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National Differences, Global Similarities

reviewed by Ronald S. Byrnes - 2006

coverTitle: National Differences, Global Similarities
Author(s): David P. Baker, & Gerald K. LeTendre
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804750211, Pages: 194, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is important that book reviewers be mindful of how their subjectivity inevitably shapes their perspectives. Initially, given my background as a social studies educator most familiar with qualitative research, I wondered whether I would understand, let alone enjoy and fully appreciate David P. Baker’s and Gerald K. LeTendre’s National Differences, Global Similarities, a four-year quantitative study of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) data, a massive amount of information collected in 1993 from fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades across forty-one nations. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised that I not only understood but also enjoyed the text, which deepened my understanding of several important global trends in schooling; as a result, I wholeheartedly recommend it to other people irrespective of their backgrounds in education. In the preface, Baker and LeTendre explain that the book is written for “the scholar of education, the educational policy-maker, the educator, and the consumer of schooling in modern society” (p. xii). National Differences, Global Similarities is an accessible, insightful, and important text that will be of particular interest and value to the first two subcategories of the intended audience, the scholar of education and the educational policy-maker. More specifically, comparative education graduate students will find this book extremely thought provoking.

Baker and LeTendre use three main ideas to frame the body of their book, which consists of 10 “stories” or chapters that assess the global nature of education. The first subplot reports the worldwide success of mass schooling. The second demonstrates that much of the grammar of schooling and the ideas behind it are reproduced and reinforced at a global level. The final subplot is that although mass education is developing as a world institution, it is far from static or monolithic: global forces dynamically interact with national ones, and schooling often changes unpredictably (pp. 6-12).

Within this conceptual framework, the authors thoughtfully explore several important topics and trends in worldwide schooling, including the declining significance of gender in mathematics education (Chapter 2), the changing global dynamics between family and schooling (Chapter 3), the worldwide growth of shadow education systems (Chapter 4), disadvantaged students and the achievement gap (Chapter 5), school violence (Chapter 6), core curriculum and basic instructional practices (Chapter 7), homework (Chapter 8), school governance (Chapter 9), and the race to be first in the world (Chapter 10). Finally, in Chapter 11, Baker and LeTendre summarize their findings and offer several predictions for what the future of mass schooling holds.

National Differences, Global Similarities is filled with cogent insights, counter-intuitive findings, convincing policy recommendations, and lucid predictions. For example, in Chapter 6, “Safe Schools, Dangerous Nations: The Paradox of School Violence,” the authors, with Motoko Akiba, challenge conventional wisdom by presenting evidence that shows that the US, despite cultural perceptions, falls just below the international mean for school violence. They convincingly argue that school violence is a major global problem that no school system is immune from. More specifically, they contend that one in three to four students perceive themselves as victims or potential victims of violence in schools within any given month, and that school violence is a major problem affecting students’ learning environments. Baker, LeTendre, and Akiba also explain that violence in schools appears to be connected to the production of gross inequity in educational achievement, and that national crime or juvenile delinquency indicators are poor predictors of school violence.  The more “school systems create a set of academic winners and losers,” they maintain, “the more likely they are to produce more in-school violence,” (p. 102). They note, “If policy-makers want schools to be a safe and productive place for students to study, they need to provide higher-quality instruction and more equitable distribution of the opportunity to learn, not just more metal detectors” (p. 87). These findings typify the sound and sober analyses found throughout the book.

Similarly, Chapter 8, “Schoolwork at Home? Low-Quality Schooling and Homework,” nicely illustrates the steady stream of insights, findings, policy recommendations, and predictions that flow throughout the book. The main counter-intuitive finding in this chapter is that “more homework may actually undermine national achievement” (p. 130). The authors write that when it comes to achievement tests, “ . . . it almost seems as though the more homework a nation’s teachers assign, the worse the nation’s students do” (p. 121). Why? One reason, the authors argue, is because “Those families that are better able to marshal resources to support outside school learning will likely gain disproportionate advantage” (p. 132). These types of findings will be of particular interest to policy-makers. To find homework practices that effectively raise achievement, they suggest policy-makers look more at what kinds of tasks teachers are assigning, rather than how much work they are giving. Throughout the world, they point out, homework rarely appears to be used in a way that builds cognitive skills or gives students accurate knowledge of the skills and concepts they need. In the end, the authors conclude, “We need to know a good deal more about homework in national systems before we begin using homework (or no homework) policies as a national mechanism to increase student achievement” (p. 130).

This last excerpt points to another of the authors’ strengths — they consistently recognize the limitations of their knowledge. In short, National Differences, Global Similarities is an intellectually honest work. The authors, by wording findings tentatively and by alerting researchers to still unanswered questions, are careful not to extrapolate too much or over-generalize from their data. I also appreciated the intellectually challenging yet accessible tone of the authors’ writing created by their insightful analysis. Lastly, the authors use bar graphs, charts, and tables to succinctly and clearly communicate large amounts of information.

As with any book, National Differences, Global Similarities could be improved in some ways. For example, without extensive note-taking and re-reading, I found it difficult to hold all of the findings, insights, policy recommendations, and predictions together. In light of this, I would have found it helpful if the authors had included a summary, and chapter-by-chapter chart of major themes. Additionally, the book would have been even more engaging and illuminating if more specific examples of the global trends were included. In Chapter 7, interview excerpts with individual Japanese and American teachers seemingly jumped off the pages because it was the only instance of the authors switching lenses and relaying the experience of specific teachers at specific schools. Granted, most of the book’s insights were a result of the wide-angle lenses they used, but occasional vignettes would have added a nice dimension to each story.

Maybe Baker’s and LeTendre’s greatest accomplishment will be inspiring readers to think more deeply about seemingly well understood educational topics. For example, for me, their cogent analysis of educational inequality and the associated achievement gap in the US prompted questions about peers’ influence and what could be thought of as “the multiplying effects of family effects.” Put differently, how do researchers not only account for how families supplement what takes place in school, but how friends’ families do as well, and how networks of parents extend advantages to their children and their children’s friends? Similarly, Chapter 10, “The Race to be First in the World” left me pondering alternatives to the commonly used “race” metaphor with its suggestion that educational achievement is a zero-sum game. Why, I wonder, is educational achievement typically conceived as a zero-sum game? In an increasingly interconnected world, might people not only nationally, but also internationally benefit from widespread gains in achievement? What would happen if policy-makers emphasized cooperation among national education systems rather than competition? Those questions beg still additional ones about personal identity and the best ways to balance nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 841-844
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12164, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:35:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Ronald Byrnes
    Pacific Lutheran University
    E-mail Author
    RONALD S. BYRNES is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Ron has lived and taught in Ethiopia and China. His research interests include international education, cultural globalization, and education reform. Ron’s most recent publications are a high school curriculum titled “Exploring Cultural Conflicts: Journey’s for Peace,” an Education Week essay, “To Improve High Schools, Listen to the Insights of Students,” and a Frontiers journal essay, “Towards Other-regarding Travel.”
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