Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: "The Smartest Kids in the World"

Amanda Ripley. The Smartest Kids in the World.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 306 pp. (199 pp. main text). Hardcover. $28.

On December 3, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) will release the results of the 2012 PISA test, which ranks countries based on the performance of 15-year olds around the world on assessment of reading, mathematics, and science skills.  When the test was last administered in 2009, U.S. students ranked 17th overall, and a below-average 25th in math. At the top of the list were Shanghai, Korea, and Finland.

The following school year, 2010-2011, journalist Amanda Ripley, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, set out to discover how Korea and Finland had become educational powerhouses while the United States, despite a decade of educational reform under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, still languished in the middle of the pack. To tell her story, she enlisted three American exchange students bound for Finland, Korea, and Poland, and used their experiences to contrast the educational systems in their host countries and back home in the United States. The story was different in each country, but Ripley came to the conclusion that what each of the educational powerhouses shared was a commitment to academic rigor.

The educational powerhouses have rigorous teacher training programs. All students in these elite countries are required to pass a challenging exam to graduate from secondary school. Students are characterized by an intense drive to succeed. Both teachers and students take learning seriously.

In Finland, where her informant Kim spends a year as an AFS exchange student, Ripley finds much higher standards for teacher training than in the United States, much greater respect for teaching as a profession, and higher compensation for the teachers themselves. In contrast, she offers the example of Kim’s math teacher back home in Oklahoma, who didn’t major in math in college and became a teacher so that he could coach high school football. Ripley concludes that in the United States, the obsession with sports, classroom technology, and the cultivation of self-esteem distract from what should be the core focus on educating students to a high academic standard.

Ripley returns to the subject of high school sports in a recent piece in The Atlantic,The Case Against High School Sports.” In that article, she focuses on a school district in Texas that was able to boost its academic performance after it eliminated its athletic programs. In a reponse to Ripley’s article, David Cutler takes her to task for “expecting readers to go along with sweeping generalizations based on a single case study.” In The Smartest Kids in the World, the focus on the experience of her three exchange students—Kim from Oklahoma in Finland, Eric from Minnesota in Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania in Poland—gives the book that same feeling of presenting generalizations based on limited case studies.

For example, she talks about “the stoner kid” that Kim encounters in her Finnish school. She reports Kim’s surprise that “stoners” even existed in Finland, and that, unlike “stoners” back home in Oklahoma, this Finnish “stoner” was “a model student.” The lesson that Ripley draws from this is that all students in Finland, even the stoners, were more serious about education than American students.  But basing her conclusion on the stereotypical responses of a sixteen-year old exchange student doesn’t exactly make for a convincing argument. She excels at anecdote, but falls short when it comes to analysis.

Ripley has been roundly criticized for relying exclusively on data from the PISA, which doesn’t account for the relative levels of poverty in the countries whose students are being tested. According to a report of a study of PISA scores conducted at Stanford University: “Based on their analysis, the co-authors found that average U.S. scores in reading and math on the PISA are low partly because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students comes from disadvantaged social class groups, whose performance is relatively low in every country.” If the effects of socioeconomic inequality were factored into the data, the United States would join the ranks of educational powerhouses. The Stanford study, co-authored by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, also indicated that the achievement gap is smaller in the United States than in “similar post-industrial countries,” and that the achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students has been rising significantly over time, while it has been falling in countries like Finland and Korea.

According to another analysis of 2009 PISA data, when schools in America with a lower than 10% poverty rate were compared to schools in Finland, the U.S. outranked Finland by 15 percentage points. The problem is that, while the overall rate of child poverty is about 3.5% in Finland and about 10% in South Korea, it’s about 23% in the United States. If we want to be in the same league as Finland and South Korea, we need to reduce poverty. That’s the most significant step we can take in school reform.

Child poverty rates in OECD countries. From the Washington Post

 But Ripley largely ignores the issue of poverty, except to say that Poland, with a poverty rate comparable to that of the United States, achieves comparable educational results.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Korea (which doesn’t report its poverty data) outranks the United States is that most of the learning takes place in after-hours for-profit tutoring and test preparation centers called “hagwons.” Such centers, with their high fees, would be out of reach for less affluent students. In South Korea, the culture seems to promote intense, even suicidal stress among students prepping for the high-stakes graduation and college entrance exam—but even Ripley admits that many Korean students burn out once they get to college. The system doesn’t appear to foster a life-long love of learning.

