December 10, 2020 · reviews · education

Book Reactions: World Class, and What School Could Be

New series! These are what I’ll call book “reactions”—not quite a book review or a book summary, but something in-between.

Book covers

I read these two books back to back and so I think it’s most fair to post my reactions together.

  1. World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children by Teru Clavel

  2. What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America by Ted Dintersmith

High level thoughts

I’ll say right away: I didn’t really like either of them, but for very different reasons. I didn’t have any familiarity with either author prior to reading the books, so my reactions are based on these books only.

World Class is told in a memoir style, following Clavel and her family as they traveled to various countries for work reasons. They begin in New York City and move to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Palo Alto, before returning to NYC. I live in the Bay Area, so I’m familiar with Palo Alto; I’ve been to New York and Tokyo, so I have a vague sense of how things are there; and for Hong Kong and Shanghai I just have to take her word for it. In general, her stories felt factually accurate but perhaps the way she weighs & responds to elements felt very different from the way I would. For example, she talks about the mold- and rat-infested apartment they lived in in Shanghai and her children joining the Young Communists club at school—to her, though, those are minor issues compared to her kids’ schools leading the world in international standardized test scores.

By comparison What School Could Be is a series of case studies / anecdotes from schools Dintersmith visited briefly in a cross-country tour/survey of innovative education models. The tone is much more business-y, more sales-y—you feel he is selling something, though it is not quite clear what, exactly. Sometimes Dintersmith goes into historical anecdotes which I suspect are not entirely accurate—simplified for the elevator pitch, so to speak.

The main thing that troubled me about both books was that neither one really seemed to focus on what is best for the children? Both included it, of course; it’s obvious that both authors care about kids. But where Clavel seemed to be coming from a focus on achievement measured by international test scores, Dintersmith seemed to come from a focus on preparation for the workforce.

What I want to see is a focus on this: Knowing what we know about child development, what education environment equips kids best for lifelong mental and emotional and intellectual health? I guess I will have to keep looking.

World Class: Summary

The book begins in New York City, where Clavel’s friends are getting caught up in the preschool competition craze there. Parents move, change religions, donate enormous amounts of money, and are prepared to pay extravagant tuition to get their children into the “best” preschools. The book doesn’t specify what Clavel and her husband do for work, but it’s pretty clear they run in affluent circles. These are the circles where it’s ordinary conversation to ask, “Oh, you went to X, right? How much do you have to donate to get in there?”

They escape to Hong Kong, where they discover the expat community is perhaps even more conspicuously extravagant. There, she recounts, every family has one or more live-in helpers—servants, usually from a poorer country like the Philippines, who leave their own families behind to care for wealthy families and send money home. The helpers take care of cooking, cleaning, childcare, and practically everything else, leaving mothers plenty of time to pursue hobbies and socializing. However, Clavel felt the expat community was not the kind of overseas experience she wanted for her children, so they ended up moving to a more “native” neighborhood and sending the children to public preschools. She was surprised at how happy her kids were and how quickly they picked up the language and other material.

An accident struck their family helper, however, and a new job opportunity opened in Shanghai, so they moved there. This time, they did not bother with the expat housing/schools and went straight to public school. Clavel seemed impressed with the public schools. Her children were expected to practice their subjects until they achieved mastery (95%+), which she noted was an enormous difference from the American model where children are moved along to the next subject/grade as long as they “pass”—which often means very little. Teachers stayed after school late into the evening to help every student achieve mastery. Not long after they left, Shanghai’s schools led the world in international test scores. Clavel felt this vindicated all the sacrifices they had made re: living conditions (pollution, rundown apartment, etc).

Next the family moved to Tokyo. Here, Clavel worked diligently to choose schools that she felt would be accomodating to her language-learning, mixed-race children. Japan is notorious for being xenophobic. Clavel’s own mother was native Japanese, however, which helped her somewhat to understand and accept the expectations she would be under—and indeed, a large part of her children’s schooling ran on the unpaid labor of mothers. Clavel talked about how energetic and invested her children’s teachers were, and how much of the school program was focused on the sorts of life skills American programs “leave to the parents”—children clean and care for their classrooms and are taught a lot about health and self-care—even about poop and what it should look like when healthy (talk about practical!)

