If you’re interested in K-12 education, I urge you to read How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, in which the author describes what he observed over the course of a year at one of Success Academy’s schools in New York City. Eva Moskowitz, who founded and runs the charter school system, starts with the premise that all her students, who predominantly come from low-income families, will graduate from college, and her system and staff spare no effort to get them to learn to read and do astonishingly well on standardized tests compared not only with the local public schools but also with the best-performing schools in the city.
The techniques are demanding. There is a maniacal emphasis on discipline (woe be unto the wiggly child), long school days and years, and hours and hours of test training, starting 2.5 months before the tests. Parents are also required to read to their children and check homework, with the teachers following up daily.
The main criticism of the system is that it selects only the most capable children, and systematically weeds out weaker ones. In reality, it seems that the selection is on the parents rather that the children. The rules for parents are harsh so that only the most motivated parents remain. (And perhaps it’s fair. Why should only high-income parents have choices when it comes to school?)
In any case, there are interesting lessons (haha) to take from the techniques in use. The principals are focused strictly on curriculum and have a separate individual who is solely responsible for the facilities and logistics at the individual school. Seems like a great idea, resulting in classrooms being painted each year and building issues tackled within a day. Each grade level uses a set curriculum, developed once and used by all the teachers who collaborate and swap ideas. Issues with staff are dealt with promptly and decisively, with assistant teachers redeployed when needed if a teacher leaves. The one thing that was a bit of a mystery to me was why ideas are not systematically tested. For instance, the way children sit is rigidly enforced, but there seems to be no real basis for it. Would things work just as well if legs and arms were not crossed? We don’t know. And we don’t know whether other teaching techniques or curriculum choices really work. That would be worth testing.
Paul Tough has made a career researching and writing about education (see here for instance). In The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, he tackles college, and the outcome is much superior to The Meritocracy Trap, which I reviewed last week. He exposes the tactics of so-called elite colleges to massage their rankings upward (granted, the blind devotion of many parents to the same rankings fosters a dangerous escalation). He shows how low-income and first-generation students are systematically pushed to the side.
He also shows a number of successful programs, some happy accidents (as when the Texas legislature required its universities to automatically accept the top 12% of students in any high school), some carefully crafted (as one at UC Berkeley I briefly taught for). What they show is, by investing enough resources in outreach and mentoring, it is possible to find, enroll, and graduate students from across the income spectrum. We must do it.
The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite makes its points within the first few pages (indeed, one could argue, within its very title), so the main issue is that it continues for 300 pages! The other is that many anecdotes come from the august halls of Yale, where the author teaches, and one wonders how restricted a view that may be. And finally the arguments seem to repeat on a loop from one chapter to another. Get to the point, already.
Still, the arguments are strong and unsettling. What we call meritocracy is really a race to the top for richer parents, from which the vast majority of middle-income children, and virtually all low-income children, are excluded. The remedies proposed sadly occupy only a few pages. One is an interesting idea of restricting non-profit status for private universities that educate only high-income students, which seems totally possible since the government already knows where mid- and low-income students go to school. The proposal to create more middle-skilled jobs seems highly suspect in the global economy we live in…
Especially after the recent college admission scandals, we are well aware of how much easier it is for the children of high-income parents to get into elite universities as compared to the children of low-income parents (even when the rich parents are not cheating outright!). What is less well-known is how low-income students fare once they have been admitted. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students looks at the lives of students in an anonymous East Coast college, comparing rich ones to poor ones. It finds many awkward situations.
Some are caused by the startling obliviousness of the rich kids (Who raised these children? Have they never thought about anyone but themselves?). Others are caused by badly designed processes (Who decided to have a separate line for students on financial aid? Fortunately the college can, and did, change some of those). And others are caused by the natural awkwardness of economic inequality, whereby the low-income students worries about their parents being evicted and the $50 winter jackets stand out in the crowd of $750 winter jackets. I did not agree with all of the authors’ concerns, but it’s clear that colleges must help low-income students make better use of their college years, they must remind their staff, professors and otherwise, that not all students come from privilege.
And one more: can we immediately eliminate legacy admissions?
The author, a retired historian, decides to go to art school, and describes her experience of getting both a BFA and an MFA. She astutely shows how difficult it can be to be so much older than the other students in Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. While she is adjusting to her life as a student, including the ruthless (and apparently unstructured, and quite biased) critique sessions, she also has to contend with her aging parents, who live on the other side of the country and need her, again and again, as they become sicker (and eventually die). She also explores the big question of what art is. Who decides? and who makes the rules of which artists will encounter success.
