Book Review: Inside American Education by Thomas Sowell

Inside American Education provides an in depth look at the American education system from kindergarten through university. Thomas Sowell is at his best when it uses personal anecdotes to provide color and context for the data gathered by researchers.

Inside American Education

A strength of the book is when he shows that America draws her teachers from the “dregs” of the university. Education majors, on average have low SAT scores when compared to, well, every other major. Below is an extensive quote that illustrates the “quality” of educators at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have bolded the particularly pertinent parts.

“…hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students….students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.11 When the U.S. Army had college students tested in 1951 for draft deferments during the Korean War, more than half the students passed in the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, but only 27 percent of those majoring in education passed.12 In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both verbal and quantitative SATs than students majoring in art, music, theatre, the behavioral sciences, physical sciences, or biological sciences, business or commerce, engineering, mathematics, the humanities, or health occupationseducators are drawing disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population. As William H. Whyte said back in the 1950s, “the facts are too critical for euphemism.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 24-25). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Another strength in this book is found in describing the discrepancy of educational outcomes between America’s various ethnicities. He goes in depth to explain affirmative action’s impacts on both minority and majority populations using large amounts of data from research while using anecdotal evidence to provide color and context to the data generated by researchers.

He shows that affirmative action created new inequalities without effectively giving African Americans and other minorities the leg up that was intended. He argues (I think convincingly) that universities used affirmative action to brag about their commitment to diversity while neglecting to care/educate their students.

“The mismatching problem was dramatically demonstrated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the average black student scored in the top 10 percent, nationwide, on the mathematical portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test—and in the bottom 10 percent at M.I.T. Nearly one-fourth of these students failed to graduate at M.I.T., and those who did had significantly lower grades than their classmates.” 46

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 144). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“M.I.T. is not unique. At Berkeley, where black students’ average composite SAT scores of 952 were above the national composite average of 900, though well below the Berkeley average of 1181, more than 70 percent of the black students failed to graduate.48 Again, these were artificial failures, on an even larger scale than at M.I.T., in the sense that these black students’ academic qualifications would have been more than adequate for the average American college or university, though not adequate for competing with Berkeley’s white students who scored 1232 or Berkeley’s Asian students who scored 1254.49 Despite a rising number of blacks admitted to Berkeley over the years—the great majority under “affirmative action” standards—fewer blacks graduated in 1987 than graduated eleven years earlier.50 What was accomplished by admitting more black students and graduating fewer? The benefits are far more obvious for Berkeley than for the students. The racial body count enabled the university to proclaim that its student body is “wonderfully diverse” and that “we are excited that the class closely reflects the actual ethnic distribution of California high school graduates.”51

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 144-145). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell then goes on to explain that this mismatching of students at top tier schools cascades down, causing larger problems.

“As Professor Clyde Summers predicted long ago, this mismatching problem has not been confined to the top echelon schools. As each tier finds its normal pool of minority students pre-empted by a higher tier, it must in turn pre-empt the minority students who would normally qualify for the colleges in a lower tier… The problem starts at the most selective institutions, because that level is where there is the most extreme shortage of minority students matching the prevailing academic standards.

As for the minority students themselves, many—and probably most—of their academic failures throughout the various levels of colleges and universities can be traced to the systematic mismatching resulting from preferential admissions policies. Certainly that seems clear from the statistical data from those colleges and universities which release data by race and ethnicity—and the secretiveness of other institutions suggests that they have a similar story to hide. Certainly the graduation rate of black students is generally below that of their white classmates at numerous institutions where this information is available.65 Nationwide, black students’ graduation rate is about half that of whitest.” 66

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 146-147). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“Nowhere has the moral bankruptcy of academia been more blatant than in its racial policies, which have managed simultaneously to damage every racial or ethnic group involved—with the worst damage being done to blacks, the supposedly most favored beneficiaries.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 282-283). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell argues that while it is important to increase minority access to higher education, there are more effective and just mechanisms to increase this access than affirmative action. He shows how there is evidence that the primary limiting factor to minorities enrolling in higher education was not academic, but financial. When the G.I. bill was introduced there was a 64% increase in nonwhite student enrollment.

What was at issue, then and now, is not whether there should be larger or smaller numbers of minority students attending college, but whether preferential admissions policies should be the mechanism for making a college education available to more minority students… Between 1940 and 1947, for example, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of nonwhite students attending post-secondary institutions 6due to financial aid under the G.I. Bill for veterans returning from World War II. This made a college education available to the black masses for the first time.7 During a corresponding period of the 1960s—from 1960 to 1967—there was a 49 percent increase in the number of black students attending college…. Money is the crucial factor, given the lower incomes of blacks and some other minority groups.

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 134). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.


While I cannot speak for the book versions, the Kindle version contains a surprising number of spelling and numerical errors. Sometimes two words are jammed together, other times one letter is mysteriously replaced leaving the reader to deduce the correct word by context. This weakness is small however, because the message and meaning of the book is not harmed, just the ease of access.

A larger weakness is when Mr. Sowell overly relies on anecdotal evidence. I believe that this is done where the data is lacking due to the difficulty in scientifically defining and studying topics such as “classroom brainwashing and dogmas”. That being said, he takes efforts to source a variety of anecdotal evidence from various geographical locations and academic levels in order to make an attempt at showing that the problem is not localized, but systemic. His arguments provide ample reason to believe that American education has systemic problems common at all levels and locations.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to look into part of the ugly underbelly that is American education. If you are interested, you can find the Kindle version in the link below.



