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Splendid Contributions and Flawed Conclusions

Susan Notes:

I posted this review for two reasons:
1) Bruce Biddle is worth reading.
2) To point out that Linda Darling-Hammond travels with Marc Tucker.

Book Review

Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for
American Education Built on the World's
Leading Systems.
Edited by Marc S. Tucker,
Foreword by Linda Darling-Hammond.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press,
2011. 288 pp., $29.95 (paper). ISBN 978-1-

by Bruce J. Biddle
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

This book has a lot going for it. Having
identified five school systems in other
countries that generate consistently high
scores in comparative studies of reading,
mathematics, and science achievement, it
uncovers key structural features of those
systems and argues that the (less impressive)
achievements of American schools
would be improved if they adopted those
features. This refreshing thesis is well
argued and is backed by detailed discussions
of education in the five non-American
systems, and for these reasons alone
this book should be read by all persons
concerned with improving American

On the other hand, this book concludes
that by identifying school systems that lead
in three specific types of achievement,
these systems are (therefore) among "the
best in the world," and by adopting their
features the U.S. would (of course) join
their ranks. This shaky conclusion ignores
important aspects of American education
that have not yet been assessed in comparative
studies, among them unique and valued
tasks and curricula that have long
characterized education in the United
States. As well, this book concludes that if
American education were only to adopt
the features of these "leading nations," the
achievements of American schools would
thereafter match if not "surpass" those
found in such nations. This even shakier
conclusion ignores extensive research concerned
with serious societal problems that
are known to debilitate school achievement
in the United States, crucially
America's huge rate of youth poverty, highest
in the advanced world. Thus, Americans
who truly want to understand and improve
their education system should be suspicious
of this book's overly ambitious conclusions.
As a rule, Americans are remarkably
insular, and most persons who promote
specific "reforms" for American education
seem to be unaware that they might learn
anything from other countries. In sharp
contrast, this book makes a strong case for
learning from the features of successful,
non-American education systems. Five
such systems are targeted, those of:
Finland, Japan, Singapore, Ontario (within
Canada), and Shanghai (within China). As
this work shows, schools within each of
these venues generate consistently high
scores in comparative studies of reading,
mathematics, and science achievement,
and it carefully teases out features of education
in each venue presumably responsible
for such high scores. Some of these features
appear in several venues (but not the
United States). In particular, two features
seem to be crucial for âsuccess of the countries
with the best education record . . . [a]
quality teaching force . . . [and] coherence
in the design of the overall education system
itself â (p. 205). In detail, by comparison,
teacher quality in the United States is
said to falter because:

⢠low standards persist for entry into
American teaching;
⢠much of teacher education takes place
in second- and third-tier institutions;
⢠too often, teachers are not required to
have mastery of the subjects they
⢠salaries for teachers are lower than
those for comparable professions;
⢠teachers are often not given salary
âloadingsâ for work in disadvantaged
settings; and
⢠the teaching profession lacks secure
career ladders.
And, by comparison, the American
education system is said to lack:
⢠clear goals agreed to by both the public
and the profession;
⢠clear gateways and world-class standards
for student advancement in
⢠logically ordered curricula for the
basic education sequence; and
⢠curricula for all subjects that are tied
to gateway exams and standards.

These and related conclusions suggest
agenda for needed "reforms" of education
in the United States and pose a major challenge
to conventional American thinking
about the topic.1

But does this mean that all of these conclusions
truly apply in the American case?
From their beginnings, public schools in
the United States were asked not only to
provide instruction in "The Three Rs," but
also to prepare students for thoughtful participation
in a democracy. To my knowledge,
no comparative study has yet
examined achievement for this latter topic
(and one wonders how the schools of
Shanghai, for example, would fare if
assessed for it). Over the years, American
schools have also expanded their core curricula
to include many different subjects
(literature and history, civics or American
government, hygiene and psychology, foreign
languages, music, theater, and the
arts, for example), and American high
schools now offer instruction in a host of
career-relevant subjects (ranging from typing
and auto mechanics to computer programming,
ballet dancing, and flower
arranging). In other advanced countries,
subjects such as these are usually taught in
nonacademic secondary schools whose students
have failed to pass gateway exams,
but Americans are committed to "comprehensive"
high schools in which a broad
range of subjects is offered and students
can sample various interests and career
lines. Needless to say, most of these many
subjects have not been examined in comparative
studies either, nor have such studies
assessed the breadth of student interests
or knowledge. And because institutions
providing support for youths are largely
missing in American communities,
American schools typically provide additional,
nonacademic services for students
(such as athletic programs that provide
entry into professional sports, driving
instruction, free meals for students from
low-income homes, nursing services, and
community outreach programs). Such services
are also broadly approved in America,
but the goals they represent have again not
been examined in comparative studies.
Given these many nonassessed strengths of
American education, to conclude that
other nations with narrower, more focused
education systems are âsuperiorâ just because
they score more highly on these three tests
of achievement embraces a view of education
more in line with the self-serving,
conservative values of corporate leaders
than the broader vision for education held
by most Americans. (Note, however, that
this argument raises fewer concerns about
this book's challenging conclusions concerned
with teacher quality.)2