I found it ironic how, in the midst of her very real struggles coping as a student, she often feels the need to remind us of how established she is, prizes she’s won, historian associations she has chaired. Surely part of being a student is having to leave the string of achievements from our prior life, right?
The authors of Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids are fathers and economists, and they have patiently compiled information on how parents choose to be parents in the first place, and how they decide how much to intervene in the decisions their children make, based on the economic climate, the amount of income inequality, and whether the society rewards education or other goods. It turns out that parents are remarkably rational and for the most part, guide their children to success in the societies where they live–or where they expect their children to live. For Americans, the basic conclusion is that, in a society that is quite unequal and where education can pay off nicely, parents push, hard, but they stop short of dictating junior’s career path, because it will yield the best results.
I particularly liked the anecdotes provided by both (European-born) authors on the various surprises they encountered while raising their children in various countries, showing that cultural differences matter a great deal (and match economic differences very exactly).
Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies is a rather depressing book, as it turns out that child prodigies do not always turn out to have remarkably successful lives in the long run, or at least rarely manage to have lives remarkable as their early promises–and invariably face very rough transitions to adulthood. (So enjoy your entirely un-remarkable children!)
The author chose to mostly tell the lives of various prodigies, mostly 20th-century Americans from a variety of disciplines including science, literature, and art (no sports, interestingly), but she has very little commentary about what happens so them, or how parents or society could help them. No surprisingly, it’s very difficult to raise a prodigy, and many parents succumb to the lure of fame, for themselves as well as their child. And when adolescence comes, their children often violently reject them and find themselves adrift since they do not have a peer group to support them, having led such different lives.
Gaudy Night is simply the reunion at the first women’s college in Oxford, and it’s the start of a series of pranks and threatening letters that cause the dean to ask one of the alumnae, a mystery writer, to investigate. The action moves slowly along 523 pages, with minute descriptions of the various professors and students, the quaint customs and schedule of the college, and the 1935 sexism that characterizes the college system, town, and society as a whole. So slowly that I found the main pleasure of the book to lie in its descriptions of a time long past, when female college students were carefully watched after 11pm (not that they did not manage to work around it!) and only a handful would get to have a professional life. That said, the overall intrigue is marred by the fact that our fearless heroine is, in fact, obliged to bring her (male) lover to untangle the mystery. Is her brain too feeble for this?
After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform brings together a series of in-depth articles about various school districts located in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and New Orleans, all with stories of either failed or successful changes — and the author clearly pushes the initiatives in Massachusetts and Texas, both instigated and implemented by insiders, as the best way to pursue improvements. It’s also clear that the reforms she described were tried in New York and New Orleans, inspired and in some cases paid for by outsiders inspired by the business work, were utter failures.
Her conclusion, that outsiders don’t know what they are doing and insiders do, is not sustained by her descriptions. Sure, the two examples of successful reform that she presents are successful, heartwarmingly so, lifting hundreds of students from outright failure and mediocrity. But that does not mean that insiders are always right. After all, there are hundreds of insiders in any school district and not all of them are successful, let alone trying to turn things around. And it’s striking that, even for the two districts she presents that were very successful, little seems to have been collected and shared outside the district that could help lift others. Finally, it’s all well and good to point out the evils of using test scores as the only measure of success — but wouldn’t it be good to agree on some simple metrics that would allow parents and others to decide how successful schools are? The author does present many examples of egregious cheating on metrics, but that does not mean that metrics per se are bad, only that they need to follow rigorous definitions and audits.
I wholeheartedly support the idea that schools are complex systems, and that no quick fix or magic metric will suffice to cure problems unless the system is changed, refined, and embraced by teachers and parents. But pretending that the teachers or even principals have all the answers and that any outside ideas or interventions are doomed to fail is not reasonable.
The author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve is an American-born mom whose travels take her family to China, and whose two boys attend Chinese public elementary schools (the boy of the title is the older one; the story stops when the younger one enters kindergarten). She takes us mostly through his experience, and his parents’, although she adds other stories of independent reporting she did while living in China. The best parts of the book, by far, are the ones that tell of her personal experience, as she humorously tells of her surprise, even horror, at some of the coercive behavior modification techniques used with very young children — while she freely marvels at their academic successes. She also tells of bribing teachers with expensive American handbags, and the routine requirement for parents to practice at home with students who are not performing at the level expected by teachers. And there’s a good arc to the story, moving from astonishment to respect.