THE PROGRESS, THE GAPS AND THE SCANDAL: Amanda Ripley, Lost in America!


Part 3— The shape and the size of our gaps: Unless he’s an education reporter, a reader of Amanda Ripley’s new book may be struck, at various junctures, by her apparent cluelessness about our large, sprawling nation.

Her cluelessness and her apparent disinterest! Reading Ripley’s attempt to describe the challenges facing our children and schools, we often think of the famous scene from Annie Hall.

Standing in line at a movie theater, Alvy Singer tears his hair as a pompous fellow discusses Marshall McLuhan. He then asks a special guest to rebuke this all-knowing man:
ALVY SINGER: Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is—Marshall McLuhan! You don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan’s work!

MAN IN LINE AT THEATER: Oh really! Really! I happen to teach a class at Columbia called TV, Media and Culture. So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!

SINGER Oh, do you? Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So, so, yeah, just let me— Come over here a second. Tell him!

MARSHALL MCLUHAN: I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

SINGER: Boy, if life were only like this!
Thanks to the Internet, life now is! To watch that scene, click here.

Rather frequently, Amanda Ripley seems to know little about her own country’s public schools. She disappears the progress shown on test scores in recent decades. Does she understand the nature of our large achievement gaps?

For starters, let’s consider the variety and size of those gaps. For all NAEP scores, start here.

Many kinds of achievement gaps can be found in American test scores. For example, substantial gaps can be found between the average scores of students in different states.

Below, you see average scores by the top and bottom states in Grade 8 math on the most recent NAEP. On the NAEP scale, ten points is commonly said to represent one academic year:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP:
1) Massachusetts 298.5
2) Minnesota 294.9
3) New Jersey 294.1
4) Vermont 293.9


47) Louisiana 272.8
48) California 272.8
49) Mississippi 269.2
50) Alabama 269.1
Warning! Gaps between states may look different if you “disaggregate” test scores! Example: If we look at scores by Hispanic kids, Minnesota was only the 23rd best state on the same test. (Out of 45 states with a sufficient sample.)

We sometimes see large achievement gaps between the different states. We also have large nationwide gaps based on family income.

Here is the nationwide gap on that same test based on that parameter:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP:
Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch 269.0
Students who aren’t eligible 295.4
At present, roughly half of American students are in each group. Those data reveal a large achievement gap based on family income.

(Remember, those are average scores. Roughly half of higher-income kids score above 295. Roughly half of lower-income kids score below 269. Very large gaps are involved here.)

The gaps which get discussed the most are those based on race and ethnicity. Here too, the achievement gaps are still quite large, although they’ve been getting smaller.

In large part, these numbers reflect hundreds of years of brutal racial history. In part, they also reflect immigration policy and/or lack of same:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 NAEP:
White students: 292.6
Black students: 261.8
Hispanic students: 269.4
In recent decades, scores by black and Hispanic students are way up, but scores by white students are higher too. The gaps are smaller than they were. But the gaps are still quite large.

Earth to clones: The United States is a highly stratified society! Intellectually, Ripley seems to know this.

Early in her widely-praised book, Ripley makes the key observation shown below. As this passage begins, she is discussing U.S. performance on the 2000 PISA math test:
RIPLEY (page 17): Across the ocean, the United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance that would be repeated in every subsequent round [of PISA testing]. U.S. teenagers did better in reading but that was only comforting, since math skills tended to be better predictors of future earnings.

Even in reading, a gulf of more than ninety points separated America’s most-advantaged kids from the least-advantaged peers. By comparison, only thirty-three points separated Korea’s most-privileged and least-privileged students...
Right there, Ripley has made a very important observation, although it’s never clear that she understands the point which lurks within.

In that passage, Ripley is discussing the OECD’s basic measure of “advantage,” which includes, but is not limited to, a student’s family income. Based on that measure, a much wider achievement gap exists in this country than is found Over There.

Why is that particular gap so much smaller in Korea? Why is the gap so much larger here? Much later, Ripley presents a basic part of the explanation, without necessarily knowing that she has done so. Forgive her occasional ham-handed tone when it comes to matters of race:
RIPLEY (page 158): The more time I spent in Finland, the more I appreciated the rare balance it had struck. Finland had achieved rigor without ruin. It was impossible not to notice something else, too: During my time in Pietarsaari, I saw exactly one black person. In Kim’s classes, everyone looked basically the same. Nationwide, only 3 percent of Finland’s students had immigrant parents (compared to 20 percent of teenagers in the United States).

In fact, Finland, Korea and Poland were all homogenous places with few immigrants or racial minorities. Japan and Shanghai, China, two other education superpowers, were similarly bland. Maybe homogeneity was a prerequisite for rigor at scale. Did sameness beget harmony, which somehow boosted learning? If so, was Finland irrelevant to a big, jangling place like the United States?
In many ways, the answer to that last question is yes! Despite its obvious merits, Finland actually is “irrelevant to a place like the United States.” Ripley, perhaps “blacking the boots of success,” is never quite willing or able to see this fact, or to put it in print.

