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Can America Learn From Foreign School Systems?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for a visit to the barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. We're here in Aspen for the Aspen Ideas Festival, and we couldn't get into the shop, so we brought the shop to us.

I'm joined by culture critic Jimi Izrael. Steve Inskeep is with us, in for the first time, host of NPR's Morning Edition. Also joining us, Anand Giridharadas, columnist for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome. Both of you in for the first time. Welcome to the shop.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely, we thought we were actually going to get our haircut here. So we're...


IZRAEL: Well, dude, I love - hey, I've got my haircut. Aspen is really the home of the $15 haircut. We can get a nice little foot massage and a nice little dainty cup of espresso. So I appreciate that.

INSKEEP: Okay, I'm waiting for the espresso. That'll be good.

IZRAEL: You'll be waiting, brother.

INSKEEP: All right.

IZRAEL: So, you know, let's get things started. We're going to talk about some big ideas out here in Aspen. And we've been talking a lot about whether the U.S. is still the land of opportunity for everyone. I...

MARTIN: And I'm interested in what you have to say Jimi, in part because you are a teacher, as well, you're a college professor, as well, and you see a lot of kids coming in front of you. And I'm wondering what you've been seeing over the years.

IZRAEL: Well, before I was all that, I was a father. And what troubles me the most is this morning, we know that student loans, they doubled, they doubled. And I got like four kids. Are you serious?

And so for - to me, opportunity, you can get about as much opportunity in America as you can afford, I believe, you know. And I think, also, education is changing. The value of education is changing, and we're paying too much, I believe, for too little. And the bones of the public education space are rotting, and we need some better ideas.

INSKEEP: Let's keep this in perspective, though.

IZRAEL: All right Steve, go ahead.

INSKEEP: I mean, you know, I travel a lot for work...


INSKEEP: ...To fascinating places, I mean, Venezuela, Columbia, Iran, Iraq...

IZRAEL: Cleveland.

INSKEEP: ...Cleveland - I've been to Cleveland - New Orleans, Detroit, places like that. And when you go overseas, everywhere you go overseas, you will encounter someone who tells you the story of how they tried to get a visa to the United States. America is the land of opportunity. People overseas understand that. People in troubled countries, especially, understand that. But I will agree with what you're saying to the extent that, is it the land of equal opportunity. And that's still a problem.

You know, I went to Morehead State University in Kentucky, which is in the eastern part of the state, the coal mining region. And they have this ceremony at graduation. They say everybody who's the first person in your family ever to graduate from college stand up. Half the graduating class stands up, year after year, after year, after year. And some of the professors even find that a little depressing, because they think, they feel like, we've been at this for decades, we really should have, you know, we should be having second-generation, third-generation students by now.

IZRAEL: Honestly.

INSKEEP: It's an incredibly slow process.

MARTIN: I was raising my hand on that. I was raising my hand on that question, too.

GIRIDHARADAS: I think Steve's right, but I think part of what really distresses me, again, with that same perspective of other countries in here, is that there's this very weird reversal and inversion happening between America and the developing world. If you go to places like India, like China, like Brazil and you ask them, why were you not succeeding for your people until very recently, the answer they will give you is, we were a society that existed for very few people at the top and then catered through subsidies and handouts to a lot of people at the bottom, and we never invested in the middle.

And the reason India and China and Brazil are finally waking up and you're hearing about these countries is that they have become middle-centric societies, obsessed with cultivating their middle. And then at the very same time that they've done that, I think we have gone the other way.

And we've become a system, we've become an Aspen society at one end, and then you drive two hours in any direction from where we are right now and the family is falling apart, schools are not great, people are losing their sense that there's a reasonable relationship between effort and reward.

IZRAEL: Yeah, definitely. I would give to that that ambition and hard work isn't enough in America anymore. You need a little luck to succeed here. Go ahead, Steve.

INSKEEP: I know. I think that's totally fair, and that's something I think about a lot. The people that graduated from Morehead State University in Kentucky, I mean, those are people who managed, often with great personal struggle, to get through to a college degree and they, many of them may still be a million miles from being at the top or a million miles from even seeing the top. And there's so many reasons for that.

