Two Books Offer Light on This Local Trouble We Call School Reform

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In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made Earth-orbit satellite into space, American children blamed themselves for not being smarter.
In a casual conversation about suburban public schools and ethnic diversity recently, I noticed that the person with whom I was chatting did not believe the presence of Asian American students in a school system should be counted toward diversity.

In fact, she sort of felt it worked the other way, as if Asian American kids should be counted as some kind of diversity deficits. The more Asians, the less diverse.

I’m not going to try to parse that too deeply, except to observe that my fellow conversationalist also seemed to believe that Asians are just smarter than non-Asians, which, in her view, is unfair. And I guess it would be, if it were true, not to mention scary.

Two books I am reading shed light on the basic question of smartness and whether it’s a good thing. I think they also offer insight, even if only indirectly, into many of the issues we are struggling with in Dallas under the rubric of school reform.

The first is a new Simon & Schuster book by education reporter Teru Clavel called World Class, about her and her husband’s experience putting their kids in public schools in Asia while moving to his various posts with Morgan Stanley, an international investment bank. The experience was so surprisingly good that the whole family suffered culture shock and deep disappointment when they moved back to this country and put their kids in the tony Palo Alto, California, school system.

Compared with the rigor of Asian public schools, Palo Alto felt like slacker-city and not in a fun way. Clavel says her children felt better about themselves when they were lined up in identical desks chanting rote-learning exercises with 50 other kids in Asia than they did sitting on expensive ergonomic chairs gazing into iPads and getting nowhere in California.

Clavel's children came home singing, “We are the heirs of Communism" — a small price to pay for excellent math skills and fluency in Mandarin.

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The secret sauce, she says, is mastery. In Shanghai, where her children attended a school so bleak it was called “The Prison,” a passing grade on a math quiz was 95. A student who failed to score 95 remained in the classroom with the teacher at the end of the day, sometimes into the evening if that’s how long it took, while the teacher patiently brought the student up to speed, sometimes buying the student dinner.

The kids loved it, she says. They came home singing, “We are the heirs of Communism. Along the glorious path of the forebears of the Revolution we love the Motherland and the people.” Apparently the Morgan Stanley parents considered a little communist anthem-singing a small price to pay for excellent math skills and fluency in Mandarin. After all, songs are soon forgotten, but calculus is forever.

Clavel talks about the great respect for teachers in Asia, but some of the most illuminating passages in her book for me were about what it takes to acquire that respect. In Japan, would-be teachers who have completed their own educations must pass qualifying examinations so rigorous that as few as 6% are able to pass in some years. Typically they must take the test multiple times and then study hard between failures before finally making it over the top.

In China, teacher candidates must pass a three-part exam with written sections on pedagogy, psychology and teaching methods, as well as a Mandarin language test. They must pass an interview with master teachers and local school district officials. Then they have to pass a district-level exam on their specific content area.

They have to be recertified every five years. If they fail the recertification test, they are taken out of the classroom and sent back for full-time retraining.

The other book I am reading is called The Chosen by Jerome Karabel, published 14 years ago by Houghton Mifflin. It’s a history of admissions practices and policies at the nation’s elite colleges and universities, with a focus on Harvard. Karabel, a scholar, dived deep into archives, official records, papers and correspondence to compile his record of how admissions practices have changed at the top.

Before reading this book, I had always thought the elite schools were strictly social finishing schools for old WASP money until after World War II and then gradually became academically selective in response to societal change. I had it all wrong.

The elite schools were basing admissions mainly on academic tests in the late 19th century. By 1900, when future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered Harvard, the WASP establishment was already growing restless with the number of Jews being admitted. The howls of outrage and cries of alarm from powerful alumni are carefully documented in Karabel’s book.

To restrict the number of Jews admitted, all of the top schools moved to a more opaque philosophy of admissions supposedly based on the whole man (there were no women until the 1970s). The qualities of character deemed desirable in a whole man, including athletic ability, poise, a dash of charm and so on, did not necessarily include academic ability. In fact at one point Harvard imposed a 10% quota on the admission of students deemed to be “intellectuals.”

