She discovers that students in these “education superpowers” take school seriously because it is serious. Kids are trained to persist in mastering difficult subject matter, and more than their American peers they are convinced that getting an education is the key to a successful and fulfilling life. Even if they don’t like their teachers, they respect them because they know that only the very best students are allowed to become educators.
American schools, by contrast, lack the same rigor and the expectation that all students can and should perform at a high level. Ripley recommends giving students fewer, better standardized tests (like Common Core-aligned exams), making it more competitive and selective to become a teacher, and shifting the culture of schools to emphasize academics more than sports.
Ravitch and Ripley reach such different conclusions because they use different yardsticks. Reign of Error dismisses international tests like PISA and compares the U.S. to its own education track record. By that standard, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for alarm: For 50 years, achievement levels have stayed roughly the same or ticked up slightly.
But while our education system hasn’t changed, and the world we’re living in has. So has the value of education. To Ripley, international standards are the relevant ones in a globalized information economy where higher education has become a virtual prerequisite for financial security.
Today, academic mediocrity comes at a much higher price. The U.S. used to lead the world in the percentage of students graduating from high school and earning college degrees. Now about 20 countries outpace us. Perspective is relative, and Ripley argues that standing still while the rest of the world pulls ahead is falling behind. America’s marginal gains are not cutting it against a steep new learning curve. Sticking with schools that were designed for another era, as Ravitch suggests, would leave more of our citizens increasingly ill-equipped to compete for high-skill, high-paying jobs.
Yet Ripley gives us a reason to stay optimistic. It turns out that none of today’s education superpowers were that super a few decades ago. In the 1950s only 10 percent of Finnish students graduated from high school. In the decades while America’s performance has stagnated, South Korea has gone from having the standard of living of Afghanistan today to building a thriving modern economy, in large part by investing in the education of its people. Poland managed to catch up with the developed world in reading and math in only three years and by 2009 was outperforming the U.S. while spending half as much per pupil. These transformations were not easy or accidental, but they are entirely within reach.
The two books show us the benchmarks we use change our sense of what’s important. When the history of American education is your only reference point, it’s easy to see why Ravitch is preoccupied by the internal politics of our school system. But if like Ripley you consider the global vantage point, the stakes are higher. Whether teachers come from traditional or alternative certification programs suddenly seems beside the point. The co-location of charter schools and other issues that loom large today are dwarfed by the imperative to do whatever it takes to push our students to a higher bar or be left behind.
Like Ripley’s student informants, my own perspective changed profoundly when I began visiting schools in dozens of countries around the world about eight years ago. But instead of seeing the world’s best systems, I spend most of my time in disadvantaged communities in the developing world. From Karachi, Pakistan, to Yunnan, China, I see students clamoring to learn and parents investing every extra penny into their kids’ education. No one is having philosophical debates about whether fixing poverty or education must come first.
Now when I come home to my own four kids in New York City, the education discussion I see on TV and Twitter seems woefully behind the times. The trumped-up debates that have stalled progress seem even more irresponsible because they are of our own making.
So what do the two books say about the future of American education? It all depends on what lens we chose to apply. Following Ravitch, with her attachment to a model that has become obsolete, would mean its best days are already behind us. Embracing Ripley’s charge to adapt and learn from the best systems around the world would mean America’s best education days lay head.