One of them was mentioned earlier, though, which is just a sense of understanding how to cope and understanding that you can get some place. I heard Anand talk last night, in front of a fireplace. Michel had a conversation with him. And you were talking about people in India who feel that they are supposed to be at the bottom, feel that they have internalized the idea that they are to be at the bottom. You felt that is changing in India, finally it's beginning to change.

I think there are a lot of people in America that struggle to realize how far they can climb. And that is part of the problem, is understanding that you can grab the opportunities that are there, that they can be there for you if you can just find them.

MARTIN: I just want to jump in for a minute. And if you're just joining us, we're having a special edition of our barbershop roundtable. We usually have this conversation on Friday, but we're all here in Aspen, so we're having it today. We're joined by culture critic Jimi Izrael. NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep decided he needed a trim, and we all agreed, so here he is. And columnist Anand Giridharadas...

INSKEEP: I'm hoping a shave is part of this also, 'cause, you know.

MARTIN: We can arrange that.

INSKEEP: When I was a kid...

IZRAEL: It's coming, Steve. It's coming.

INSKEEP: OK, that's good.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is also with us. He was actually the first...

INSKEEP: Straight razor, how are you with a straight razor? Anyway, go on.

MARTIN: He was the first Bombay, to open a bureau in Bombay for The New York Times back in 2005 and has a very interesting sort of story himself. So our colleagues who cover education at NPR pointed us to the Programme for International Student Assessment. Steve, you were making the point of not even necessarily knowing where you stack up in the world. It measures how some of the more developed countries in the world stack up when it comes to education. And some developing, so-called developing countries participated, as well.

The most recent numbers said that U.S. 15-year-olds were pretty much average in that group when it comes to reading literacy. But U.S. students were below average in math literacy and average in science. I'm very interested in this question, 'cause it's - Anand, to your point, it's not that fewer kids in the U.S. are going to school, but the question is are our schools as effective? Are American students able to compete? Or is it still that, internationally, only very few kids actually get to compete in other parts of the world?

GIRIDHARADAS: The difficult thing about the education statistics is they're very complicated to understand and parse. So let me give you a simpler statistic that's kind of an outcome statistic. The OECD, richest countries in the world, I think, 19 or 20 of these countries - and there's a study on, in which of these countries can your parents' income be used to predict the child's income, right.

That's not an index you want to win, because that means rich people's dumb kids stay rich and poor people's brilliant kids stay poor. We are number one in the U.S. in that index. That's not the kind of index you want to lead. So then you can argue about whether it's the schools or the family or welfare or hip-hop lyrics. It doesn't matter what your set of causes are.

INSKEEP: It is totally the opposite of our image of ourselves.

IZRAEL: Everything's hip-hop's fault.


IZRAEL: Everything's hip-hop's fault.

IZRAEL: I think...

MARTIN: I thought it was Twitter. I thought you said it was Twitter's fault?

IZRAEL: It's the Twitter, but I...

INSKEEP: What if you tweet hip-hop lyrics? That might be...

MARTIN: But we're still encouraging you, if you want to join our conversation via Twitter. So even if we are ruining the world as we know it, we're still encouraging you to join us via #NPRAspen. I actually, I have a tweet from a listener named Bill (ph) who asks the group what you believe is the root cause of public education in the U.S. not keeping pace with that of other countries?

Yes, I did add a preposition, thank you very much. I know that's not the Twitter, the Twitter norm, but yes, I added a proposition.

GIRIDHARADAS: You know, grammar and stuff.

IZRAEL: I think we're - I'm troubled that we often map education and credentials to your success, you're almost guaranteed success in America. I mean, I call that the Cosby formula, that if you go to college, you will be rich. And I think that's a problem. I teach my children that, you know, to go to school, get that paper, also be about your passion, you know, and your passion should lead to a career that becomes your life work.

