America’s Schools: Do We Have A Problem?
Note to Brilliant readers: The letter below was published in the New York Times Book Review this weekend; it refers to the review I wrote for the Times about Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids In The World. Please give it, and my comment that follows it, a read, and share your thoughts in the comment section.—Annie
To the Editor:
Amanda Ripley’s book and Annie Murphy Paul’s review both shortchange the American education system. Paul speaks of “American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school.” But that 25 percent is vastly disproportionately Latino and African-American.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), in 2009 the United States ranked 25th in math and 21st in science of 34 O.E.C.D. countries. However, when the American students in science were disaggregated by white, Asian, Latino and black by PISA in 2006, whites and Asians ranked seventh in the world, behind Finland, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands — but ahead of South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Studying the Finns makes sense, but focusing attention on the groups that are behind should be a much higher priority.
Vineyard Haven, Mass.
The writer is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and the author of “Jews, Confucians and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism.”
I’m puzzled by the sentiments expressed in this letter. Mr. Harrison almost seems to suggest that Latino and African-American students aren’t really American students—that if we parcel them out of our analyses and count only white and Asian students, the American education system is actually doing just fine (“ahead of South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway”).
Mr. Harrison also seems to suggest that “studying the Finns”—i.e., investigating what has allowed Finland’s education system to turn out such well-prepared graduates—is somehow different from, or even antithetical to, “focusing attention on the groups that are behind” in our own country. To the contrary: The prescription that Ms. Ripley extracts from her examination of Finland, South Korea, and Poland (well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors) would, the evidence suggests, benefit all students, of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Ms. Ripley and I are not “shortchang[ing] the American education system, as Mr. Harrison states. Rather, it is the American education system—and by extension, all of American society—that is shortchanging our most vulnerable students. If our schools aren’t working for them, then our schools aren’t working.
Readers, what are your thoughts?