Note: The publisher sent me a copy for review, but all opinions are my own.
Originally published on 9 August 2019
Comparing education systems is a well explored topic. However, author Teru Clavel’s book is fresh because it is also a memoir of her own and her family’s experiences in different countries and schools, a parent’s guide to navigating education, and a thoughtfully researched commentary on the societies and educational ideologies of the countries she experiences. Clavel’s unique circumstances essentially allow her to perform a comparative education experiment on her own family as they live in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Palo Alto and New York. Interestingly, she does this while getting her master’s degree and working in comparative education herself.
Her book features inset guides to choosing schools, how parents are involved in education, family values and how you model your family’s commitment to education, tips for prepping for preschool, and other helpful and necessary topics. As the book blurb mentions, this felt similar to Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman— but the carefully researched version about education. In that sense, this is a useful book for parents who are looking for how to think about or approach their child’s education, and provides some very useful resources and critical perspectives.
There are two underlying themes to her book that are very important— her awareness of the part that privilege plays in education, and her repeated emphasis on needing to find a middle ground. She acknowledges the downsides of the societies and schools that her family lives in, while at the same time highlighting their positives. While many of these East Asian schools could work toward increasing room for creativity and providing greater equity for girls (a societal issue, seen a lot in her experiences in Japan), they also have a lot to offer in terms of how they approach education as a community, among other things. Recent data about the 2012 PISA test further supports her perspective on how these schools teach math. As a teacher who sometimes gets tired of all the comparisons with Finland, and as a parent who sometimes gets tired of all the comparisons with France, such an in depth and personal look at education in these countries felt enlightening and refreshing.
Clavel’s discussions of the need for children to be bilingual and bicultural are persuasive and necessary. Additionally, within education she explores numeracy and the very relevant topic of mastery, making arguments for an increase of both in the United States school system, which is strengthened by her perspective of being in education systems abroad that are successful with both. In fact, this— along with her discussion about teachers, school lunches and use of technology in the classroom— felt like the sharpest reproach of United States education.
While I disagree with her on students learning to code— I think this is an empowering, engaging, and increasingly necessary skill— I can’t help but agree with her about teachers. Beginning in highly selective teacher education programs, to paying teachers the equivalent of other professionals with the same amount of training, to the investment in professional development and training which has the biggest returns, Clavel’s research is thoughtful and her writing is passionate. The experiences she shares with her family in places that are foreign to stateside readers— Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo— are at times hilarious, moving, impressive, and fascinating. She follows her son on a walk home from school in Tokyo, unknown to him. She makes friends. She experiences norms of expat culture, and is in turn shocked and pleased with the things her family encounters in the cultures and local schools they become a part of. This book fills a gap for parents, teachers, and anyone who feels deeply the importance of education.