Ignore the suggestion that Poland is an “education superpower,” which it quite plainly is not. Ignore the clumsy, peculiar ways Ripley talks about race.

(It isn’t a question of seeing black people. It’s a question of seeing historically brutalized minorities, who may not be “racially” different from their nation’s majority population.)

Focus on that key observation: Finland and Korea are highly “homogeneous places.” Thankfully, there are no brutalized minorities to be observed in those countries. There aren't even many immigrants, though immigrants will sometimes improve a nation’s test scores, depending on where they come from.

Finland and Korea are highly homogeneous. Plainly, this helps explain why the achievement gaps are so much larger here.

Why are the gaps so large over here? In large part, because of our history! By now, anyone with an ounce of sense ought to be able to spot this fact. But Ripley seems to be busy, all through her book, repeating the favorite claims of the people who fund and surround her.

Ripley repeatedly mocks the idea that money matters in public schools. (In some contexts, that general claim is true.) She keeps suggesting that “expectations” and “rigor” are the key factors in educational success.

That said, she seems to have no earthly idea about an obvious question: What would “rigor” look like in a country like ours? In a country with yawning gaps between the achievement levels of various students?

It’s easy to picture what “rigor” looks like in a land where the kids are all roughly the same. But what does academic rigor look like in a country like this?

Ripley shows no sign of knowing. She shows no sign of understanding that this is a basic question. But then, to our caffeinated eye, Ripley often seems lost in America.

As a standard northeastern elite, she knows that Texans like football too much. But she seems to know little else.

She’s eager to learn about children in Finland; she almost completely ignores large groups of American children. What exactly does “rigor” look like in a country like this?
RIPLEY (page 158, continuing directly from above): Diversity was one of those words that got hijacked so often it had lost most of its meaning. Part of the problem was that there were thousands of ways to be diverse. In the United States, conversations about diversity were usually about race. The United States closely tracked the race of students because of its history of institutional racism; other countries did not, which made comparisons difficult.

But within the United States, 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...
Korea and Finland don’t have those heartbreaking gaps. You can’t fly to Finland to learn how to deal with the world our ancestors built.

In all honesty, Ripley often seems to “know nothing of” public schools, much as McLuhan once said. She doesn’t seem to understand the challenges facing a country which has those very large gaps.

She doesn’t seem to understand; there’s little sign that she actively cares. There’s no reason why anyone has to care about the problems of low-income kids. But there’s no real sign that Ripley does—and by the way, the ability to care will often start with personal knowledge, which Ripley seems to lack.

That lack of knowledge is OK too. But why is Ripley writing this book?

Can we talk? Ripley doesn’t seem to know much about the lives of millions of American kids. The scandal here resides in the fact that Ripley, a heavily underqualified person, was funded by our ruling elites to write this ballyhooed book.

Other members of our elites stood in line to praise it.

Tomorrow: Where does literacy come from?


  1. "Homogenous" = code word for "white".

    1. Not in this context. In Korea, "homogenous" is not a code word for "white."

      Perhaps you're thinking of "homogenized" and milk.

  2. If Ripley had actually traveled in America she might have written "Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol.

  3. Actually, behind Ripley's rather chipper manner is a pretty damning indictment of the way Americans treat education. This critique is embedded in her criticisms of tracking.

    Ripley emphasizes that early tracking correlates everywhere with low international test scores (and to his credit, so does Hanushek). The later the tracking, or "ability grouping", that is, the older students are when assigned to different educational tracks in any given country, the higher that country's international test scores. According to Ripley, Poland's educational resurgence resulted primarily from its getting rid of tracking. Arguably her hyperbolic language and dodgy statistics about how badly the US is doing with respect to other countries are employed in the service of this narrative. But it would be true even without such dubious aids.

    Ripley also points out that there is overt tracking. such as occurs in say, Germany, and de facto tracking, such as occurs (along with overt tracking) in the United States. The US is the only country, according to Ripley, where tracking occurs as early as elementary school.

    Moreover, the US is the one and only country where children in different tracks are exposed to different content --beginning with so-called "gifted" classes -- in the earliest years. Whereas in other countries students in higher tracks are taught the same content as those in lower track, only in more depth. And here is the heart of Ripley's indictment: she remarks, almost in passing, that racial and economic segregation, widely prevalent in the US, represent defacto tracking. And one could class the ability of the wealthy to put their kids in country-club like private schools as an egregious form of tracking.

    If Ripley's message about the evils of tracking, which Americans are very loath to hear, much less process, gets through, she will have done a signal service in the cause of public enlightenment and social justice. -- E