Introduction Three’s Company
The house phone rang, and I ran to the kitchen to get it. It was 9:00 p.m.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hel-lo,” said an automated voice. “This is the Palo Alto Unified School District. We are calling to inform you that your student was absent from school today.” I spun around to glare at James, my oldest child, who had just started eighth grade, his second year in our new district. Then my phone buzzed with a new email alert and a text communicating the same message.
“James, you cut school today?!”
“Of course not, Mama,” he replied. “Why would you ask me that?” I immediately felt guilty for accusing him, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the school might have gotten it wrong.
This was the first week of school, and by the end of it, James was mistakenly marked absent three days. On the fourth day, he was sent to the principal’s office—and missed an entire class while they figured out they had the wrong James. This was a wholly different experience from the one we’d had in our last school overseas, where I grew accustomed to receiving calls from my children’s classroom teachers in the evening to discuss their progress. But here in Palo Alto, California’s top-rated school district, these regular calls confirmed my sense that something was very,
very wrong. Were my kids even safe in school? What if they never made it to class? Would I hear about it? After all, the school had waited until 9:00 p.m. to let me know they hadn’t seen him all day!
It exemplified perfectly our educational experience in Palo Alto. My children were getting lost in a district I came to believe was struggling with a systemic lack of oversight, where students’ academic—let alone social and emotional—needs were getting lost in bureaucratic failures.
No wonder this was the first time in ten years that my kids didn’t love school. They didn’t even want to go to school anymore.
Welcome back to America.
* * *
This was our first time back in the United States after living abroad for a decade. Ten years earlier, called by the promise of adventure—and avoiding the uber-competitive rat race that is preschool admissions in New York City—my husband and I uprooted our preordained life in our hometown and moved halfway across the world to Hong Kong.
I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for when we got on that plane as a family with two toddler sons. And I didn’t know what to expect. But I did want my kids to be worldly, compassionate, inspired, and passionate about learning. I wanted them to be exposed to different cultures and develop empathy for different ways of thinking.
The years we spent abroad, starting in Hong Kong, then Shanghai, and then Tokyo, opened our eyes to new experiences and ideas in ways I could never have anticipated. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was how well all of my children—three of them by the time we returned to the States—thrived in the distinct culture and education system in China and Japan. Instead of enrolling my kids in international schools meant to attract English-speaking expatriate families, I sent them to the local public schools. They transitioned from new culture to new culture, from public school to public school. Schools in Asia often seemed bare-bones and institutional from the outside, lacking heat, indoor toilets, and the technology that is almost inevitable at their
American counterparts. Yet these schools ultimately gave my children some of the best educational experiences I could have hoped for.
As I saw how different, yet immensely effective, the school systems were in Asia, I was motivated to further my own education. While living in Shanghai, I returned to school for a master’s degree in comparative international education and became an education journalist and speaker in Tokyo.
The result was that I got quite the schooling over those ten years. My master’s course work, coupled with my firsthand experience as a parent of children enrolled in public schools in China and Japan, was eye-opening. I witnessed how the old-school education practices that had long fallen out of vogue in the United States, like rote memorization, gave my children an unparalleled knowledge base. I saw how the cultural priorities in China, like competitive learning, and in Japan, like the whole child philosophy and the way the community watches out for children, allowed me to trust the education system in a way my friends back home couldn’t.
But I hadn’t realized how sharp the contrast was until we returned home, and it became sadly apparent that our top-rated public school was nowhere near able to pick up where the Asian schools left off. By then, my sons were placing two years ahead in math, and their California schools weren’t prepared to challenge them. My middle son, Charles, had no fewer than five teachers in the course of fifth grade. Coming from the structure, rigor, and tried-and-true pedagogical methodologies I’d seen in China and Japan, this felt unnervingly chaotic. And I realized that this messy system is something that every American parent must wrestle with. Many of us don’t know any other way—there’s proof education can work so much better.
Thanks to our immersive experience in Asia, I know what public schools are capable of and that we should do better by our children. I believe we can.
