“World Class,” the title of Teru Clavel’s book, refers to her family’s 10-year odyssey from New York to Hong Kong, to Shanghai and Tokyo before their eventual return to California, and the different education systems her children experienced in each of those places. The book is an examination of what a world-class education system — and its opposite — looks like.

World Class, by Teru Clavel.
352 pages
SIMON & SCHUSTER, Nonfiction.

The title also acts as a mission statement: to discover what a world-class primary education looks like outside of the “privilege and ennui of elite private schools.”

When Clavel’s family left New York in 2006, they had two children; her daughter, the third child, was born on their first stop in Hong Kong, where her husband, a banker, was transferred. The book highlights the education systems in each setting and, perhaps more importantly, the different expectations from teachers, parents and, occasionally, Clavel’s children.

Clavel is most critical and, for readers on this side of the Pacific, most interesting on the family’s return to California. Back in the U.S. in 2016, Clavel is determined that her three children will continue studying at public schools as they had done in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, and so she entrusts them to local state schools in Palo Alto, “in the backyard of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley,” rated as California’s top school district.

What she documents there is an education system that is overrun by technology; there’s very little, if any, coordination between teachers; expectations are low; and movies are a win-win way of filling class time.

From an outsider’s view, it sounds as if the U.S.’ No Child Left Behind reforms from nearly two decades ago have amounted to every child moving on at the end of the academic year, regardless of what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned or what they’ve failed to learn.

The reach of tech into her children’s classrooms and lives is staggering. Clavel’s second-oldest son and his fifth-grade classmates are all given iPads — bought with funds from the PTA — which they are allowed to take home. Ostensibly, it’s for educational purposes, but there are no limits on the games or apps they can use. Clavel finds out after the fact, as does the school principal.

As Clavel points out, in Japan and China technology use in the classroom is among the lowest of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations and partners. But how long can teachers and parents keep the tech zeitgeist from storming the walls and disrupting the curriculum?

However, it is the idea of mastery, rather than technology’s role in education, that is the most prominent theme of the book. Clavel describes a schooling system in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo that pushes and prods students, encouraging them to learn and achieve mastery, whether it’s in math, language or storytelling. For Clavel, Asia’s education system represents a meritocratic form of learning that could and should work for all kids.

While Clavel touches on bullying, highlighting how the collective culture here can alienate and isolate students, it’s an area she doesn’t delve into great detail in “World Class.” It’s true that Asian countries largely dominate the OECD’s academic rankings, but countries like Japan and South Korea are also grappling with a surge in teenage suicides and, in both countries, suicide is now the leading cause of death for teenagers. How much of this is the result of pressure for results, online bullying, problems at home and mental health issues we don’t know, but it’s a massively worrying problem.

Clavel describes herself as an “anti-helicopter” parent. She wants her children to learn resilience and independence, and also learn that failure is part of the process. She believes that education should be a struggle, albeit one that is supported by a network of teachers, and parents. As she learns from schools in Asia — one is nicknamed “The Prison” for its foreboding appearance — the buildings don’t have to look like Harvard or Cambridge to ensure success.

The book is not without blindspots, but these are more cultural observations than specific to education. Clavel laments the fact that back in the U.S. her kids are faced with adverts during NFL games for erectile dysfunction and scantily clad women advertising resorts. And yet in Tokyo, while praising the independence offered her eldest son, who often stops by a convenience store on his way home from school to read the newspapers, she forgets the array of magazines showing scantily clad women that can be found on the shelves there, or indeed the fetishization of high school girls in Japan at large.

In the end, when Clavel and her family make the move back to New York to be closer to her hometown and her mother, her three children are enrolled in private schools. It was a “hard-wrought decision,” but, as Clavel explains, “there were no appropriate openings in our zoned public schools.”

Clavel breaks up the book with advice for parents on education and, while it’s helpful, it can feel a little overwhelming. It’s a bit unfair to ask an author to reduce 10 years of life to a sentence, but Clavel is willing and able.

“Raise your kids’ learning expectations: Your kids can do so much more than you think they can. And let your kid struggle, so that they can have the resiliency to overcome problems and that sets them up for life.”

And that is a worthy lesson.

Teru Clavel contributed to The Japan Times’ “Learning Curve” series between 2013 and 2015.

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