THE PROGRESS, THE GAPS AND THE SCANDAL: Young Mellie’s magical chart!


Part 5—Where does literacy come from: We have very large achievement gaps in this country.

As Amanda Ripley notes in her widely-praised but very bad book, our achievement gaps are much larger than those found in places like Korea and Finland. Where do our large gaps come from?

Do they come from poverty? Pshaw! Just look at Norway, Ripley says.

(For details, see yesterday’s post.)

Do our gaps come from funding shortfalls? “Spending on education d[oes] not make kids smarter,” Ripley weirdly says.

Does immigration contribute to our large gaps? In Finland, immigrant kids are scoring at the top of the world, Ripley plainly implies in her book. (This implied claim is baldly false.) Also, look at Australia! (Australia’s immigrant kids largely come from the Asian tigers. They outscore Australian kids.)

Do our gaps represent the legacy of our brutal racial history? Does that help explain why we tend to trail Finland?

“Five out of six American kids [are] not black!” Ripley says.

You could almost learn to dislike a person who serves her funders this way. Ripley ends up mouthing standard nostrums about the importance of expectations and rigor.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all about expectations. And what does rigor look like if you're teaching kids who are years behind, and confused?

In her book, Ripley barely seems to know, or care, that such children exist. Except for one silly story Straight Outta Rhee, she doesn't even attempt to tell us how to bring those children rigor.

That said, where do our large gaps come from? Let’s ask that question a different way:

Where does literacy come from?

Where does literacy come from? To answer that question, consider one 9-year-old’s chart.

The 9-year-old girl is named Mellie A; we don’t use last names here. Last Saturday, in its Free For All letters section, the Washington Post published a letter from her mother.

Mellie’s mother was urging the Post to publish more photographs of women. Her letter started like this:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (11/2/13): One morning over breakfast this past summer, Mellie, my 9-year-old daughter, looked at The Post, turned to me and said, “Mommy, why aren’t there any pictures of women on the front page of the newspaper?”

“Good question,” I answered.
Where does literacy come from? Right there, we have part of our answer.

Mellie’s parents read the Washington Post! That doesn’t mean they’re better people than some other kid’s parents. It just means they’re somewhat more “literate.”

Mellie also scans the Post. On this occasion, she was puzzled by the absence of photos of women on the Post’s front page.

Alertly, she asked her mother about it. Where does literacy come from? Literacy comes from this:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (continuing directly): I took a deep breath and explained that only about 10 percent of the world’s countries currently have female leaders, and in our own country, fewer than 20 percent of our national lawmakers are women. In business, there is an even greater gender gap: Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies (not even 5 percent) have female chief executives. So, I told Mellie, as long as the majority of the world’s political and business leaders are men, it makes some sense that the front page would feature photos of those people.

But how often, Mellie wondered, were there absolutely no photos of girls or women on the front page?

To answer this question, Mellie and I decided to conduct a study. For the entire month of August, we pored over the front page of The Post, and Mellie filled in a chart.
In large part, that’s where literacy comes from.

When the Post published this latter, they included a winning photo of Mellie. (We can’t yet find a link.) She is poised above a very large chart. She has long, slender arms and a big head of hair, which is curly. She’s holding a rather large pencil.

She’s studying a very large collection of data. We hate to tell you, but in large part, this is where literacy comes from.

(We recall the way we struggled, in sixth grade, to create a large scale drawing of Fenway Park. We had to extend lots of lines to capture all those famous angles. We didn’t yet know the math.)

That photo shows where literacy comes from. Viewed from a slightly different angle, what it shows is also the source of our gaps.

At age 9, Mellie seems to be deeply involved in the world of observation. (That world barely exists in our big newspapers, except when the children write in.) In large part, that’s where literacy—and achievement gaps—come from.

When we looked at that picture, we thought of a 7-year-old who is part of our own extended family. Her literacy seems to be rolling along at this point. In large part, this is why:

Three Thanksgivings ago, when she was 4, we spotted her on her family’s living room couch. She was pretending that she could read the New York Times.

She had been raised among a passel of graduate students, most of them in public health. Everyone she knew and loved was constantly reading something.

