Published by Simon & Schuster on August 13, 2013
Genres/Lists: Non-Fiction, Political
Read synopsis on Goodreads
I received this book for free from NetGalley.
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
Not only is it going to be controversial, but it’s going to change the way you think about our education system. Here’s the short and skinny: American students are behind academically and there are hundreds of theories about why this is. Is it child poverty? Standardized testing? Teachers? Technology? Sports? Amanda Ripley (who had spent most of her career thinking education was ‘soft’) wanted to find out, so she began to research what was happening in some of the best educational systems around the world. Drawing on various studies and interviews, she also followed three American high school students as they ventured to some of the top countries for a year abroad. The results were startling. Note: Most of ranking data in the book comes from the PISA scores – click here for their site.
A lot of what she says in the book is not new, like:
- Technology isn’t necessarily better.
- Increased funding doesn’t fix much.
- Smaller class sizes aren’t as important as we think.
- Americans are behind.
- Child poverty is not the cause of our mediocre performance (for example, Norway has low child poverty and low scores).
But underneath these seemingly benign observations lie the root of the problem: Rigor. American students aren’t taught rigor. Everyone gets a trophy and, while academics are important, it’s perfectly fine to skate by. Basically, we’re soft. And a few of the contributing factors? According to the book, it’s teachers and parents. Here are her reasons why:
The Teachers: We live in a country where we produce more than two and a half times the number of teachers we actually need. To become a teacher, you don’t even have to score the national average on the ACT. In fact (according to the book and her research, that is), less than half of American math teachers majored in math (less than a third minored in it). Plus, we perpetuate the culture that math is an innate ability rather than one you can learn. Then let’s factor in the importance of sports – lots of people become teachers so that they can coach, say, high school baseball. They aren’t there to teach, they are there to coach and teaching is a means to that end. It’s no wonder higher standards and performance-based pay is considered a threat, not an investment. There are a whole lot of teachers out there who aren’t even able to make the grade in what they teach. The result? The good teachers get screwed and leave the profession for greener pastures. If we made teaching more of a priority, paid them more, and took the best and brightest, then the whole system would be revamped.
The Parents: There’s no argument that parental involvement is important. But does the type of involvement matter? Studies point to yes. In America, we have what Ripley calls the PTA parents. They go to every sports game, bake cookies, help with fundraising, and volunteer in the classrooms. But none of this matters. What’s more effective is reading to your kids at home and discussing social issues with them at the dinner table. For example, reading to your children can help boost their scores, but giving them alphabet toys to play with does not. Be
ing a cheerleader can be great, but not as a replacement to valuable coaching. A 2009 study by Andreas Schleicher showed that parental involvement in extracurricular activities actually led to worse performance in reading than those who didn’t (and this was after controlling for things like socioeconomic status).
The Students: Ripley followed three high school students to South Korea, Poland, and Finland, respectively. Each country has their own set of pros and cons, but all three of them are competing at a much higher level than the United States. One of the things that all three students learned was that these foreign countries placed a much higher value on the importance of education. Plus, the students had a lot more autonomy, in part due to their work ethic. And with the exception South Korea, the kids all had normal lives. The difference was that their priorities and discipline.
What I Think: I was fascinated by this book. I am definitely going to be going back and looking into her research to see if it all checks out because I’m a cynic. To be honest, Ripley says a lot of things I have wondered about. While I’ve had some effective teachers (mostly AP/college), I have had plenty of terrible ones, too. I know there are a lot more good ones who left the profession. I know a few people who have left teaching and were awesome at their jobs but were rundown by the system. Feeling underpaid, undervalued, and held accountable for kids’ futures when you don’t even have the respect you deserve is pretty disheartening.
We also do live in a society where mediocrity is okay as long as you try hard. If we raised the standards, our kids would meet them if we instilled in them the idea that they could. Luckily for me, I had these types of parents. They read to me and discussed current events over the dinner table. I didn’t get a pat on the back for getting a C but I wasn’t chastised, either. Whenever I thought I couldn’t do something, they would give me the confidence I needed to try anyway. And you know what? I have big plans for myself that don’t include being mediocre.
A Few Disclaimers: This information all came from the book and may or may not reflect my personal views. That said, of course there are kids who don’t fit the norm and a ton of amazing teachers. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist, it’s that they are undervalued. Ripley also takes care to point out unique political climates that led to some of the successes in other countries. She also points out the downsides of their systems because nothing is perfect. But even after all this, it’s clear that American schools are not where they need to be.
“The real world did not give second and third chances: the real world didn’t give credit for showing up.”
Before I wrap this up, I want to point out a few things that reinforce what is mentioned in the book. I want you to stop for a minute, ignore your gut reaction, and really think about it. Then, reevaluate.
- How many movies are there about the jock coming in and propelling the smart girl into popularity? It’s insulting. I can think of a few off the top of my head – 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That.
- How many really effective teachers have you had in your lifetime? I can count on one hand, maybe two.
- Did you see a difference in how athletes were treated versus the ‘nerds’? I certainly did. I didn’t play sports and read for fun.