COMMENT ON THE BOOK “SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD and how they got there” and related miscellany.

There is nothing new over disagreements on the best ways to educate the Nation’s school children. The periodic waves of education reform are more similar than they are different. There is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1-9). What follows are my views on Amanda Ripley’s Book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They got there” and related miscellany as it pops up from time to time. 
 
My views on education have been influenced by, but not necessarily agreeing with, Rousseau’s ” Treatise on Education” , John Dewey’s,”Democracy and Education” and Piaget , in a lecture on cognitive development  of children that  Connie ,my wife, and I attended  at the University of Southern California decades ago . There have been other authors, teachers, reformers and my family, including great grandchildren , that knowingly or unknowingly impacted on my views but  Rousseau, Dewey and Piaget remain omnipresent. My experience and definitely the experience of others  has been invaluable in forming my ideas and thinking..
 
I am an agnostic about many things and reforms in education but not the positive impact of the effective teacher. The Vergara v. California  case(2012)is admirably supporting  my belief in this fact. The Documentary(2010) ,”Waiting for Superman” made a big splash on citing problems in education and solutions to them, but it quickly fell off the radar screen..Now comes  Amanda Ripley’s,  “The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way”. Amanda early on seems to have received more  plaudits  for her book than the interest Rogen and Goldberg are receiving for  their movie, “Interview”. Amanda asks and appears to answer the question, “why do children from Poland, Finland and South Korea perform much better on academic tests than American Children ?” .I believe she also states that a decade or so ago the children from these countries were not doing as well on academic tests as they are today. As an aside, Maybe it has something to do in the change of their political system ? Amanda’s arguments are persuasive. The culture of the school should be intellectually serious, rigorous and have high expectations for all children. More money does not necessarily  make students smarter .Teacher preparation standards are lax and the general esteem of the profession is low,  as an aside, this is also  true of school boards . Children are not served well when parents act like cheerleaders rather than coaches. The focus of parental involvement is misguided, rather than spending countless hours at fund raisers and athletic contests parents should simply read to younger children at home in the evening or engaging older students in substantive conversations about world events. Ripley’s points are all well taken and seem obvious even to the causal observer. She also states that there is a reluctance to impose high-standards on high school exit exams. She also correctly states that change is inhibited by our political structure and most parents believe the school  their children attend has fewer problems than the system as a  whole so there is no urgency for change. 
….’ It would be a mistake to think of the major conflicts in education as disagreements over the most effective ways to teach. Broadly speaking, the education wars of the past century are best understood as a protracted struggle between content and pedagogy. At first glance, such a dichotomy seems unthinkable. There should no more be conflict between content and pedagogy than between one’s right foot and left foot. They should work in tandem toward the same end, and avoid tripping each other. Content is the answer to the question of what to teach, while pedagogy answers the question of how to teach…The trouble comes with the first step. Do we lead with the right foot or the left? If content decisions come first, then the choices of pedagogy may be limited. A choice of concentrated content precludes too much student centered, discovery learning, because that particular pedagogy requires more time than stiff content requirements would allow. In the same way, the choice of a pedagogy and can naturally limit the amount of content that can be presented to students. Therein lies the source of the conflict(David Klein).
Now back to Amanda. . America”s 15 year olds  test much  lower  in reading , math and science compared to 15 year olds from 65 or so other countries. The only metric  Amanda references to test academic performance, I believe , is  the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)  . PISA is a product of  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).. China is just getting into the “game”. As another aside, China is also getting into that” bourgeois” game called golf, which may eventually lead to lower academic test scores and golf scores for Chinese students  as some say ,”Americas  pre-occupation with football is a reason for our low scores”. .America has always scored low comparatively, not only on the PISA test but those that predate PISA..One should ask how are those that are  tested at age 15 doing in their country as they approach 40 compared to the American at age 40?  How are their countries doing over all as compared to ours ?
I believe it would take a huge cultural change for many American 15 year olds  to score at the  top on PISA tests .Would it make a better or a  preferred difference in our land ? I think not. This is not to devalue the rich culture and history of Poland, Finland and South Korea ,but there is no place like home!  It is a fact , principally due to  population size,  America has more students at the top on these test than Poland, South Korea or Finland .It also seems that America tests  more of the entire ability range of students than other countries. ..  China,  undoubtedly ,as it begins to test will have more high achieving students on these tests  than those of any nation, unless India gets into the “act” .I BELIEVE THAT  IF EVERYTHING LEARNED IN HIGH SCHOOL IS A MEASURABLE OBJECTIVE , WE HAVE NOT LEARNED MUCH OF ANYTHING.  It is  not conformity that makes a country or school great; it’s an individual striking out against the expectations of his/her culture. There is a thin line between initiative and insubordination. There are great teachers  turning in their graves —pleading and trying to say to teachers that they teach to free minds, they teach to inspire…. 
One of the strengths of our Nation is the ability, like no other country, to assimilate people from many lands. Historically the Public School has accomplished this mission admirably. We are a pluralistic society but E pluribus unum–that out of many we made one Nation..
Education is an empowering process that allows children to develop critical thinking, compassion, and orientation towards wisdom for timely action. Self cultivation is the purpose of education. All that is tested does not count and all that counts cannot be tested. 
 
 What is required is a structuring of the school system to tolerate sustained conflict  that accompanies discussion and  review of alternative courses of action. Conflict produces social disorganization, stimulating relationships and needed change. Diversity rather than uniformity is needed in procedures. There is hardly a teaching task that cannot be accomplished in a multitude of ways and many of the capabilities have been entirely impossible over the span of educational history.
Educators must back off to be as objective as possible —where it is the duty to worship  the sun, problems of heat will be poorly understood.–where it is the duty to worship a pet educational project, the good of the larger society might be poorly understood with respect to the project. The real threat in accomplishment of objectives is not in deliberate deceit , but in the subconscious desires
to substantiate one’s previously committed position.  There is nothing more obstinate than a fashionable  consensus..
My mind keeps telling me that all that it takes is an effective teacher, a willing student and a supportive family . A joyous and blessed New Year to all..
 
 
John Rajcic