2 Books: “Reign of Error” and “The Smartest Kids in the World”

In the October 2013 issue of PIQUE, there was a very favorable review of Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error”, a book against education reform.

The review in Pique quotes “Reign of Error” as claiming American schools are “underfunded” – which is poppycock — the US spends more per public school student than nearly all other countries.

Teachers often make the argument that, since it is hard to assess merit in their profession, they should be exempt from meritocracy. This is preposterous. In many professions, including my own (software engineering), assessing job performance is highly subjective and personal, and it often turns out to be unjust. In any private-sector, non-union job, meritocracy is imposed, however unfair. Teachers need to grow up and accept that they owe it to society to put up with having their performance assessed, and that very few people in a healthy society should have 100% job security.

It is hard to imagine a more perfect champion of mediocrity than Diane Ravitch, who claims that the poor performance of American students compared to other countries is all due to social ills outside the classroom, especially the fact that 25% of American school children live in poverty.  Her solution is to eliminate standardized testing, banish all meritocracy from the teaching profession, and do absolutely nothing to improve the education system until everything outside the classroom is fixed. Her book discusses every education reform initiative going on in this country, one by one, and claims they are all counter-productive.

American school reformers generally want to fire bad teachers, and when layoffs happen, do them by merit rather than seniority. Ravitch makes the absurd argument that it is “unproven” that these things will improve teaching quality.  It seems to me that those reforms are so self-evidently beneficial that the burden of “proof” should be on Ravitch.

I think “Reign of Error” will appeal to liberals, who are usually loathe to criticize any union, however destructive, and among whom “meritocracy” is not a valued ideal.

The book that I read after “Reign of Error” was “The Smartest Kids in the World”, by Amanda Ripley, which takes a different approach.  Ripley examined scores in various counties on the PISA test, an international test to assess high school student performance, and then established relationships with American exchange high school students going to those countries, and had them describe what they observed.  She also sent questionnaires to hundreds of exchange students, both foreign students on exchange to the US, and vice-versa.  She also traveled to some high-performing countries.  It should be noted that the PISA test was designed to test imagination and out-of-the-box thinking, rather than rote memorization.

Ripley points out that other countries with outstanding educational systems did not wait to fix poverty before fixing the schools.  If poverty is the only problem, why does Poland, with 25% of the per-capita GDP of the US, outperform us?

American high school students really suck at math, by international standards.  A lot of that is because their teachers do, too.  Americans college students majoring in education take special math classes designed for people who don’t like math.  They pass on to their students the notion that math is “hard” and “not for everyone”. Also,Americans teach much less math in elementary school than other countries.

Ripley describes some cultural factors which are working against the US.  Americans tend to believe that math is an innate ability, and one that most people don’t really have, while other countries believe that everyone is capable of considerable proficiency at math.  We also make high school sports a much, much higher priority than other countries do, which detracts from everything else.

Finland, which everyone agrees has the best high schools in the world, made education one of the hardest, if not the hardest, college majors to get into, and graduate from.  This elevated the prestige of the profession, which drew even more talented people to it.  Some people objected to these reforms, arguing that less intelligent teachers can relate better to struggling students, but they were ignored.

Rigor was an important component in any excellent education system. Surveys showed that American teachers were more lavish with praise than teachers in other countries, where praise was withheld until it was genuinely deserved. There was an overwhelming consensus among exchange students going both ways that high school was considerably easier in this country than elsewhere. Ripley says: “Only later, after high school, would [American students] discover they had been tricked. The real world did not always give second and third chances; the real world didn’t give credit just for showing up.”.


  1. diprey says:

    The answer is known to everyone who has ever gawked at the business signs in Chinatown or any other ethnic neighborhood in New York. Private cram schools are everywhere: usually known as SAT schools I guess all that needs to happen is simply defunding normal high schools through vouchers. I would agree with Ravitch that the system cannot be fixed and it’s already sink-or-swim for those families who care about their kids’ education.

  2. xyquarx says:

    Finland greatly outperforms us, and they don’t massively use cram schools. Ripley’s book makes the case, successfully I feel, that American schools can be greatly improved by learning from how education is done in other countries.

  3. diprey says:

    Agree.. but cram schools are just a symptom, the actual signal being that there is plenty of private schooling and citizens are willing to spend tons of money for private education while the public system is essentially free. I haven’t mentioned whether schools can be improved or not, just they are in terrible shape now and that the public vote (expressed in $) tends towards “not”.

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