Paragraphs to Ponder

From Dexter Filkins’, “The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution”:

“Sara was nervous about meeting me in public. ‘It is really dangerous,’ she said. ‘Me sitting here talking to you might get me in deep trouble.’ Still, she was poised and determined, insisting that she be granted her rights. ‘If you want to know how we live, you have to watch ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” she said. ‘This is the real Gilead. Margaret Atwood, she wrote our story before we were born.’

Last year, a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Sahar Khodayari was arrested while trying to sneak into a soccer match and charged with ‘appearing in public without a hijab.’ She set herself on fire and died. Afterward, the authorities finally conceded—a little. Under pressure from fifa, the international soccer authority, the Iranian government agreed to allow women to attend matches of the national team, as long as it was playing foreign opponents. Sara described the thrill of entering Tehran’s stadium for a match between the Iranian and Cambodian teams. ‘The soccer field is really green when you see it,’ she told me. Even though the women were relegated to a roped-off area behind a goal, ‘everyone was screaming and crying,’ she said. ‘It was the dream.’

I asked Sara why the authorities were concerned about something as trivial as a soccer match. ‘They know that if they open the doors to the stadium they should open other doors, too,” she said. “But the women of this country are not going to stop. I am absolutely prepared to go to prison.’ All her friends felt the same way about the authorities, she said. ‘The problem they have with us is that, if women get power, they’re going to take them down. That is the fact. They are going to overthrow the government.'”

What Filkins accomplished in six days is a marvel. A journalism tour de force.

What Amanda Ripley and Her Amazon Reviewers Get Wrong

Ripley has written a book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way“. Thanks to my brother (shout out to Ohio, not California), I recently read an article by Ripley based upon her book. Given my frustration level while reading the article, I’m not sure I could get through her book. Her Amazon reviewers loved it though.

What does Ripley and what do her reviewers get wrong? That you can improve schooling in the U.S. by arguing that Finnish teachers are far, far superior to American ones. I assume Ripley wants to help improve American schooling. She’s right that teacher education programs in the United States are not nearly as selective nor rigorous as Finnish ones. But in the excerpt at least, she doesn’t even bother exploring the reasons why, let alone propose solutions to the problem.

Dear Ms. Ripley, there are lots of reasons why teacher education programs in the U.S. aren’t as selective and rigorous as in Education’s Holy Land ( let’s create some ed jargon baby, EHL). Maybe the most vexing one is best illustrated through a question.

Whose recent performance is most impressive, Peyton Manning’s or Dexter Filkins’? To which most people in the U.S. would ask, who does Filkins play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Filkins is an outstanding writer, who, when he’s not writing books, plays for The New Yorker. And he just published an amazing story on Qassem Suleimani. Who does Qassem Suleimani play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Two teams really. Iran and Shiites worldwide.

You haven’t heard of him because American culture is anti-intellectual. How can anyone expect teaching to be a deeply respected profession when we reserve our highest pedestals for athletes, actors, and other entertainers?

Ripley also illustrates how dangerous a little knowledge can be. She’s critical of how short teacher candidates’ apprenticeships are in the U.S. I am too. Just the other day I was cringing in my office as colleagues next door weighed the merits of eight-week long professional apprenticeships.

But the problem is even worse than Ripley lets on. Not only are they far too short, increasingly candidates spend a lot of their time co-teaching because of growing standardized test score anxiety. Given the momentum for tying teachers’ evaluations and compensation to students’ test scores, an increasing percentage of principals and teachers are reluctant to “hand over” their classrooms to teacher credential candidates. Ripley doesn’t bother peeling that onion at all. Literally and figuratively shortchanging future teachers’ professional preparation is just one of other unintended negative consequences of standardized test score mania. We’ve lost our minds.

Absent from Ripley’s article, we obviously have to improve teacher compensation to have any hope of raising the profession’s profile and making teacher preparation programs markedly more selective. Related to that, we have to improve the work conditions—meaning fewer or smaller classes; more time to develop curriculum, prepare for classes, and assess student work; and fewer authors, elected officials, and businesspeople ripping teachers for not being more Finnish.

Postscript—peel more of the onion by reading Anu Partanen’s December 2011 essay in the Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“.