At the end of the day, the new holistic system of admissions, far too complex and subtle ever to be reduced to a sheet of paper that might be shared publicly, came down to a set of criteria that looked very favorably on old-money WASPs, less favorably on Jews. We can assume, I assume, that this was not coincidence.

Beginning not long after World War II, America began suffering a series of hard knocks from without, the first big one being Sputnik, the first man-made Earth-orbit satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, by which the grubby vodka-swilling Bolsheviks beat us into space. Worse, we found out it wasn’t just the vodka that got them out there ahead of us: Their kids were actually better at math than our own and their schools more rigorous.

A quarter-century later in 1983, the Ronald Reagan administration released a landmark report called “A Nation at Risk,” with the unhappy news that the United States was failing to close the same gap with other advancing nations.
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My friends and I tried to redeem the nation's honor by making a pipe bomb and blowing up toy soldiers we said were communists.
Ottre / Wikimedia Commons
We still struggle, as Clavel’s book illuminates, but it would be a mistake to think the news is all bad. We’re sort of getting there. At the top, the elite schools still jealously guard the cultic secrecy of their admissions practices, used more recently to impose quotas on Asian Americans, surprise-surprise. Whoever does best on the tests at a given moment in time is likely to be deemed deficient in the right stuff.

By 1900 when future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered Harvard, the WASP establishment was already growing restless with the number of Jews being admitted.

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But a quick campus tour there or anywhere, Harvard Yard or Frisco Centennial High School, is going to reveal a far more diverse universe than would have been the case even 25 years ago. And inside those classrooms, I have a feeling there is a ton more rigor going on than was happening when I was a student in a previous century.

Here is where the larger picture impinges on the local battles over school reform. We need to remember that reflexive hostility to testing always comes down in the end to hostility to the outcomes. When the WASPs start seeing too many Jews on campus or the WASPs and the Jews start seeing too many Asians, all of a sudden the tests are bad. We’re not getting the right stuff anymore, meaning we’re not getting the right people. Us.

Generally speaking, our attempts to protect privileged insiders from competitive outsiders always come down to coddling and the aggrandizement of phony criteria, as if it’s OK to get a failing grade in physics if you get an A-plus in poise. And I guess it may be OK, until somebody has to do some physics.

We’re an adventurous and romantic people, and how could we not be, given our past? We live for excitement. We are courageous. But I’m not sure how good we are at parking our butts on benches and memorizing the things we need to know in order to be good at this life.

I’m so old I remember Sputnik. Everybody was so worried about communist kids being smarter than American kids, I think we children sort of thought it was up to us to launch something. I hazily remember going out in the woods with some other guys over a period of days and fashioning a taped-up pipe-bomb filled with the contents of a million firecrackers.

We buried it in a hill of dirt, then covered the hill with plastic and metal toy soldiers, which we somehow had painted red. This was before spray paint, so we must have worked at it.

The soldiers, we agreed, were communists. We blew them to bits, launching them into the air with an amazingly violent explosion, loud enough to cause men in T-shirts and hard hats to come running at full tilt from a nearby pipeline project. One boy’s eye was slightly injured, I hope not permanently. We blamed the explosion on bad children from another neighborhood.

We were proud. It was a terrific explosion. I think we felt we had done our part for the nation. We never got caught, officially. I don’t really remember math lessons getting any harder after that. In fact I don’t remember anything getting harder.

Well, one thing. My father took me downtown to the police station where he introduced me to his friend from the Rotary Club, the police sergeant over juveniles, who told me what it was like to get sent to juvie. All in theory. He just talked about what it would be like for such and such a boy, if such and such a boy had done something really bad like set off a bomb. Sounded real bad. I was out of the bomb business after that.

I do wonder if we fully understand how small this planet is now and how competitive, how easy we’ve had it and how little we can afford to dawdle. I also wonder if the bomb thing would have worked for me or against me at Harvard. We’ll never know.