Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Today's World, Geography is More Important than History

This is the follow-up post I promised to write in my last, a review of Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error.

I like history. I read history books (occasionally) in my free time, and I include the subject in my (mostly English) teaching. But in The New History of the World, which I rely upon as one source for a general overview, author J. M. Roberts argues that the pace of change has increased since the Neolithic era and that that increase continues, and this is something we can feel almost daily, rendering the lessons of history steadily more remote.

Last year two important new education books appeared at almost the same time, Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world and Professor Ravitch's Reign of Error. I wanted to read both, have now completed both, am glad I read both, since they both make valuable points -- but at the time I was unsure of which to read first. I ultimately chose to read Ms. Ripley's book first, largely because my career in international and domestic education has led me to conclude that, in today's world, geography is more important than history -- that is, knowing more about the way the world is today is more important than knowing how one's country was yesterday; and a corollary of this is that being able to see where today's American education stands in relation to that overseas is more important than understanding how it compares today with what it was in the past. Finishing both books has confirmed me in that opinion. Professor Ravitch does not ignore international educational data, but the value of Ms. Ripley's work continues to shine, for example in a new Slate article published today.

I agree with Professor Ravitch's opinion that American K-12 education has gotten worse in recent decades, especially because of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. I also agree with those who believe the Common Core standards are better than those state standards that were taught to in the previous decade. But unless American educators know that, for all the ballyhoo accompanying the Common Core, once implemented their students will still be 2-3 years behind their peers in east Asia in mathematics, or understand that pursuing the strategy of Wendy Kopp's followers to prepare all children for college in spite of the enormous financial and opportunity costs involved, which Marc Tucker's commendable blog post in Education Week yesterday, which highlights vocational education in Switzerland, which like Singapore, which has a still better education system, only prepares 20-30% of any cohort for tertiary education but ends up with a better educated, more employable population -- until Americans get out of their limited domestic box and are aware of these real options that are being successfully implemented overseas now, our nation will continue to blunder down fruitless reform paths while other countries leave our young in the dust, an outcome surely no one in America's education debates wants.

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