My goal with this book is to empower you, my readers, to take the educational philosophies and practices that work so well in China and
Japan and incorporate them in your own homes and classrooms. I want you to better understand how the education system works in the United States, so that you can more effectively advocate for your child. I want to offer you the tools to give your children a truly world-class education.
But first, I’ll tell you a bit more about me.
* * *
One of my first assignments for my master’s was to take a deep dive into my personal educational history to reflect on my own personal subjectivity, which could color my studies and learning. My professors called it the lens through which we see things: facing my upbringing would help me to understand my own background and biases. As you read this book, I ask you to think about your educational lens. Whatever your beliefs may be, I ask that you stay open to new ideas and unfamiliar practices you may find here.
Like religion and politics, education is one of the most contentious dinner table topics; we all have our own experiences that we can blindly and staunchly defend. Yet as disparate as they may be, we all strive to do right by our children—and that includes giving them the best possible education—while working through our pasts.
Because I inevitably bring a particular lens and perspective to writing this book, it seems only right to let you know what my childhood and education were like. Here is my lens.
For the first five years of my life, I lived in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut, with my parents: a Japanese immigrant mother who barely spoke English and a doting American father who was twenty-five years her senior. My father was nearing retirement at the time they separated, and I moved to Manhattan with my mother at the end of first grade, where she became a real estate broker and investor.
My mom was completely hands-off about my formal education, partly because she didn’t speak English but mostly because the US education system was culturally foreign to her. I missed lots of school events because she couldn’t understand the notices. From the begin
ning, I was expected to be responsible for all my own homework, studying, and projects. As an immigrant in the United States on a green card, she endeavored to raise me to be a “self-sufficient survivor.” She would say, “You never know when I could drop dead.” (She’s always been blunt.)
Every weeknight, I practiced the piano and studied Japanese with her by my side. She took me to a music conservatory every Friday after school and to Japanese school every Saturday. I had little time for playing with friends. I always felt a little out of place socially anyway; I was the only person in my grade whose second language was English (my first is Japanese), and I attended public school in Japan every summer, which also made me feel different.
For as long as I can remember, I was the poster child for school international days, teaching classmates perfunctory origami lessons. And like the stereotypical Asian, I won talent shows with the most recognizable or complicated piano pieces in my repertoire at the time. But I was envious of the most entertaining skits, like Jake Donovan and his fourth-grade boy band, who donned towels and lip-synched the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Jake was so cool, even imitating Belinda Carlisle.
In many ways, his was the world I wished I belonged to. Without many social connections and without siblings, I spent a good amount of time alone. Although my mother limited my television time, I snuck in my fair share when she went out in the evenings. Jack, Janet, and Chrissy on Three’s Company were like friends to me. TV gave me a priceless sneak peek into American culture beyond my small circle of friends and classmates. At home, we lived as a Japanese family, speaking the language and eating rice with chopsticks. I may have been born American, but I was always aware that I didn’t quite fit in.
I studied The Brady Bunch and Family Ties to get clues about what typical American families were like. I called my dad “Pa” like Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie did. I wanted freckles and braids just like Melissa Gilbert on that show and went through a stage when I wore a bonnet to sleep. These shows rounded out my educa
tion. TV offered me a connection to what I wistfully thought of as a “normal life” in the United States. So please indulge me here, as each of my chapters is named after one of my favorite TV shows.
My mother, born in ravaged post–World War II Japan, worked incredibly hard to be admitted to university in Tokyo, making herself a complete outlier as a woman of that era in Japan. She invested every cent in her only child—me, a generation and world apart—to yield the highest outcomes, like she had produced for herself. Meanwhile, my father doted on me like a loving grandfather on our weekend visits, spoiling and rarely disciplining me—a sharp contrast to my mother’s love that was so focused on my achievements. In addition to his love, I also experienced his slowly declining health. On May 19, 1986, while I was in seventh grade, he passed away.