Ripley is an engaging writer who easily carries the reader along with her anecdotes and her unfeigned passion for education, and there’s a lot that she gets right. Yes, it’s important for parents to read to their children. Yes, a good teacher is more important than an interactive whiteboard.

But Ripley, with her love of the simple, defining anecdote, too often seems to fall for a version of the “great man theory,” believing that all it takes is a visionary leader—Andreas Schliecher, who devised the PISA; reformist Polish education minister Miroslaw Handke; reformist Rhode Island education commissioner Deborah Gist; Success Academy charter schools CEO Eva Moskowitz—to push education in the right direction. But I’m more persuaded by the model outlined by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars [see my review here], who argues that it’s not the headline-grabbing reformer, like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, but the steady effort of a team of dedicated educators working together that yields the best results.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Are There Gendered Voting Blocks on the Northfield City Council?

There is a perception in certain quarters that the four women on the Northfield City Council (Councilors Nakasian, Peterson White, Pownell, and Zweifel) represent a distinct "voting block" that is consistently opposed to the three men on the Council. To determine whether this was true, I analyzed Council votes between January 8 and September 4, 2013, as recorded in the official City Council minutes posted on the City of Northfield website. I counted only the votes on Motions, Resolutions, and Ordinances. The total number of votes counted was 108. A complete tabulation of the votes can be found here (.pdf). 

Here is some of what the data revealed:

  • 49% of all votes were unanimous (52 out of 108). 
  • Only 9% of votes (10 out of 108) were divided along gender lines. 
  • Councilors DeLong and Ludescher voted together in 5-2 votes (or 4-2 on June 18, when Mayor Graham was not present) 18% of the time (20 out of 108). In other words, DeLong and Ludescher voted as a "block" twice as often as the four women did. 
  • Councilor Ludescher holds the record for "No" votes. He voted "No" 34% of the time, and 9% of the time was the only "No" vote.

In short, there is no evidence from the data of consistent voting blocks on the City Council, nor are votes on the Council consistently split along gender lines. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Journal: The Hopkins Touch

David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler. Oxford University Press, 2013. 

The political biographies most popular in the modern era often tell us less about their subjects than about the moment in which the books themselves are published.” Jill Abramson, reviewing Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York Times Book Review November 2, 2012)

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President and faced the daunting challenge of leading a nation in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The new President responded with a $800 million dollar stimulus package, the American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), with the goal of creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, and strengthening the social safety net for those affected by the economic downturn. As the result of ARRA, President Obama has been compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his economic stimulus package has been called “the new New Deal.”

Meanwhile, Republicans concerned about the increasing national debt and opposed to government spending began to call for reform of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, leading to accusations that the GOP was attempting to roll back the New Deal. “If it was not clear before,” the New York Times editorialized in April 2011, “it is obvious now that the party is fully engaged in a project to dismantle the foundations of the New Deal and the Great Society.”

With a Democrat in the White House and an increasingly conservative Republican majority in the House after 2010, partisan gridlock took hold of Washington, resulting in a series of fiscal crises in 2012—the debt ceiling crisis in the spring, and the fiscal cliff crisis in the winter. In 2010, when Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) announced his retirement after twelve years in the Senate, among the reasons he cited for his decision were “dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties, and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.”

It’s not surprising that, at such a time, there should be a rash of new books about members of FDR’s circle, both architects of the New Deal and significant contributors to the U.S. involvement in World War II. The past four years have seen biographies of Frances Perkins (Kristin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal, 2010) and Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw, The Patriarch, 2012), and group biographies of FDR’s Supreme Court appointees (Noah Feldman, Scorpions, 2010) and of the Americans who helped forge the alliance between the United States and Great Britain during the War (Lynne Olson, Citizens of London, 2010). And 2013 will see the publication of David Roll’s biography of Harry Hopkins (January 2013) and Susan Dunn’s history of the Presidential election of 1940 (June 2013).

One of the major themes that emerges from these books is the importance of personal relationships and bipartisan cooperation in the face of national crisis. The quiet hero of Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London is Gil Winant, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, whom FDR first appointed to head the new Social Security Board and then sent to London during the war as the United States ambassador. And Susan Dunn, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, highlights the close wartime cooperation between FDR and Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate Roosevelt defeated in 1940. But undoubtedly the most important relationships forged during the war were between Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, the leaders of the three most powerful Allied nations. And instrumental in forming those relationships was Harry Hopkins.

