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Trapped in Mediocrity: Why Our Schools Aren't World-Class and What We Can Do About It Hardcover – August 9, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1442215474 ISBN-10: 144221547X Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


Our high-school and college dropout rates are appalling, and the achievement levels of those students who remain in school don’t come close to matching the levels of students in other developed nations. Too many American high-school graduates can’t read, and too many college graduates can’t appreciate nuanced writing. Baird, economist and academic, details the problem of low standards in American public schools, then goes beyond the statistics to address why it is that the standards are so low. Why do so few elementary schools insist that students begin to learn algebra and geometry rather than wait until high school? She laments that education policies and reform are aimed at the symptoms rather than the root causes. Baird begins with a historical overview of how public education policy has been developed and goes on to detail the social and economic cost to the nation of having such low academic standards, including lower productivity and greater wage inequality. Baird offers specific solutions, including reforming governance of school systems to reduce bureaucracy, setting high national standards, providing support to schools serving disadvantaged students, and providing strong incentives to students to work hard.

Dr. Baird’s work is an ambitious synthesis of factors contributing to a problem affecting all of us. It is one she has not only elucidated, but also meticulously documented in a clear and highly readable style. The reader is brought along with summarizations; each premise builds on the last. It is a monumental effort that deserves the attention of educators at all levels. The next phase—i.e. the implementation—requires Dr. Baird’s deft hand as well. (New York Journal of Books)

The latest addition to the swelling chorus singing the tune that ‘governance is a major part of what’s wrong with American K–12 education’ is University of Washington economist Katherine Baird, who has just published a perceptive and worthwhile book on how to harmonize our discordant school system. The author brings some unique economics-style analysis to bear, including identification of the ‘two principal shortcomings’ of today’s governance structure, which she dubs the ‘Principal-Agent Problem.’ The ‘Principal’ is ‘society as a whole, but parents and students in particular’ (that is, those who benefit from the system), while the ‘Agent’ is the mix of adult interests, structures, and organizations that run the system. The Agent is supposed to advance the interests of the Principal but mainly doesn’t, in part because the Agent has way too many levels, components, and competing interests. Baird’s remedy is to raise standards radically—national standards—and decentralize control of the system to the building level.

(The Education Gadfly Weekly)

Baird (economics, Univ. of Washington, Tacoma) presents the major reasons for her conclusion that US public schools are "trapped in mediocrity" and less than "world-class." As an economist, she focuses on economic policy and governance issues. Baird favors a national approach to solving education dilemmas, despite constitutional commitment to state-level control. Above all, she criticizes low academic standards and expectations for students and the "perceived high costs and low benefits" of US schooling....This book is worth reading for the important questions it raises. Summing Up: Recommended. Undergraduate, graduate, research, and professional collections. (CHOICE)

This roadmap to raising aspirations, improving delivery and aligning governance and funding with improved performance builds on the experience of today's highest performing and most rapidly improving education systems. (Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy to the OECD's Secretary-General and OECD Deputy Director of Education)

Baird challenges us to overcome educational mediocrity by setting powerful goals and creating the incentives and policies to achieve them. She demonstrates that the cost of educational mediocrity and failure is much higher than is conventionally acknowledged and provides a reasoned and energetic strategy to attain educational success for our students and society. (Henry Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education, Columbia University)

Katherine Baird has given us a lucid account of what is wrong with k-12 education in the United States and what we can do about it. She avoids the common temptation to focus on one problem and one magic bullet that would fix it, instead showing how the various issues are intertwined and how other countries have found solutions. Unless fundamental structural defects are addressed by promoting both school-level autonomy and common national standards, she points out, simply raising the competence and status of teachers or improving curriculum will not produce the dramatic improvements that are needed. (Charles L. Glenn, Boston University)

About the Author

Katherine Baird is associate professor of economics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She received her PhD in economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and also holds an MS in agricultural economics from Michigan State University and a BA in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2008 she was a Fulbright scholar in economics at the Universidad del País Vasco in Bilbao, Spain.
Prior to beginning her career as an academic, Katie spent five years working in the field of agriculture and agricultural policy in Africa; during three of these she lived in a small rice-growing village in Mauritania’s Senegal River Valley. She also spent two years working in Washington, DC, for the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of State, and a private firm providing consulting services to federal agencies.
In addition to teaching, Katie also writes a regular column on public economics for Washington State’s second-largest newspaper, Tacoma’s The News Tribune.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 1 edition (August 9, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 144221547X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1442215474
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,433,404 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By MariShelli on May 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Baird's book offers another perspective on failing schools and education "trapped in mediocrity". It is not at all worthless, and any such blanket notion is itself worthless in terms of understanding what the book is about..

First, Baird does not "ignore" racial disparities in scores. This notion is bogus, as can be seen by simply looking at the pages and the index, where the issue is dealt with several times, including not just lower text scores but dropout rates as well. see page 105, 104 for example.

Second Baird does not "ignore" money data in that it is glaringly obvious that simply "mo money" is no panacea for student progress or better schools. This is old news, established 20 years ago.

Third the notion of "ignoring" "dramatic" differences in Asia versus American school is really a stretch. She notes the superior performance of Asians, and Asian countries/schools. See pages 65, 66, and 49 for example...

Fourth in her solutions, Baird does not make much of a brief for higher teacher pay as some sort of panacea, in fact it is little mentioned. Most of the recommendations involve governance and associated issues. Nor does she push charter schools- they are treated as a credible option among many.

Baird does note the strong system of vocational education in other countries and questions why the US is pushing so may on to a college track, when the standards are so low. College degrees and higher education is being cheapened as a result. She also calls for national pushes for higher standards, combined with decentralized execution and implementation at the school level. The center sets the higher standards, the "street" level is given freedom to execute as it sees fit, as long as the higher standards are met.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By David C. Morris on November 15, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Cogent, illuminating and clearly written analysis of how and why American schools are not nearly as good as they should be. Especially valuable is the way Baird rigorously places the American system in a global context. From this larger perspective, the richest country on earth--and one which has historically valued strong public education--has startlingly mediocre schools. Baird thinks we can do much better and proposes shrewd and sensible policies for getting us started on the path of improvement.
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on December 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Baird's book itself is mediocre, at best. First, she ignores the obvious racial/ethnic differences in pupil achievement that have existed for decades - eg. Oriental and Jewish pupils in general are far more respectful of and committed to education than others. They also score significantly higher on achievement tests and pursue higher education at greater rates. Conversely, Hispanic and African-American puipls continue to perform relatively poorly despite decades of special compensatory programs provided for low achievers; both groups also have significantly higher high-school dropout rates.

Second, she ignores the innumerable credible studies already completed (some by economists like herself, such as John Hanushek) that have consistently found that more money (eg. smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay, compensatory education) has little/no benefit on pupil achievement. At least one of these studies (eg. James Coleman's 'Equality of Educational Opportunity' - 1966) were federal mandated and involved hundreds of thousands of pupils.

Third, she ignores the dramatic differences in Asian vs. Americans schools, well documented by the late Harold Stevenson (Univ. of Michigan) and others. These include not only much higher expectations by parents and school professionals, but a considerably longer school day and school year, much more homework, the widespread prevalence of private schools and tutors to cover the weekend and vacation periods, and the focus on high-stakes testing at the end of high-school to determine one's ability to attend college, especially the most selective ones.

Fourth, author Baird conveniently ignores study results that contradict her prescriptives (eg. higher teacher pay, increased school choice/charter options).
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