Two Christmases ago, when she was 5, she was caught in a love affair with the alphabet. She sat at the counter in her American grandparents’ kitchen and sketched every letter for us, along with the picture of the object which accompanied that letter on the wall of her kindergarten.

Last Christmas, she was back in Maine with seven adults, including two parents, two grandparents and a great uncle. Also present: Her Uncle Brendan, in from Dublin, and the delicious person who would soon become her treasured Aunt Nikki.

(Why not subscribe to Uncle Brendan’s Dublin Review?)

Basically, that week was spent in rotation. The young scholar moved from one adult to the next; all of them read to her from books she got for Christmas. Thinking back, this thought occurred:

When children get read to this way, it isn’t just that they learn a lot of new words. It isn’t just that they learn the way written language sounds. (This allows them to produce standard written language themselves.)

They also learn that reading is something you do while snuggling with the people you love. People whose keisters you’ll proceed to kick in serial games of Mancala, the alleged oldest game on the earth.

As everyone but the “reformers” know, this is largely where literacy comes from. Children whose parents are more “literate” are bathed in such practices from their first days on earth.

Children whose parents are less “literate” are not raised within this culture. By age 3, large differences (gaps!) have opened up between these groups of kids.

Everyone knows these things but Ripley, who was perhaps simply serving her funders as she rolled her eyes, a bit cruelly we’d say, at the blindingly obvious sources of our rather large gaps.

Trust us: Ripley was raised the same way Mellie is being raised. We were pretty much raised that way too.

Consider Mrs. Davis, who lived down the street and was what we’d call a Yankee educational striver. At one point, she opened an in-house library for us kids on Marshall Road. This supplemented the town library, some 0.85 miles away.

Then too, there was the time she told us about the wonderful new TV station!

History says this must have occurred in the spring of 1955. (We were seven.) One day, Mrs. Davis described the wonderful new TV station which would be starting in Boston.

It was going to be an educational station, she said, a thrill in her voice. We children were going to learn all sorts of things as we watched its wonderful programs!

Mrs. Davis filled us with ardor. We hurried home to tell our sainted mother.

“Tuh!” our sainted mother replied, not attempting to hide her scorn. “You won’t like that!”

(Most likely, that was the wrong thing to say. In fairness, though, we’ll have to admit that Mother was basically right on her facts.)

Whatever! Amanda Ripley was raised the same way Mellie is being raised. The same general way we were raised. The same way our young family member is being raised.

Such children are bathed in the practices of literacy from their first days forward. They even react to the songs they’re sung when they’re still in the womb!

Other kids aren’t raised that way. By the age of 3, the gaps have appeared. Everyone knows these facts by now, except the spear-chuckers who roam the world repeating the scripts of the funders.

Ripley was a fellow at a foundation which is heavily funded by Bill Gates. As far as we know, Gates is completely sincere in the things he thinks about education.

That said, many of his ideas are clueless. So too with the other billionaires who have created the often clueless ideas which comprise “education reform.”

We’re sorry, but it actually isn’t all about expectations! Ripley’s funders have possibly sung that song to her. But when she rolls your eyes at poverty and at the effects of our brutal racial history, she is being extremely clueless. We’d say that her work’s a bit cruel.

As a general matter, very bad people are roaming the earth, telling us extremely dumb stories. But the money is coming from the funders. So are those dumb, clueless scripts.

By the way: what did Mellie’s study reveal? We’d rather hear it from Mellie herself. But here’s what her mother wrote:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (continuing directly): Our results showed that during August, The Post’s front page featured 78 photos of males, 19 photos of females and 21 photos of males and females together. For eight days, not a single female was pictured in any of the photos on the front page. And above the fold each day of that month, only three photos depicted just females.
There’s a hint of Mrs. Davis there! For what it’s worth, five of the seven kids within Mrs. Davis’ orbit on Marshall Road ended up going to Harvard, Wellesley or MIT. If memory serves, Name Withheld went to MIT at a time when few girls did.

Mrs. Davis ruled! Her son became the only two-time editor of the Harvard Advocate. Some famous names appear on that list. For better or worse, her son’s name appears twice.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that those kids were better people than other kids; as many as six of them weren’t. It means they got the advantages of literacy in a culture which values, or at least rewards, those skills, inclinations and practices.

Other American kids aren’t raised in those same ways. People like Ripley, a funder’s delight, don’t seem to know that, or care.

