January 02, 2014

We have problems with education, but this book isn't the answer

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That WayThe Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thin and anecdotal, with one big error of omission.

The major point, and a very relevant one?

Most western nations have a school year of at least 200 days, compared to the 180, or less, here in the U.S. Why this wasn't even mentioned, let alone made a point of discussion as to whether or not it affects U.S. school performance (I am sure it has at least some effect) I have no idea.

PISA? Per an OECD link about how PISA scores should best be understood in light of U.S. educational practices, PISA's not all she cracks it up to be. (There is value in PISA, but, to the degree there is value, for identifying ways to change, areas to change, and support for positive change rather than punitive action, Ripley's coverage is superficial here, too.)

The ding? "Alright" is not an English word. "All right" is. If you're going to write a book about education, please use standard English.

She does get some things right, like the need to nationalize standards and move away from the horse-and-buggy days of the locally autonomous school district, but she's far from the only person to point that out. She's also right about a "balance point" on the amount of standardized testing, and how to approach it, but again, she's not alone, and the treatment is fairly light.

Also, she promises more than she delivers.

Focusing on just three other nations that take PISA, three largely homogenous nations, and viewing them through the lenses of just three exchange students, is anecdotal, not rigorous. That's especially true in light of her getting hundreds of exchange students to respond to her request for information.

Finally, there's little prescriptiveness on "how to get there," in terms of either federal or state level public policy.


My review should indicate things I think we do need in terms of K-12 education. I'll list them and more:
1.  A 200-day school year;
2. National standards on education, with national standards of some sort on textbooks to achieve this and on standardized testing to measure it;
3. Getting away from local-control school boards and districts, along with top-heavy administrative costs this incurs, especially in rural areas;
4. Getting away from local property tax and all its inequities as a primary funder of schools;
5. Using federal education funding already in place as the stick to achieve 1-4;
6. Increasing federal education funding to further 1-4, and getting big business to buy into the necessary taxes for it and reasons why.

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