you know, fetishized. This whole culture and frenzy and mythology has been built around SATs. Tests, in general, SATs, in particular, and everybody seems to believe that it's a measure of how smart you are or your innate worth or something. I mean, the level of obsession over these tests is way out of proportion to what they actually measure.”

  8. Part 2

    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."

    [note to Julia Ryan: READ this piece! Learn something.] ]

    The College Board is happy to help, selling student profiles, and software and "consulting" services "used to set crude wealth and test-score cutoffs." Students from upper-income families win, and students from lower-income families get shafted.

    The College Board routinely coughs up “research studies” to show that their test products are valid and reliable. The problem is that independent, peer-reviewed research doesn’t back them up. The SAT and PSAT are shams. Colleges often use PSAT scores as a basis for sending solicitation letters to prospective students. However, as a former admissions officer noted, “The overwhelming majority of students receiving these mailings will not be admitted in the end.” Some say that the College Board, in essence, has turned the admissions process “into a profit-making opportunity.”

    Perhaps even more perverse, the College Board, which produces the PSAT, SAT, and Advanced Placement courses and tests, now recommends that schools “implement grade-weighting policies...starting as early as the sixth grade.” The SIXTH grade! If that sounds rather stupid, perhaps even fraudulent, that’s because it is.


Education reporters would do well to heed the research and to stop perpetuating the myths about the College Board and its products.  

    If The Atlantic is truly committed to "telling the story" of American public education, then it should tell it honestly and accurately. It should force Julia Ryan into remediation. Or fire her.