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Friday, November 15, 2019

Review: World Class

World Class is Teru Clavel's book about comparative public educational systems.  She compares 4 different systems:

  • Hong Kong (pre-school and early elementary school)
  • Shanghai, China (pre-school and elementary school)
  • Tokyo, Japan (pre-school, elementary, and middle school)
  • Palo Alto, California (middle school)
First of all, you have to recognize how privileged Clavel and her family is. Her husband is a Wall Street (Morgan Stanley) banker who gets promoted and an expat position. If you know anything about how cushy expat positions are for spouses, the monies involved are substantial and the amount of help you get with relocation is also ridiculous.

Secondly, her children (all 3 of them) look Caucasian. This is a big deal. In particular, local residents of Shanghai don't even necessarily get to attend public schools in Shanghai. She admits that the staff of at least one of the schools her kid attended only accepted her kids illegally because they wanted photos of her caucasian kids in the school brochure. So the treatment she gets isn't necessarily representative of what a local resident might get.

OK, with that aside, I think that Teru's a brave person. I certainly wouldn't subject my kids to pollution in Shanghai during their developing ears (she noted how bad the pollution was as an adult, and kids are much more vulnerable). Nor would I have been sanguine if my son came home pledged as a member of China's communist party, but she took it all in stride as part and parcel of getting a top-notch public education with diversity and no compromises as far as academics is concerned. Maybe my growing up in a more or less totalitarian country makes me super-sensitive to this sort of stuff.

As everyone from Asia knows, US schools (especially public schools) cannot hold a candle to Asian schools in terms of academic challenge and difficulty. I will note that she glosses over the advanced stuff: my friends from India, for instance, have commented that they're actually a fan of the US approach to Math in Silicon Valley, because the kids do more than just learn a fixed set of problem solving skills and actually seem to understand the material at a deeper level. But of course, I don't know how much of that is because these immigrants do tons of coaching at home anyway, and are happily making up for the American school system.

Furthermore, it's quite clear that everyone in Japan is effectively a free-range parent, letting 6 year olds take public transit and go to school. (Crime in most Asian countries is a tiny fraction of what you see in American schools, and there are no school shootings, etc) But Clavel seems oblivious to the fact that the reason why Asian schools can do so well with so high a student/teacher ratio is that they actively stream and clump kids of similar caliber together, so teachers can teach to a group that's not too diverse in ability.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was when she moved to the Palo Alto school district, and finally views the American school system like an outsider. As I've mentioned before, I think that the American school system is bat-shit insane, simply because there are no national standards, and the tests are a joke. She eventually gives up and moves back to New York City and enrolls her kids in private schools, because public schools in the US are just a joke. This is as strong an indictment of the American school system as you can get.

This is a great book and fun and engrossing to read. I made it through in 2 days, and wish I was reading it on the Kindle instead of the paper copy so I could have highlighted it and posted quotes in this review for you to see for yourself. Recommended.

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