Book Review

Below C Level

How American Education Encourages Mediocrity and What We Can Do About It

by John Merrow, CreateSpace, Charleston, S.C, 2010, 458 pp., $19.95 softcover


John Merrow, a veteran education correspondent for PBS, has the extensive background in the field to produce this provocative book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity and What We Can Do About It.



He tells us in opening his work that rereading “A Nation at Risk” today is an “eerie and disturbing” experience because so much of what it says still applies. The warnings of the early 1980s remain unfortunately similar. “U.S. economic competitiveness is unsustainable with poorly prepared students feeding into the workforce,” Merrow says.

This book points to Americans’ embrace of mediocrity and its resulting effects on public education in terms of what we expect of students from kindergarten to the graduate level and of teachers at all levels. A key reason we have tolerated this educational malaise, Merrow contends, is that many groups benefit from it.

In his search for answers, Merrow looked for Superman. When he did find him, in the forms of individuals such as Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, he concluded they were fighting an uphill battle. In many of the schools visited, Merrow found a pattern of indifference. As one 7th grader told him: “A lot of students don’t pay attention because I don’t think the teachers are putting forth the effort to make us feel interested in the class.”

Other factors contributing to underperforming schools include a lack of sufficient resources, misdirected resources, unclear goals and a failure to invest in technology.

Reviewed by John Patrick Closen, assistant professor of educational leadership, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Ill.