Do American Schools Need to Change? Depends What You Compare Them To

Compared to its own history, the U.S. education system may be doing fine. But compared to the rest of the world, it needs work—and quickly.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

It’s no secret that America’s education debate is increasingly polarized and increasingly public. We see it every day on Twitter, in the headlines, and occasionally even on the picket line. The public discussion pits reformers who think that our education system is failing students against anti-reformers who think what’s wrong with our schools is the people trying to fix them. I've been immersed in American education for more than 20 years and have led a global education network for the last seven, and to me there’s no question that our school system must improve, and quickly. But today’s debate has become a distraction that keeps us paralyzed in old divisions and false debates, rather than uniting against common problems.

Two recent bestselling books on education, Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error and Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, shine light on the conflict—and why taking a step back and embracing a global perspective is necessary to move forward.

At first blush it’s hard to believe that Ravitch and Ripley are writing about the same education system. They seem to be coming from different worlds—and in a way, they are. Ravitch is a stalwart of what education reporter Jay Matthews describes as “education geek world…full of people who have been arguing for decades about class size and test validity.” She doesn’t just come from it, she’s a pillar of it—a prolific polemicist who more than anyone else has defined today’s dynamic.

Ripley, on the other hand, is relatively new to writing about education. In fact, she admits in her new book that as a reporter she actively avoided it—until she became fascinated with a question obscured by all the noise. Everything else being equal, why are some kids learning so much and others so little? For the last several years she’s covered the globe and immersed herself in data looking for answers. In Smartest Kids, she enlists three American teenagers who are studying abroad as “field agents” to find out what’s really going on in the world’s highest performing or fastest-improving countries.

I’m the first to admit I’m not a disinterested reader of either book. The organization I founded, Teach for America, is the subject of one of Reign of Error’s 32 chapters, and as regular readers of Dr. Ravitch’s blog know, she is not a fan. On the other hand, I’ve been so impressed by Ripley’s insightful reporting that I’ve invited her to speak to Teach for America and Teach for All staff members.

The authors’ conclusions are as different as their approaches to the subject. Ravitch argues that contrary to popular opinion, there is no crisis in American schools today. “The public schools are working very well for most students,” she writes, and anyone who says differently is “crying wolf.” She considers the real problem to be so-called “corporate education reformers,” a label she applies to a diverse group including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hedge-fund millionaires, President Obama, and yours truly.

To Ravitch, reforms like charter schools and teacher accountability pose a greater threat than the bleak realities they were designed to address, like the fact that only 9 percent of low-income students are graduating from college. Her proposed solutions reflect her belief that no progress in education is possible without first addressing poverty: more government support for low-income families, pre-natal care for women, etc.

To Ripley, there’s something wrong with the status quo when America spends more per pupil than nearly every other country and yet on the best international assessments of critical-thinking, our results are mediocre at best (American teenagers rank 25th in math). We do a worse job than other countries at giving our poorest students the high-quality education they need to lead better lives than their parents. Even our rich kids perform below their peers in 18 other countries, according to PISA data Ripley cites in her book.

Just this month a first-ever international comparison of workers’ skills in 23 industrialized nations revealed that younger Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and (ominously) “problem solving in technology rich environments.” Ripley hears a lot of theories for this phenomenon, from poverty to parental involvement. But as she explores the remarkable progress of places like Poland that have higher child poverty rates but get better results, it’s clear that something else is going on—and Ripley is determined to figure out what it is.

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.