Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: The Good School

I came to The Good School as a foreigner who's never been through the american K-12 system. I read an excerpt about how class sizes didn't matter as much as you think they do, and nodded to myself. I personally grew up with class sizes of around 40 students to 1 teacher.

The first thing that made me realize that this was a high quality book was that the research results were impressive and surprising. For instance, right out of the first chapter on academic pre-schools: Researchers showed that the academic approach created students with more emotional problems, had more acts of teen misconduct, and lower academic aspirations than kids who attended a playful learning program. She tend goes on to detail Tools of the Mind, which was described in Nurture Shock.

One of the things that stands out to a non-American is that the American educational system is bat-shit insane. For instance, tests in Singapore are graduated, which means that you start with easy questions and move on to tougher and tougher questions that require deeper and richer understanding of the material. Well, that's not how Americans do it. The standardized tests are designed so that 40-60% of kids will get it right, in a statistically defensible pattern. WTF! That makes no sense! As a result, questions that nearly everyone will get right are banned, as are questions that nearly everyone cannot answer, since those add no value to the test. I remember my SATs, and they were somewhat graduated, but frequently had a lot of repetitively similar questions, and this explains why.

The section on class sizes is interesting, as I never understood why Americans obsessed about it given my experience in Singapore. Then I realized that students are not sorted in the American system! In Singapore, each year's report cards would be used to stream students into classes with other students of similar ability. As a result, the teachers have the relatively easy job of teaching students who are all more or less at the same level. In America, students are all clumped together and then the teacher is expected to be able to give the laggards or the brilliant ones individual attention. It wouldn't be a surprise to you that that doesn't work.

They cover two big topics: reading and math. Apparently, learning to read English is so well understood that experts agree that there's only one way to teach it: Phonics. But in their survey of school literature, apparently most schools do not teach reading that way, which means that many students fail. Teaching how to read English is much easier than teaching how to read Chinese, so you can imagine my jaw dropping when I read that.

Math, of course, is something Americans are famously bad at compared to the rest of the world. There are two big differences between Americans and the rest of the world. Elementary school teachers in America come from low performers: while the rest of the world gets its teachers from the upper 30% of the class, many American elementary school teachers say things like: "I don't like Math." Secondly, unlike Asians, Americans don't believe that Math is something that can be worked on and believe that you either have a talent for math or not. What results is that the math curriculum is set politically rather than by experts, and as a result, America's math textbooks are confusing and badly written.

The surprising antidote turns out to be Singapore Math, the math studies system I grew up with. I'm surprised that the system isn't just imported wholesale into the US given how much more effective it is than what's in place right now. Apparently, there are school districts that have switched over to it, but it's apparently not something people are pushing for. (By the way, Singapore Math gets you Calculus by the time you hit grade 10, and you're doing simultaneous differential equations by grade 12)

All in all, this book is an eye opener if you grew up outside the American school system. I used to think that Americans are badly educated because the culture here doesn't prize academics but prefers to worship Britney Spears and sports stars instead. Now I know it's not just the culture, but also the system which seems to be put together by people pushing political agendas rather than try to teach kids. If you're used to Asian educational systems, you need to read this book to get an idea of how American schools are different (and probably much worse) than what you grew up with. Recommended.
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