Don't go and become a biomed major and go off into that and you don't love it, and then you find out that the world, the marketplace, is crowded with biomedical majors. Also with lawyers, we've got too many lawyers, because people, they believe that that degree will lead to a life of milk and honey, and that isn't true anymore. I have Ph.D. friends, I have MFA friends that work at Starbucks. They're not even managers. They're not even keyholders. You know, so...

GIRIDHARADAS: But they make really amazing lattes.

IZRAEL: Awesome lattes. Go ahead, Steve. You want a piece of this, man?

INSKEEP: Well, yeah, yeah, totally, I mean, I totally agree with what you're saying. I mean, I think there are too many people that think of education as going for a specific career, which is exactly what you're talking about. And the world is changing too fast.

And if I think about my own experience, what I would suggest to people is to think of education as building life skills and ways to grasp the broader world. The great gap in my education was I didn't do very much language, didn't do very many language classes. I took Latin, and when I graduated I discovered that Latin is relatively little spoken in the world today.

INSKEEP: And I spent the rest of my adult life catching up and learning Spanish and learning Arabic and trying to learn fragments of other languages. And when I go overseas, I encounter the exact opposite. Every poor neighborhood you go into will have storefront English schools.

There'll be a sign, it'll say "English primary school." Primary will be misspelled, but people are grabbing the global economy, and they want to understand the broader world in a way that many of us do not.

MARTIN: But is that for self-improvement, or is that because they feel that that's their ticket to the milk and honey? I mean, because English is now the global language.

INSKEEP: Oh, it is definitely both.

MARTIN: But can you really fault people when people are going into debt of - you know, we hear stories about kids not just leaving college and grad school with five-figure debt loads, but six-figure debt loads, because they have been told that this is what they need to do to compete in the world. Can you really tell them that they're wrong?

INSKEEP: Well, I mean, we can talk about education expense and whether you really get your money's worth at a private college. We could have that discussion. But let me suggest this. If you're going to have a $50,000 or $60,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 student debt, you'd better have learned something that's going to benefit you for 40 years and not be prepared for a specific job at age 23 that may not even exist by the time you're graduating.



MARTIN: Anand, quickly.

GIRIDHARADAS: Let me also just introduce something to this that, you know, I think, like the rest of us on this stage, have chosen to do what we've done through the root of education. But I - and we have great educators on this panel before us - but I think it's also interesting to think about, if, in the meantime, we're not going to be able to educate everybody terrifically, I think we also need to be a country where people can do great things and create opportunity for themselves without having had that opportunity.

We didn't have great education when the country was founded, and a lot of the country was built for most people. But we still managed to build a great country. And so if we are in an austere time, if we are in a time when schools are failing, let's fix them, but in the meanwhile, I think we need to teach people hustle, and legal hustle, and buying things here and selling them there for a higher price, and be real about where our economy is and what opportunities we can provide while we're trying to fix everything.

MARTIN: Well, as we said, this is the Ideas Festival. And remember, we started the program by asking John Deasy, the superintendent of the LA Unified School District, what keeps him up at nights. I actually want to close today on the other question, which is what gets you all up in the morning, other than that latte?



INSKEEP: All right, let me just say...

MARTIN: And Steve, hopefully it's a big idea.

INSKEEP: My parents...

MARTIN: Steve?

INSKEEP: Well, OK, my parents were public school teachers. They're both retired now. And I feel that what I do every day is an extension of what they do. I get up in the morning, I try to learn about the world, learn something and pass it onto other people. I think that's a great thing to do when I can manage it. I think it's a great thing for citizens to do, whether they're writers or journalists or doing something else in life.

MARTIN: Anand?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think for me, in a lot of my writing I write about clashes of perspectives on an issue like education or any other political issue. And for me, what gets me up is trying to show people that there are common values underneath those divides. And people actually do care about the same things if you scrape deep enough. And I hope we can start to have at least adolescent, if not adult, political conversations in this country.

IZRAEL: And for me, with my students, I try to encourage them to be curious and to freely express themselves. With my children, I try to keep them curious in the age of Google and also encourage common knowledge, a return to common knowledge.