Tomorrow: TIMSS 2011! More on the size of those gaps

The gaps are present by age 3: No, Amanda! It isn’t all about expectations, despite what the funders want you to say. It’s largely about the passage shown below from that new study from the Casey Foundation.

Everyone knows these things by now. These basic facts have been repeated in studied about ten million times:
THE FIRST EIGHT YEARS: The normal challenges of raising children are far more daunting for families struggling with poverty. Low-income parents often spend more time away from their children because they are juggling multiple jobs, spending significant periods in transit, searching for secure housing or navigating complex public-assistance bureaucracies. There are measurable differences between how children in lower-income families and their middle-class peers develop and learn. By the time a child in a very low-income family reaches age 4, she will have heard only two words for every seven that a child in a higher-income family has heard. By the time children in families with very low incomes enter kindergarten, they are 12 to 14 months behind in language and pre-reading skills, compared with children in higher-income families, where reading books and engaging in regular conversations with adults help build much larger vocabularies.

Poverty presents other challenges for very young children...
As everybody knows by now, there’s much, much more to this story. But that highlighted passage is the place we’d start.

Exciting as the trip may be, you can’t fly off to Finland to study this problem while lounging in a nice hotel. This situation was never created in Finland. For that reason, the Finns haven’t solved it.

In our experience, the kids described in that highlighted passage are among the world’s best kids. But in their earliest years, they don’t gain the advantage of immersion in the culture of literacy. This isn’t a moral or an intelligence issue. It’s a matter of habits and practices.

Everyone knows these things by now. Everyone except the funders and their rather cruel tribunes, who roll their eyes, from page 4 on, about the things everyone knows.


  1. Because kids from low-literacy backgrounds are less prepared to benefit from school activities from day one, the differences compound and become wider with each grade level. Even the most dedicated teachers do not have the resources to enable kids to make up for what they missed during their early years. That's why states like California have programs like First-Five to help kids before they enter school.

    1. According to Somerby's NAEP data, California kids are years behind the rest of the country.

    2. California has higher numbers of immigrant and minority children compared to the rest of the country (except some places with large cities). California also systematically reduced funding for schools over a long period of time, starving education. First-Five was Rob Reiner's attempt to deal with urban poverty issues and was passed, but suffered along with many other initiatives during the long period beginning with the Enron-caused energy fiasco, Gray Davis's recall and the Republican tyranny over our state legislature, with the financial troubles of 2008 being only the latest disaster. We are now back on track but I expect it will take a while for the results to show. It in no way means that First Five is a bad idea or that it doesn't work if given a chance.

    3. According to Somerby's disaggregated data, California children of many races and ethnic backgrounds, including whites, seem to do worse on the NAEP. Do they spend less per pupil that Texas and North Carolina?

    4. Re: Anonymous at 12:25 PM

      Don't forget to disaggregate.

      Here are the data from a graphic accompanying a story in the San Jose Mercury News (under the headline "California students score at bottom of nation in reading, math") that show California close to the national averages when scores are broken outdown by race/ethnicity:

      Average California scores/Average U.S. scores

      4th grade math
      White 249/250
      Latino 224/230
      Black 221/224

      4th grade reading
      White 232/231
      Latino 201/207
      Black 202/205

      8th grade math
      White 291/293
      Latino 263/271
      Black 258/263

      8th grade reading
      White 275/275
      Latino 252/255
      Black 247/250

    5. Last I heard, California spent less per pupil than every state except one of the Southern ones (Alabama? Mississippi?). We were 47th out of 50 in spending.

    6. Anons @ 4:08 and 4:28. I know I am butting into someone else's argument, but a critical part of BOB's headline is GAPS. If you look at the gaps in performance between races and ethnic groups in California, they do a fairly pathetic job educating children equally.

      They are statistically below the national average in the achievement gaps comparing white to black or Hispanic students on four of the eight combinations you get from these two NAEP tests in the two grades. They are below the national average on all of them. Their highest ranking is 35th on the achievement gap between white and black students in 4th grade Math. Their lowest ranking is 45th,
      which is where they rank on the gap between white and Hispanic 4th graders and 8th graders in reading. Texas doesn't fare to well either when it is gaps you are measuring. There gaps are smaller than California, but they take the glow off their high rankings when you disaggregate without also looking at the disparities.