Shortly after that, my mother’s financial issues forced us to move to the suburbs, and I attended Rye Country Day, a private school in Westchester County, New York. School began to feel like a chore—a means to an end. It had to do with figuring out how to get A’s to make it to a good college. I did well enough to be accepted at an Ivy League college. But I had somehow made it that far without having developed much intellectual curiosity. I also managed to graduate from high school never having taken a European history, geography, or physics class. I felt like I cheated the system.
It was in Asia, not the United States, where I began to see critically outside of my own experience. Zooming out to see the bigger global picture, I gained an appreciation and understanding of all the wonders and pitfalls of the US system. It taught me that it was possible to give my children the best parts of my upbringing—growing up bilingual, bicultural, and resilient—but also to help them take ownership of their education, love learning, and love school, which I had not done.
My master’s program was the most challenging and exhilarating two-year academic experience of my life, rocking my view of everything I thought I understood about privilege and opportunity. That’s what planted the seeds for this book.
I expected to learn about other countries’ educational systems, but I was surprised to learn so much about my own. I grew increasingly disillusioned by our educational system, which keeps the wealthy on top while stacking up barriers in front of the majority. How could we compete on a global level if we were not developing leadership equally and fairly among our overall population, instead of just from a privileged few? Worse, how can this leadership guide the nation if it can’t relate to the experiences of average working people? The belief that education is the “great equalizer” felt like nonsense. Until that point, I’d never stopped to imagine what my life might have been like if I’d been born into poverty, with parents (or foster parents, or other guardians) who didn’t or couldn’t support my learning. I’d never seriously examined my own privilege before. Understanding the barriers to education and the inequalities—at home and throughout the rest of the world—made me see things more clearly.
* * *
Ironically, it was when I landed back in America in 2016, in time for my children to start second, fifth, and seventh grades, that I experienced the worst culture shock of my life. We came back to a world with erectile dysfunction commercials during family programming, a blazing inferno of a presidential election, and a culture that worships football players but rejects science. After spending years in cultures where it’s cool to be smart, I had almost forgotten how different attitudes are here.
The most disappointing part was the school district itself, which was ranked the number one school district in California. Because the United States lacks a centralized federal policy for almost every aspect of public education, each state has its own funding formula for public schools. Districts can draw on local tax revenues to supplement what they receive in federal and state funds. This gives wealthier districts more leeway in hiring teachers; they can offer higher salaries to more qualified candidates, while districts in tax-poor areas cannot. It had
never before occurred to me to question the way our educational dollars are spent so unevenly among different districts, even ones that are right next to each other.
So much about what we encountered in Palo Alto made me want to pull my hair out—technology overuse in the classroom, low academic expectations, wasteful expenditures instead of investment in teacher professional development, high teacher turnover, corporate influence over public education—that I realized I needed to do something about it. That something is this book.
To write this book, I drew on my experiences and graduate education, but I also spoke to thought leaders and educators to get their perspectives at seemingly countless education conferences throughout the United States. I discussed the challenges facing our schools with professors in our colleges of education, school principals, teachers, PTA leaders, school board members, state legislators, and our nation’s legislators on Capitol Hill. While in Palo Alto, I also took advantage of the experts in my own backyard at Stanford University. I feel privileged to have been able to speak with some of the top minds in the country about the challenges facing our education system. They have given me hope, and they have pushed me to look deeper for long-lasting solutions to our most complex educational problems.
In addition, I visited schools all over the country to see what’s working and what isn’t. I traveled to schools in Palo Alto and nearby Los Angeles; in New York City and elsewhere in New York State; in Utah, Florida, Texas, and Washington, DC. I toured thriving and struggling public schools, including charter schools and magnet schools. I visited some of the country’s most elite private schools in New York City and boarding schools in New England.
The United States is a wonderfully diverse nation, where life can be very different from one area to the next. Each child’s education is determined not at the federal or even state level but often at the district/local and school and even classroom level. Because of our country’s size and demographics, no one solution can meet the needs of every
individual, every family, and every community. But there’s a lot to be learned from the nations that have surpassed us in education, helping us to shift our perspectives.
