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The first Book of the Week is “Little Soldiers, An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve” by Lenora Chu, published in 2017. The second Book of the Week is “Born to Rise, A Story of Children and Teachers* Reaching Their Highest Potential” by Deborah Kenny, published in 2012.
*A grammar-perfectionist would correct the word Teachers in the title: use the possessive, Teachers’ prior to the gerund Reaching, or would place a comma after Teachers.
Chu wrote, “As we all wrestle with change, the world’s education systems are gravitating toward convergence in what a ‘twenty-first-century’ student should look like.“
What’s interesting is that in United States education, beginning in the 1990’s– a propaganda war, profiteering and politics have all played a role in disruptive developments– yet abysmal conditions still prevail in the inner cities, just as they did decades ago. What’s new, though, is that: Pervasive dishonesty in education practices and statistics is now plaguing the system as a whole. When human nature is involved, inevitably, money corrupts everything sooner or later. The privatization of education and the trendy imposition of federal education initiatives have taken their toll.
Nevertheless, the COVID-19 epidemic’s subsequent chaos in education is a blessing in disguise that will accelerate creative destruction. This country has been forced to reevaluate its education system. Litigation, financial struggles and the resulting social ills will cause much suffering in the short term. But new ideas, models and systems (or rather, old ones that worked in the past, with new names slapped on them by credit-grabbers) will emerge from the wreckage.
Chu remarked that there exists what Americans would consider widespread corruption in education in China. Bribery is rampant. Teachers in China are treated like supreme beings. However, due to low salaries, they seek to supplement their income by taking bribes from parents, either money or expensive gifts. The teachers then favor those parents’ children in various ways.
In 2010, Chu, her husband, and baby son moved from Los Angeles to Shanghai. There in the latter city in 2012, her son, then age three, began attending what would be considered equivalent to an elitist preschool in the United States. He learned: fluency in the Mandarin language, hard work, patience and lifelong habits in connection with discipline, getting organized, and responsibility.
Political indoctrination is another aspect of education in China. Chu’s son and his classmates– subjected to “good-cop, bad-cop” team-teaching with a class size of about thirty (preschool!) kids cheek-by-jowl– parroted back slogans:
“Labor is the most glorious thing.”
“Sacrifice unselfishly for others.”
“Serve your country, serve society.”
According to Kenny’s bragfest of a book (which appeared to be credible although it lacked Notes, Sources, References, or Bibliography and an index), thirteen values that conveyed similar ideas (along with “Teachers are revered!”) were espoused by her charter school chain (which she claimed to have founded). Kenny– workaholic, perfectionist– with her overzealous “white-savior complex” appeared to be phobic that China’s children’s academic achievements were surpassing those of their low-income U.S. counterparts. It seemed that she thought there was reason to panic.
Chu described an international standardized test in various academic subjects, whose results in recent years (in an apples-and oranges comparison) had students in Shanghai scoring significantly higher than students in the United States. The irony is that an education expert also mentioned by Chu found an academic achievement gap wider than ever(!) between students in rural areas in China, and those in major cities in China.
And China’s population grows by a few million every year. So even with China’s very rapid urbanization, which is one key to closing the above gap, educating the country’s young people is a constant challenge. The vast majority of students stay truly illiterate (in rural areas especially) because their test scores don’t measure up. Since they know they are destined to mimic their parents in low-level jobs which are disappearing, such indifferent students drop out of high school, if not sooner. Their parents can’t afford to game the system through bribery.
The few who outlast the drudgery of an intense regimen of hours of daily study for months and months, possibly aided by special resources (such as money and a supportive, mentoring family), to score high enough– make their family proud and their futures significantly brighter.
Kenny had big dreams for opening a chain of charter schools starting in New York City’s West Harlem, at the turn of the twenty-first century. She had her work cut out for her– what with raising funds, finding a school site, getting the charter approved, hiring teachers, etc., etc., etc. She wrote, “Finding such great teachers for every classroom in the country did not seem scalable. If the key to fixing public education was to find millions of rock stars we were all doomed.”
Kenny’s charter-school chain is still in existence– a major feat; it has beaten the odds. Even so, it had serious growing-pains and a long learning-curve at its inception, and has been subjected to a boatload of bad publicity and lawsuits against it. Apparently, its personnel have utilized their skills, talents and experience well enough to ensure its survival thus far.
On the other hand, the initial school which opened in autumn of 2003 had no gym, no sports program and no cafeteria. To her credit, the author admitted to making many serious errors from the get-go, and described a few of them. She admitted both teacher and student turnover were quite high in the early years.
Notwithstanding, the reader wonders about the infinite number of inconvenient facts omitted from Kenny’s narrative. She failed to define “middle school” and wrote at one point, that the first school started with a fifth grade (a grade usually offered by elementary schools in the United States).
Along these lines, it is unclear how many special-needs students (who won a literal lottery to gain acceptance) were strongly discouraged from attending, or strongly encouraged to drop out of, Kenny’s charter schools. Charter schools can boast even more about their various measures of success such as test scores and graduation rates when they minimize their number of special-needs students.
One indication of the changing times in American education is that, for the first half of the twentieth century, learning disabilities went undiagnosed. Kids who had them were likely destined for a much more difficult life than kids who were able to learn more easily. Around the last forty years, profiteers and exploiters have jumped on the attention deficit / autism spectrum / learning disability bandwagon so American education has gone overboard on treating those problems. Kenny wrote of parents who refused to have their child tested for a learning disability, lest the child be stigmatized.
Another issue about which Kenny wrote was her belief that every child was destined to love reading, if only they were inspired to do so. This is an unrealistic wish. Studies have shown that genetics plays a larger role in a student’s ability to learn than policymakers want to acknowledge. This includes learning to read, and love of reading.
In sum, an avalanche of education data from research has been collected for centuries now. It is time for schools to stop experimenting and begin implementing more of a combination of programs in order of what works best regardless of costs, limited by whatever the budget will reasonably bear; instead of going the easy, greedy, or power-hungry, politically expedient (and fraught privatization) route.
A grass-roots movement would have to hold officials’ feet to the fire on that– perhaps appealing to their egos by giving them a legacy via a footnote in the history books crediting them for getting it done. This, while keeping political patronage to a minimum (It used to be called “honest graft” but has reached excessive levels in certain regions; time will tell whether upcoming elections oust the “Tammany Hall/Boss Tweed” contingents.).
Anyway read Chu’s book to learn of her and her child’s experiences with a real Shanghai public preschool (he, attending, and she, interacting with his teachers), her and her husband’s take on the whole shebang, and the knowledge she acquired from interviewing a few students who grew up attending schools in China; read Kenny’s book to learn about her experiences in opening a charter-school chain– the overall details, her frustrations and triumphs, and about several of the talented, skilled people who helped her succeed, plus some biographical information about her and her family.