      Now Anon @ 4:28 your scores show a statistic on which you could argue California is not bad, just average to a little below average. I can offer scores which show California to be a state which doesn't do much about the disparity in education it provides to its minority kids. BOB can show statistics that show Texas is the cat's meow when you disaggregate test scores if you fail to mention the size of their gaps. He can also show Ripley to be an uncaring tale teller who, nonetheless, with clever use of test scores has produced a praised book.

      You know what these numbers prove? The fallibility of those who believe in their own narrative enough to misuse the numbers. Including those who insist of the tests being given in the first place. Oh, and the gullibility of those who have faith in the tale tellers. They prove that too.


  2. It's my understanding that Somerby is an awful person, a hypocrite. A hater of women, a hater of the Irish. A person who iis only happy beating up on those of whom he must be jealous. I understand these things from reading his comments section.

    Why doesn't his writing convince me of it though?

  3. His only non-hateful comments are about test scores and stuff (and even on that topic he seems to hate women who dare to write about that particular obsession).

    He is an Angry White Male, neo-confederate in his poorly hidden sympathies who beats up on liberals ad nauseum, using the pretext "we shouldn't be as bad as them".

    This is "mine eyes glaze over stuff" - time for some read meat - WE WANT ZIMMERMAN.

  4. I wonder why Asians are always tigers?

    1. Data aren't affected by stereotypes, they contribute to forming them. Asians are being called tigers in this context because they consistently do well on those academic tests. Ripley perpetuates some of the stereotypes of about cultural differences in attitudes toward education, by describing Korea as a tiger-like learning environment. But that doesn't change the fact that Asian immigrants in Australia have higher test scores than the Australian average. That is just a fact.

      You do know that tigers come from Asia (not from zoos), right?

    2. Tigers come from Asia. Good to know.

      Where do racial stereotypes come from?

    3. I know you don't really want to know the answer to your question, but they are an aspect or normal categorization processes (which involve creation of concepts and schemas). In social situations, these normal thought processes are applied to in-groups and out-groups and are known as stereotypes. Problems arise when people reason from a generalization about a group (a stereotype) to an individual whose actual characteristics are unknown. Stereotypes can be used in service of racism and prejudice or not. One cannot think without them. The actual features and properties that are part of one's stereotypes arise from culture and everyday experience. Thus a person who is a member of a minority group can hold a stereotype about that group by virtue of participation in the culture, with input as well from his or her own personal experience.

      If you are pretending to be offended by the term "Asian Tiger," I believe they are holding a spot for you in the fainting room.

    4. Are you people serious? Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan are collectively called the four Asian Tigers because of their recent rapid economic growth.

  5. I think it's obvious that poverty, slavery and historic discrimination effect literacy, but our current culture does too.

    My father was a widower and my brothers and I were raised by a black couple who had little formal education but a great deal of knowledge about every subject imaginable.

    They read to us, lectured us, told stories to us, sang to us, and so did our father (who was also given to grabbing us and waltzing us whenever music was playing).

    I remember laying under the kitchen table many a time (in what would now be called "time out") after getting a wooden spoon across my backside, and being schooled on any number of historical events, and on the Bible, by the lady who helped raise me (three of her five kids graduated from college and the others did well too).

    That wasn't when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

    Mellie gets this sort of adult attention (which usually went unappreciated then), but most parents seem to structure their kids time as though they were their social secretaries. They seem to learn everything but how to think and to feel things beyond lust and anger.

    1. There is clearly nothing inherently white or black about high or low literacy. There are many exceptions to generalities about subcultures. When parents do the things that contribute to performance in school, kids perform well. We know what those things are. We are not a police state, so we can only encourage families to do them. Some people are not capable of doing them (for external or internal reasons). Others are. It doesn't mean we don't know what helps children learn. That's why Ripley's book is a fraud.

  6. My cousin had a lively and enthusiastic African American nursemaid who had an endless store of riddles, limericks, and little poems to keep us amused (these were not part of black culture per se, but the common cultural stock of oral culture of young and old of the early twentieth century. She just happened to have a singularly rich store. My cousin did very well socially and academically, better than his younger brother who was exclusively raised by his mother who stayed home from work several years to look after him, but who was not the kindest, most talkative with her sons.