During our time in Asia, all three of my kids loved learning; they became trilingual (English, Mandarin, and Japanese) and multicultural. Ultimately, the alternatingly crushing and euphorically rewarding experience transformed me into a stronger and far more empathetic woman and mother than I ever thought I could be.
* * *
To be sure, no school system is perfect. Even at the best schools along our travels there were downsides. In Shanghai, there was a lack of creativity, and in Tokyo, gender-based expectations of girls limited their aspirations about possible career paths. And the pressure and demands that Japanese schools place on mothers is hugely problematic for working moms. The common theme I found in Asia was a reverence for education that is cemented by a unified team of teachers, parents, and students. I learned to appreciate seeing preschoolers sitting at desks, engrossed in academic puzzles. I grew to find joy seeing my children following the opposite of a personalized learning curriculum; instead, every student in the entire nation in the same grade learned the same material at the same time. Children’s success is not left to chance, corporate interests, or the socioeconomic backgrounds of their parents.
The Chinese and Japanese high school graduates I’ve met are literate, independent, hardworking, and disciplined. Their knowledge comes from well-respected teachers, high expectations, mastery of content, and problem solving. They finish middle school two academic years ahead of US students in math.1
Schools in top-performing countries teach to mastery. That was the big aha! for me: in the United States, whether students score a 58 or a 98 on a test, they all move on to the next lesson just the same.
Children also learn different social values in Asia. In Japan, students take care of their own schools: they are the janitors and lunch servers,
and every day they have classroom chores to attend to in addition to their studies. They’re also expected to get around on their own by the time they start elementary school at age six; they walk to and from school and take public buses and trains unsupervised, a freedom that most American parents couldn’t imagine for safety’s sake—or legal reasons. One Maryland couple nearly lost custody of their children for letting them visit a park alone in 2015!2
By the end of our journey, we had lived in three of the world’s top global economies: the United States, China, and Japan. Each of these countries plays a tremendous role in the financial, industrial, and technological systems we all depend on. And the outcomes of their respective education systems support the economic success of these countries and our greater world. Both Shanghai (the City of Shanghai participated separately in 2009 and 2012) and Japan have consistently earned top scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years.
In the 2015 test, US students scored slightly above average in reading (497 points out of 600) and science (496) compared to other OECD nations, and 20 points below the OECD average in math (470). Japan scored 516, 538, and 532, respectively.3
There are legitimate concerns that the place of the United States as a global leader will fall if we can’t reconceptualize our education system to offer all citizens a fair shake at top-quality schooling. Show me a school, and I’ll show you that country’s future.
* * *
At the end of our decade of nomadic living, I knew it was time to bring our family back home to the United States.
I wanted to instill in my children an intrinsic sense of their identity as US citizens and to appreciate how that citizenship afforded us opportunities to live overseas. After returning, however, I found myself
longing for the days when my children came home with graphite all over their sleeves from writing all day, teachers seemed to know my children better than I did, and the popular kids were the smart kids. I don’t have all the answers about how to fix our educational ills, but I can provide a unique perspective, backed up by academic research and personal and professional observations, on the local school systems in three top-performing nations.
Along with sharing my family’s experiences in this book, I also provide practical and actionable advice so you can take what I learned and make it work for you. I explain the ins and outs of school districts, demystify what to look for when evaluating a school, and suggest ways to enhance your children’s school learning with valuable home activities and supplemental programs. I realize that not all of this advice will be useful for every reader, so take what you want from this book—what feels right for you and your family. I want you to feel truly empowered when it comes to your child’s education.
My hope is that by reading this book you will come away with ideas for how to improve the educational experiences of the children in your lives, whether you’re a parent, teacher, grandparent, or even a bystander on the subway. And I hope to make you laugh a bit along the way as you share my moments of stumbling, falling, and picking myself back up.
This is the book I wish I’d had before we boarded that plane to Hong Kong. You don’t have to spend a decade abroad to gain this knowledge. I did, and I’m ready to share.