MARTIN: We have a couple more minutes, actually. So you can expand on that. When does that ever happen? We have a couple more minutes to talk about this.


GIRIDHARADAS: This is the moment of the segment where we actually start to cut each other's hair.

IZRAEL: Well, Michel, Michel, Michel, what about you?

GIRIDHARADAS: I volunteer.

IZRAEL: Michel, what about you?

MARTIN: I'm not used to being on this end of the equation. What keeps - what do you want to know? What keeps me up at night or what gets me up in the morning?

IZRAEL: What gets you up in the morning?

MARTIN: Well, I'll answer both questions. What keeps me up at night is the same thing that keeps a lot of people up at night, which is that the kids that I see out here, the kids who increasingly look like the country that is becoming, not the country that was, are they getting what they need? And what they need is sometimes very different from what people think that they need, you know, or what people 25 years ago needed.

Their relationship to authority, their understanding of themselves, a need to see themselves in the story of America sometimes is very much missing. But what gets me up in the morning is very much I think the same thing that gets all of you up in the morning, is the power of words.

INSKEEP: Morning Edition.

IZRAEL: Morning Edition.

MARTIN: We believe in the power of words. We believe that words matter. We believe that ideas matter. We believe that we can change things with goodwill, with passion, with energy, with the desire to make things better, not just for ourselves, not just for our families, not just for our own, sort of, personal universe, but for other people. The kids we're never going to meet, you know, touching the future.

You know, that kind of thing. So finally, did you all hear a big idea - we've been focusing on education - is there a big idea in education that you all heard that you would like to talk about? I know you're not in the should business, Steve. I'm not in the should business, but go ahead.

INSKEEP: Well, I mean, I was listening to Joel Klein yesterday talk about getting technology into schools and I tweeted about it, and there was a phenomenal response, a lot of it negative. This is a really tense topic for a lot of people. You know, if we're spending money on technology in schools, is it being done in a, you know, a proper way? Is it being done to just cause a profit for a company? Is it being done to displace teachers?

At the same time, the opportunities seem huge and they seem really exciting. And one of the most exciting ideas that I heard in that discussion was the notion of kids who are all on tablets but the teacher is monitoring what they do on the tablet, which makes it easier for the teacher to understand what the kid, specifically, is learning and absorbing and what the kid is kind of skating past and not quite getting. And that notion of paying attention to the individual, I think, is huge.

GIRIDHARADAS: It also makes it easier for the end...

MARTIN: Hopefully it's not "Angry Birds" or "Cut the Rope." Hopefully it's not "Angry Birds" or "Cut the Rope," even though the people who invented that might be sitting right here, I don't know. Sorry if you are. Anand?

GIRIDHARADAS: Just listening to all the education practitioners before us, I think we have - it's almost impossible for us in this country to have arguments - meaningful arguments about equality, because they're just such divided sides and this country has a very divided heritage.

I think the big takeaway for me is let's set aside the conversation about adult equality where we'll never agree. I think we can probably have an 80 percent consensus on children's equality. No one chooses to be a poor kid. We can all agree on that.

MARTIN: Let's leave it there for now. That's Anand Giridharadas. He's a columnist for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He's the author of "India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking." Steve Inskeep was with us. We hope you'll come back and see us.

INSKEEP: All right.

MARTIN: You have to stay up a little bit later but...

INSKEEP: I can manage.

MARTIN: NPR's Morning Edition host, or NPR's Morning Edition co-host, I should say. He's the author of "Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi." Jimi Izrael's a writer and culture critic, adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He's the author of "The Denzel Principle." They were all here in Colorado at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thank you all so much for joining us.

INSKEEP: Thank you.


IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: Remember, if you can't get enough barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. We are still having our conversation online at #NPRAspen. We're still asking you to join the conversation.

We want to know what keeps you up at night when it comes to education. We'd like to know how you think technology should be brought into the classroom. Join the conversation at #NPRAspen. We'll hear more from you live on the air tomorrow. That's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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