    There is a reason songs, riddles, and rhymes have for millennia been part of children's culture. They are fun and useful in imparting linguistic ability and enlisting cooperation. Children need useful fun and learn best through indirect instruction. -- E

    1. We would never describe Mrs. Bay as being a nursemaid. She was more like a norse goddess with a sense of humor and the occasional benevolent streak.

  7. Just as an aside, regarding that Letter to the WP:

    The WP actually has a better track record of attending to women than does my thousand-plus list of favorite nonfiction authors. Although I'm a second-generation feminist with an interest in gender-related topics and an overall inclination toward the social sciences (as opposed to heavily male-dominated areas such as math, tech & physics), I have found to my chagrin that female authors make up only around 10% of the authors on my list.

    Other uncomfortable facts to consider before concluding that the WP is unduly discriminatory:

    Top magazines for boys: Teen Boys
    1 ESPN The Magazine
    2 Popular Mechanics
    3 Boys' Life
    4 Slam
    5 Mad Magazine
    6 Young Rider
    7 mental_floss

    Top magazines for girls:
    1 Seventeen
    2 Girls' Life Magazine
    3 Teen Vogue
    4 Lucky
    5 People StyleWatch
    6 J-14
    7 Young Rider

    Which sort of reading is more conducive to serious achievement?

    Regarding adult women - they make up just 13% of The Economist's readership and 22% of the audience for Popular Science.

    Wonder what Mellie and her Mom would make of that?

    1. I'm not sure reading about sports or Mad magazine is any more conducive to achievement than Seventeen or People StyleWatch. Popular Mechanics seems to be the only substantive difference.

      Both this and Mellie's study accept the notion that women are just not doing things worth writing about. How about the problem that when women do things, they are still not covered by the press. There are plenty of women with serious achievements in science, business, politics, and other areas and they have much lower visibility than their male peers.

    2. Humor, particularly the outward-oriented kind that satirizes society, is quite conducive to (creative) achievement, as are activities and interests that stress training, discipline and physical prowess over looks.

      I would also extend my observations to Halloween costumes: the harem girl and pretty princess looks that so many girls choose and mothers apparently acquiesce in suggest a preoccupation with appearance over achievement.

      In absolute numbers, of course, one can find accomplished women in every profession. One can even point to the fact that women now earn 51% of the PhD's in America. But Mellie and her mother were looking at the percentage of female photos on the front page of the Washington Post, which presumably focuses on movers and shakers, not the merely educated, talented or intelligent.

      You say that women have much lower visibility than their male peers. I question that. I think Lynn Margulis's formidable achievements in evolutionary biology were greeted, if anything, with an extra measure of exhilaration on account of her gender; I sense a somewhat outsized interest in Lise Meitner and Rosalind Franklin for the same reason.

      Sexism is real and pervasive, but the preponderance of men on the front page of the WP isn't ipso facto proof of that.

      Like you, I would prefer to believe that sexist discrimination explains most or much of the gender gap. But there is much that can't be explained that way. And in the search for honest answers, I find hard facts, such as male/female demographic breakdowns for serious magazines, more persuasive than impressionistic assertions that women are given much less recognition for equally meritorious accomplishments.

      The next thing I'd be curious to look into is the percentage of women among the most cited authors in science and law over the past 10-25 years or so.

      What do you think I will find?

    3. You would first have to show that bias in acceptance of articles by women submitting to journals has been eliminated. Studies are showing the opposite. The same paper with a male author is more likely to be accepted for publication. This is a rigged game.

    4. Is there bias in the reporting of magazine demographics too?

  8. OMB (Bungle in the Jungle)

    The new study from the Casey Foundation! About low income children! When we were first introduced to that study it was one in which had "bungled work", was evidence that "the liberal world...can’t even speak coherently about this topic", and which provided a "horrible explanation" of who their study compared.

    Glad to see BOB has shaken the worms from the brains over at the Casey Foundation. Your Howler gets results!


    1. Look, I can type. See me type. Type, type, type. KZ can type!


  9. This is wonderfully written, Mr. Somerby. I really enjoyed it.

    1. I especially liked the way he used exclamation points.