ESL Teaching

The following is a summary of Chapter 9 from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret Mckeown, and Linda Kucan. If you teach young or ESL students, I highly recommend this book as it is immensely practical and backed by research.

English as a second language (ESL) students must go on a journey before they can find academic success. They tend to have a smaller vocabulary, weaker semantic connections, and less word part knowledge than native speakers (Verhoeven, 2011). This creates a hindrance and barrier to learning academic content. It generally takes ESL students between 1-2 years to become conversational on everyday topics. But it can take 5-7 years for ESL students to pass the “lexical bar” of cultural and academic language (Cummins, 1994).

It has been proposed that when students are at the early stages of being conversational (a simple, everyday conversation) that they should be exposed to explicit teaching with tier two words. A key qualifier is that students must already understand the underlying concept. For example, all students will understand the word, ‘hungry’. So, you could teach students the meaning of ‘famished’. One key reason we should teach our ELL students tier two vocabulary is that they are unlikely to be exposed to it in oral conversation. Another is that a lack of vocabulary drastically inhibits reading comprehension (access to knowledge).

The good news is that what research has shown to be effective for native English speakers is equally effective for ESL students.

This means that we should strive to

  1. Provide multiple encounters with target words in multiple contexts involving analysis and target word use in both a written and oral format
    1. Improves word knowledge (Snow, Lawrence, & White, 2009)
  2. Promote active processing
    1. Supports depth of word knowledge (Carlo et. al, 2004)

ESL students and native speakers can improve their vocabulary at similar rates. However, this will not help close the vocabulary and corresponding comprehension gap (even with interventions) since ESL students start with smaller vocabularies. But, interventions are very helpful nonetheless because studies have shown that without them, gaps in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and test scores expand (Kiefer, 2008).

In order to further supplement the vocabulary development of ESL students, consider teaching lexical morphemes. Lexical morphemes are the root of the word. For example, with ‘press’ we have depress, compress, oppress, etc. By looking at the root of the words, it may improve students’ semantic connections. This could be furthered by teaching students about the morphological relationship between English and Latin. This could prove beneficial as many English words have their root in Latin.

In order to further help your ESL students (and every other student) make sure that your classroom procedures are clear and known. This follows not just for transitions, but also for instructional patterns. For example, students should know what to do when asked to identify and explain a word’s prefix. If students have this procedural knowledge, then their working memory will be freed up to focus on learning the content instead of how to perform the task.

Book Review: The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham

This book is designed to introduce the reader to the reading process. And it succeeds. Professor Willingham’s book is extensively researched and presented in a way that a layperson or average teacher will have no trouble assessing its contents. I would highly recommend it if you are a teacher, or a parent trying to learn about reading or how to encourage children to read.


In Chapter 1 he sets out to tell the story of reading by explaining its purpose. He writes that writing is both an extension of and more objective than memory. It is an extension of memory because we can write something to do down and look at it later to remind ourselves. Writing is more objective than memory because it is a physical representation and cannot be easily changed.

Chapter 2 jumps into the code of reading, phonics. Letters are made up of a set of shapes/stroke patterns, some are more easily confused than others, yet it is imperative that each letter be correctly identified because each letter is a cue for a sound. Put together, the sounds make words that have meaning. One misstep along the way can drastically change the word’s  meaning. For example, a child might be reading a story that says, “The man digs a hole.” but the child may mix it up and read, “The man pigs a hole.” In order to correct him/herself, the child must have knowledge about both what a pig and hole are, highlighting the importance of vocabulary for reading comprehension.

Chapter 3 finally gets into the reading process. Students who are accomplished readers have 3 distinct representations for words: the sound, the spelling, and the meaning. For all learners, the sound and spelling of the words a closely linked. If a student is better at hearing the sounds within a word, they will be better able to spell the word and vice versa.

Chapter 4 digs into words and their contexts. We all know that some words mean different things in different contexts. This, then shows one large limitation of having students look up words in a dictionary because dictionaries strive to be context independent (due to space constraints). An implication for teachers, since word meaning depends on context, is to explicitly teach students the word’s meaning while exposing them to the word in a variety of contexts.

Chapter 5 looks at reading comprehension. Willingham concludes that teaching reading comprehension strategies has limited value. The limiting factor in teaching reading strategies is that they are easily and quickly learned (a good thing). Students should be taught reading strategies as the strategies will improve their comprehension and make them better readers, but the instruction should not stay on strategies. After students understand the reading strategies, they teaching should be focused on increasing student knowledge because reading comprehension depends heavily upon background knowledge (see the famous study on background knowledge and comprehension at Reading Rockets website).

Chapter 6 is really interesting in that it looks at the psychology of readers. It finds that readers read because they enjoy it. Hardly groundbreaking, but it is a more revealing finding than it appears. Those who read do so because of emotional reasons, not logical ones. The implication being that telling students, “You should read this to learn more and become smarter.” will not be helpful. We instead ought to incentivize reading to create situations where students are likely to have positive experiences when reading. Another practical finding in this article was that students are interested in reading, but only if the effort of obtaining the book is minimal to non-existent. Put books in the classroom and draw attention to them.

Chapter 7 looks into how the digital revolution has impacted reading. In large part, it hasn’t. Students do read a bit less with television, internet, and video games but the amount children read was already so low, it couldn’t drop much. Another interesting finding was that when using digital books, our comprehension suffers. Even seeing a hyperlink without clicking on it slightly reduces our comprehension. Professor Willingham posits that the digital revolution has not impacted student attention span so much as it has reduced their capacity for boredom. For example, students can still pay attention to an entire movie because it interests them, but they cannot pay attention for an entire class because it bores them.

Check out the book here.