Harry Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1890, graduated from Grinnell College, and became one of the most prominent and energetic social workers in the nation. When FDR took office in 1933, he put Hopkins in charge of Federal relief efforts, first as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and then as head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who shared his passion for social work, and was briefly considered as a possible successor to FDR in the White House. As World War II loomed, Hopkins did, in  fact, end up living in the White House—not as President, but as an unelected “deputy President” who served as Roosevelt’s closest wartime advisor.

Hopkins was one of the chief architects of the Lend Lease program, which sent materiel to America’s struggling allies, Britain and the Soviet Union, and made the United States “the arsenal of democracy.” Hopkins was also Roosevelt’s first personal envoy to both Churchill and Stalin, and played a central role in holding the alliance together, often smoothing over differences between the three leaders with a deft personal touch—“the Hopkins touch,” which provides the title for David Roll’s laudatory new biography.

Roll clearly admires Hopkins, and portrays him as charming, witty, penetrating, and ambitious only to serve.  He painstakingly reconstructs important diplomatic episodes—the meetings at Casablanca and Teheran, for example—highlighting the influence of Hopkins in the often tense negotiations between the three strong-willed Allied leaders. He downplays Hopkins’ reputation as a womanizer, and dismisses allegations that Hopkins was actively spying for the Soviets. For Roll, Hopkins’ close relationship with the Soviets was motivated only by his laser-like focus on defeating Hitler. Hopkins emerges from the biography as the personal pivot upon which the alliance moved, and a man of almost superhuman energy—all the more remarkable considering that his fragile health was failing all through the war years.

When Hopkins died in 1946—less than a year after Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war—Churchill told the New York Times: “We shall not see his like again.”

Roll’s Hopkins-centric retelling of events of World War II is thoroughly researched and well written, if single-minded in its efforts to find Hopkins’ fingerprints on the success of the wartime alliance. In the current age of recurring fiscal crisis and endless partisan gridlock, it’s inspiring to remember a time when someone with just the right touch could bring people together to get things done.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reading Journal: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Most of us who use the Internet recognize the phenomenon: we click around, check email, check Facebook, find ourselves unable to focus on a task. At best, we find ourselves “multitasking.” At worst, we’re simply unable to concentrate on any task at all. The Internet is a “technology of distraction,” overloading our brains with stimuli.
Drawing on research on “neuroplasticity,” Nicholas Carr argues that this technology actually alters the human brain, creating new circuitry adapted to the rapid-fire, stimulus-rich environment of the Internet. Studies of how people read on the Internet, for example, show that people tend to skim, scanning the page for the salient points. Deep, reflective reading is sacrificed for a rapid and efficient gathering of relevant information. Carr worries that, as our brains are rewired for this kind of shallow reading on the Internet, we will lose the capacity for deep reading and reflection.
He cites other studies that link reflective, slow mental processing with the development of empathy, and he worries that, as we gain speed and efficiency online, we lose some of the qualities that make us human. In interacting so much with machines, we become more like machines ourselves.
Near the end of the book, Carr draws on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media to observe that “our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of the body they ‘amplify.’” He explains:
When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they’d been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of their manual dexterity, not to mention some of their “feel” for the fabric (210).
The same is true, he argues, of intellectual technologies, such as clocks or maps or the Internet. Clocks changed the perception of time of those who use them, and maps changed the perception of space and place. Carr cites a study of London cabbies, who are required to memorize the names and locations of all of the streets in London. The research shows that a London cab driver’s hippocampus—a central clearinghouse for memory processing in the brain—is unusually large, because of the amount of detailed local knowledge it contains. As most humans became dependent upon maps, such detailed knowledge dried up, and the configuration of the brain changed. The hippocampus became smaller.
Technology, Carr argues, “alienates” us from our environments and from ourselves, allowing us to “outsource” some of our cognitive functions. Quoting a study on the use of “user-friendly” software, for example, Carr argues that sophisticated apps allow us to “‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores,…[reducing] our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’…that can later ‘be applied to new situations’” (216).  As we in Northfield consider putting iPads into the hands of students beginning in fourth grade, we should ask ourselves if we’re actually strengthening transferable problem-solving skills, or simply providing students with an expensive mental prosthesis.
Carr cautions that, as we become more dependent upon computers and the Internet, we should be mindful of what we stand to lose as well as of what we stand to gain. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he warns (212).
Carr’s book is wide-ranging and engagingly written, and highly recommended for readers who want to get away from their computer screens and reflect on what the Internet is doing to their brains.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .