"It felt like chaos."
Teru Clavel is not talking about the bare-bones school, nicknamed "The Prison," that her son attended in Hong Kong or the rigorous preschool selection process for her young daughter in Tokyo, nor her family's rocky cultural adjustment to school and life in Shanghai.
She's talking about one of the most sought-after and highly ranked public school districts in America: the Palo Alto Unified School District.
From her family's first moments in Palo Alto in 2016 — meeting a very pregnant teacher with no planned replacement, being on the receiving end of a casual suggestion that she donate $3,000 to the school PTA, hearing that seventh-graders would read just three books in English class all year and for free reading, could choose to read the same book more than once "because they'll learn something different from it every time" — Clavel felt increasingly disillusioned by the state of the school district. Her feelings intensified throughout the school year as leadership frequently turned over and pervasive technology use at school created conflict at home.
For some parents, this might be their sole educational experience. But Clavel was comparing her children's schools to those they attended in Japan and China before moving to Palo Alto in 2016. And Palo Alto's fell short.
"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," she writes in a new book that documents her family's journey through sharply contrasting school systems across the world.
"World Class: One Mother's Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children" is a sharp critique of Palo Alto Unified, where her children attended elementary and middle school for two years before the family, dissatisfied with the quality of public education here, decamped to New York City. But it's also part family autobiography and part advocacy guide for reform in the U.S. public school system through the lens of schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The book draws on her personal experience as well as also education research, interviews with experts, conferences and visits to public, charter and private schools across the country.
"I felt like I had this social responsibility to write (the book) because I saw and experienced through my children something that I think most parents will never experience," Clavel said in an interview. "Although we were expatriates overseas, I did choose to enroll my kids in local public schools that were achieving really high standards and educational outcomes — higher than those in the U.S. on average."
Clavel had the idea for "World Class" in 2013, when she started writing articles about education while the family was living in Tokyo. She had just finished a master's degree in comparative international education and had seen her children through public schools — rather than international schools for English-speaking transplants — in Shanghai and Hong Kong. But it wasn't until they moved to Palo Alto that the book crystallized for her as something that should be broadly relatable to the needs of American parents, teachers and policymakers.
Her goal is to two-fold: to inspire parents to import or at least learn from educational philosophies that work well in China and Japan and to empower them to advocate for a better education for their children.
Clavel describes how practices in China and Japan that Western schools chafe at — rote memorization, academic drills, standardization, "unapologetically" competitive academics — actually gave her children "an unparalleled knowledge base."
In Shanghai, for example, schools are focused on mastery; every student is expected to learn the material and failure is not an option, Clavel said. Her son, then 6 years old, was reduced to tears after being forced to stay after school there one day because he got lower than a 95 on a math quiz. (She attributes this to him feeling rushed by his mother rather than the remedial work.) In Japan, textbooks are shorter, change less frequently and are taught cover to cover, rather than piecemeal.
She came to see this kind of standardized, rigorous approach as a benefit rather than a drawback. (In the introduction to "World Class," Clavel asks readers to stay open-minded to unfamiliar or provocative practices.)
"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," Clavel writes.
"Children's success is not left to chance, corporate interests, or the socioeconomic backgrounds of their parents."
By contrast, she likens the American school system to Swiss cheese, with gaping holes filled only by those with the means to do so.
Those holes, she said, are glaring in Palo Alto, where privilege pays for private tutors, college counseling, extracurriculars and the like. (Clavel is guilty of this herself, signing her children up for an after-school math program, Mandarin and Japanese tutors and a Stanford Model UN program when she was dissatisfied with what she felt were low academic expectations in Palo Alto schools.) Privileged, vocal parents in Palo Alto also more often demand — and get — a seat at the table for important decisions affecting the schools, Clavel observed.
"For PAUSD parents and educators, many families seem to be going around the system — imposing high standards at home and giving up on the school," she said. "It's the 'broken feedback loop,' as one PAUSD board member explained to me. Parents and teachers need to work together for transparency, alignment (collaborative and curricular), accountability and higher expectations at school."
Inequities in U.S. schools are also exacerbated by uneven funding models. School funding in Japan is top-down, compared to in California, where wealthy, high-performing districts like Palo Alto benefit from local property taxes, and struggling districts must rely on state funding — a "legal form of educational gerrymandering," Clavel has said.
And while the Asian schools Clavel experienced were no-frills to the extreme (including no running toilets or heat), she was confident it was because dollars were being spent where they mattered most: on teacher training and salaries, professional development and student supports. In Palo Alto, by contrast, she balked at a $30,000 budget line item for ergonomic chairs for fifth-graders.
Clavel was also shocked by "technology run amok" in Palo Alto schools, including her son's fifth-grade class receiving PTA-funded iPads without her or the school principal's knowledge. She advocates for a more balanced approach to incorporating technology into the classroom.
"Tech — it's not the savior, and it's causing all kinds of strife in families at home," Clavel said, suggesting that all public schools be mandated to develop partnerships between schools and home on technology use.
After leaving Palo Alto for New York City, Clavel reluctantly enrolled her children in private schools, for a variety of reasons. But their experience in Palo Alto lit a fire under her to advocate for reform in the public school system. Parents who share this fire, she said, should educate themselves on school funding models and curricular standards, go to their local school board meetings and lobby their elected officials, including at the state level, for change.
"In the U.S. especially, you really have to roll your sleeves up," she said.