This book also concludes that the achievements
of American education would surely
match or exceed those of other "world's leading
systems" if only it adopted the practices
of those systems, but this conclusion is
directly challenged by extensive research
showing that serious societal problems also
debilitate school achievement in the United
States. Of these problems, the most devastating
is Americaâs uniquely huge rate of youth
poverty. In brief, roughly one quarter of all
American youths are now impoverished, and
for perhaps half that number, impoverishment
is a "deep" or "long-lasting" experience.
Such youth poverty rates far exceed those for
the impoverishment of adults and the elderly
in the United States as well as those for youth
poverty in all other advanced countries--
where rates range from half of those for
America to 5% or less in Scandinavian
countries (such as Finland). Nor is youth
poverty an âinnocentâ experience; impoverished
youths in the United States suffer far
higher rates of illness, physical and mental
impairments, lexical problems, disrupted
lives, early deaths, andâ"cruciallyâ"failure in

Why should the latter occur? Because,
in America, impoverished youths encounter
five major types of problems--some
outside of and some within schools but all
studied extensively--that generate serious
burdens for youths:

⢠They live in impoverished homes (not
tolerated in other advanced nations)
where overcrowding, stressed-out parents,
and poisons (such as lead paint)
are often present, and adequate nutrition,
reading materials, decent clothing,
and "enrichment" experiences are
in short supply.
⢠They often reside in impoverished
neighborhood ghettos (also not tolerated
elsewhere) where good transportation,
job opportunities, positive role
models, and other resources are missing,
and filth, violence, illegal drugs,
and youth gangs abound.
⢠(Because of Americaâs uniquely huge
rate of youth poverty and Americaâs
toleration for poverty ghettos) they
often attend neighborhood schools
where many other students are also
impoverished (and may also be stigmatized
for membership in minority
groups)â"conditions that too often
generate a climate dominated by serious
student problems, low staff
morale, and abysmal standards for
academic achievement.
⢠(Because America draws uniquely on
local resources to fund education, and
impoverished students often live in
cash-starved communities) they
attend schools where per-student
funding is one third (or less) of that
provided for schools in nearby affluent
suburbs, thus creating an environment
where key curricular resources,
staff salaries, enrichment programs,
and even basic maintenance of buildings
are miserably funded.
⢠They are very likely to attend schools
where they become victims of
(uniquely American) prejudices and
selection processes tracking them
into "remedial" programs, low demand
courses, and low-status
career options that suggest inherent
lack of educability.

Taken together, these problems pose
serious burdens for impoverished youths in
America; those burdens strongly interfere
with those youths' academic success, and
no evidence has yet appeared suggesting
that their effects can be overcome by
adopting either the nostrums now being
touted for American educational "reform"
or the educational practices of other "successful"
nations.3 As well, these problems
create sharply different levels of aggregate
achievement that have long appeared
among America's schools. In America,
schools with many impoverished students
are also likely to receive poor funding, and
this means that their achievement levels
should be miserableâ"whereas other
(largely suburban) schools face neither
problem, and their achievements should
already be "world class"--and this effect
has also been confirmed by data from wellconstructed
comparative studies!4

Unfortunately, this book reveals little
awareness of these five problems, their
effects, and the crucial role played by youth
poverty in American education, and this
raises serious questions about its overarching
[emphasis added]

To summarize then, because of its stance
urging greater awareness of educational practices
elsewhere, the data it provides, and its
challenging claims (particularly those focused
on improving teacher quality), this book
should be read by all persons concerned with
improving American education. But readers
should also bear in mind that key features of
American education are not discussed in this
book--its many strengths, as well as how
massive youth poverty generates many of its
failures--and those readers should be prepared
to discount this book's overly ambitious

1As this book also notes, none of the successful
venues it examines have made use of the
major âreformsâ now being touted for American
education, and this includes âthe use of market
mechanisms such as charter schools and vouchers,
the identification and support of education
entrepreneurs to disrupt the system, and the use
of student performance data on standardized
tests to identify teachers and principals who are
then rewarded . . . or punished [depending on
student test results]â (p. 209).
2And although this work does not take up the
issue, research has already appeared confirming
that, in the United States, stronger educational
outcomes appear when teachers have had more
appropriate academic preparation, have had
more years of experience, earn better scores on
tests of teaching skills, and are paid better salariesâ"
see, e.g., Linda Darling-Hammondâs wellcrafted,
recent book, The Flat World and
Education: How Americaâs Commitment to Equity
Will Determine our Future (New York: Teachers
College Press, 2010).
3For a review and examples of recent research
on the educational effects of youth poverty, consult
an excellent book recently edited by Greg
Duncan and Richard Murnane, Whither
Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and
Childrenâs Life Chances (New York: Russell Sage
Foundation and Chicago: Spencer Foundation.
2011). In their summary, the editors observe that
âas the incomes of affluent and poor American
families have diverged over the past three decades,
so too has the educational performance of children
in those familiesâ (p. 15).
4See, e.g., the Mathematics Benchmarking
Report from TIMSS 1999â"Eighth Grade
Achievement for U.S. States and Districts in an
International Context by Mullis, I. V. S., Martin,
M. O., Gonzales, E. J., OâConnor, K. M.,
Chrostowski, S. J., Gregory, K. D., Garden, R.
A., & Smith, T. A. (Boston, MA: International
Study Center, Lynch School of Education,
Boston College, 2001). Data from this study
indicate that, for mathematics, the achievements
of American schools with many impoverished
students and poor funding are only
comparable to those from third-world nations,
whereas achievements from schools with neither
of these disadvantages place them among those
from nations that âlead the world.â

Bruce J. Biddle is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and of Sociology at the University of Missouri, 210 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO, 65211; BiddleB@missouri.edu. In earlier years, (with others) he conducted comparative research on the role of the teacher, youth decision making, and school principals in various countries, and he has written extensively on educational policy and held visiting academic appointments at three of Australia's Universities; recently his research and scholarship have focused on the massive amount of youth poverty in the United States and its corrosive effects in American education.

— Bruce Biddle
Educational Researcher


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