Their next move was to my neck of the woods—Palo Alto. Clavel called this the worst culture shock of any of the moves. Almost immediately, she was receiving robocalls from the school district that her child was missing school. It was a mistake—some teacher had mixed up the names—but Clavel asked: what if her child had actually been missing? No one would have called her, just a robocall at 9pm in the evening? It was a shock and very different from how directly communicative and involved her kids’ teachers had been in Asia. Time went on, and the boys were not learning anything in math. Her friends laughed: you expected the school to teach your kids math? No, they said, you have to handle that yourself. It was typical for children to be in various after school supplemental programs, Clavel said, to make up for the gaps in the official school program. It was a huge disappointment, as she had been impressed by the test scores coming out of the Palo Alto schools. She concluded it was not the schools responsible for the scores here; rather, it was the dedicated and educated parents who made the extra effort to ensure their children achieved.

In the end, Clavel’s family moved back to New York. They put their children in private schools, reluctantly because of their belief that public schools ought to provide a great education for every child, but unwilling to put their children in something they felt was insufficient.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to feel after the book, but I tweeted:

Well…. That was depressing

What School Could Be: Summary

What School Could Be is very different in tone and subject matter from Clavel’s memoir. For one thing, it is focused solidly on America—the furthest it goes is rural Alaska. It is less personal—each segment describes a school/district Dintersmith visited/interviewed. Because of that format, the anecdotes tend to come across as a “pitch” for that school, with some exceptions, like this particularly unfortunate interview (emphasis mine):

I introduced myself and began explaining what I was doing. I tend to talk fast but after a couple of minutes, KM [ed: chief of staff to Florida governor Rick Scott] stopped me. “Look. I know everything I need to know about education. You don’t need to tell me anything. What can I explain to you?”

Me: I believe that the more test-driven a school it, the more it puts kids at risk in a world of innovation

KM: You’re making this too complicated. Educating children is like fixing a car. You take a car to the garage and pay them to fix it. We pay our schools $7,000 per student and expect them to be educated.

Me: How do you know they’re learning anything?

KM: That’s why we have standardized tests.

When I started to respond, KM stood up and informed me, “Look. I’m important to the governor. Thank you for your time.” And left. In a year with a thousand meetings, this was the worst.

I thought the book did a good job of pointing out some of the problems with what even the “good” schools have been doing (emphasis mine):

A few years ago, Lawrenceville conducted an important experiment, something all schools should replicate. Students returning in September retook their final exams from three months earlier. To be precise, faculty removed low-level material they didn’t expect students to retain over the summer. On tests of just the essential concepts, the average grade fell from a B+ to an F.

The overall premise of Dintersmith’s book is that America’s education system is trying to churn out students who can follow directions and do what they’re told, whereas what we need, he says, is young entrepreneurs who can be creative and innovate. Rather than try to do what we have been doing but better (i.e. get better test scores), Dintersmith suggests schools need to be “doing better things.” So the book takes you on a tour of various schools doing just that. Dintersmith seems to be a fan of local business partnerships and getting kids started on internships and marketable skills earlier.

I am not a fan of the way school was done when I was growing up, but I do think he is oversimplifying when he says schools are “trying” to produce assembly-line pupils. I don’t think there was ever the kind of agreement and/or group with enough power to achieve such a thing, even if they had wanted to, and I think the reasons for why schools are in their current state are much more complicated. I think many critics simply don’t take into account the constraints schools are under: budgets, teacher-student ratios, lack of support, various home traumas or other health difficulties…

And in the end, that was what frustrated me about this book. Because while Dintersmith highlights various schools that he believes are “doing better things,” the overall feel I was left with for what exactly those “better things” should be was the repeated emphasis on job readiness and marketable skills.

Something about that doesn’t sit right for me. I think maybe this lens comes from the way Dintersmith has framed the entire situation: originally, according to him, the schools were producing factory employees; that was great while it lasted, but now we need to produce… what, gig-economy employees? I’m not saying the workforce doesn’t matter. Naturally employers want schools to produce graduates who will be good employees. In fact, especially when money is involved (i.e. college loans), I agree students absolutely must be thinking about the very real financial consequences of their choices.

But I guess I don’t believe school, especially K-8, should be about the marketplace. I know in so many times and places, children have had to work because there was no other option. It is a privilege to be able to learn for the joy of exploring and discovering ourselves and our world. But I want kids to have that.