Chronicle of a journalist’s global travels to visit schools, interviewing educators and talking with students and their families in order to answer the question, “Why were some kids learning so much—and others so very little?”
Ripley (The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why, 2008) examines why there is a disparity in performance on tests of mathematical and scientific competence between American students and their global counterparts, even when factors such as poverty and discrimination are taken into account. She explains that America's poor showing translates into lost jobs for Americans, who cannot compete with foreign labor even in semiskilled jobs. Many of the arguments about American education fail to address the real issues behind the competitive failure of American schools compared to Finnish and South Korean schools (where students are in the top tier on international tests), as well as Poland, where the rate of improvement is remarkable. Ripley builds her narrative around the experience of three American teenagers, each of whom spent a year abroad as exchange students—in Finland, South Korea and Poland, respectively. The author describes a political consensus in each of the three countries that nearly guarantees the creation and maintenance of a highly educated workforce, from top to bottom. The importance of education is a reflection of national consensus on the respect for teachers. A large portion of their education budgets go to teachers’ salaries, and the instructors are chosen from the top third of their graduating classes and must meet high professional standards on a par with engineers. Per capita, America spends more money on education, but the money is allocated differently—e.g., to sports teams and programs that provide students with laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards.
A compelling, instructive account regarding education in America, where the arguments have become “so nasty, provincial, and redundant that they no longer lead anywhere worth going."