Book review: The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda’s Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World is a call for rigor and equity in K-12 education.

Ripley follows U.S. exchange students as they visit schools in Finland, South Korea, and Poland — three countries whose students score significantly higher than U.S. students on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, especially in math and the sciences.   She uses their experiences to draw attention to things those countries do to educate their kids and how the U.S. can learn from them.

Amanda Ripley: The Smartest Kids in the World

Finland’s students score highest in PISA. The country achieved that by

  • Being highly selective about who is allowed to become a teacher. Low-performing teachers are rare, and school administration holds teachers accountable. Teachers’ colleges in Finland are highly competitive; it’s hard to get accepted, and courses are demanding. Finnish teachers-in-training typically teach in full year residencies, under the tutelage of veteran teachers. In the U.S., teachers-in-training might teach for twelve weeks.
  • Having high expectations for all students (equity and rigor).  Most low-performing students are kept in the same classrooms as higher performing students, at least until age 16.  Finland avoids “tracking” students into vocational and college tracks, and into “accelerated” programs. (But there are special ed classes.) The high expectations are absorbed by the students: Finnish kids take school more seriously, whereas American students often have behavioral problems and refuse to do homework.  Kids are taught it’s OK to fail and to be criticized. They’re challenged, not coddled.
  • Giving adequate pay to teachers.
  • Giving teachers autonomy — which works because they’re highly trained.

In the United States, teachers tend to be friends with their students. In other countries, teachers are stricter and play the role of authority figures.    The students respect and fear the teachers more than in the U.S.

American parents tend to spoil their kids.  Parents are too concerned with raising their kids’ self-esteem.

American schools are often too obsessed with football and other sports.

Yet the U.S. spends more money per student than the other countries. And Finnish kids get less homework than American kids.

Ripley tells the story of an exchange student from overseas who attended a U.S. school and was annoyed at the amount of busy work (circle time, making posters) and the lack of rigor. Also, the exchange student did her homework, but many U.S. kids refused to — and they got away with it.

Likewise, Ripley tells another story, about an American exchange student in Finland asking her Finnish classmates why (on earth) kids study so much there? The Finns were perplexed by the question. Clearly, the aim is to master the material, get a good grade, and be able to have a good career.

Part of the problem, I suspect, may be the anti-intellectualism and individualism of American society. Such attitudes are celebrated by popular music such as Pink Floyd’s song Another Brick in the Wall, which contains the line, “We don’t need no education,” and Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome, which contains the line “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

Ripley says charter schools perform no better than public schools, on average.

U.S. schools tend to have more technology (e.g., smart white boards).  High performing schools in Finland tended to be utilitarian, even dreary. But Finnish schools have freshly cooked meals in cafeterias.

Ripley tells a story about meeting a well-meaning teacher in an inner-city school in America. The teacher explained to Ripley that her students had unstable home lives. Often they lived in single-parent households where their caregivers weren’t highly educated. So, the teacher had largely given up on the students and did not have high expectations for them. She was sympathetic and not stern.    At the end of the year, her students were even further behind.

Ripley describes how at one school she visited in America, 60% of the grade was based on “effort.” But a new teacher arrived and unabashedly handed out Fs when students didn’t perform well, despite push-back from students and parents.  One girl who had received an F complained, at first, but then raised her grade to a C the next year and felt proud.

South Korea achieved educational excellence in a manner quite different from Finland. South Korean schools are “pressure cookers.” Often the kids study from 8AM til close to midnight.  Most South Korean kids go to cram schools (hagowns) after public school.   The government had to pass laws to make it illegal for such schools to stay open past 10PM. Still, some schools continued to be in violation. The cram schools train students to take the rigorous and all-important standardized tests that high school students take in their senior year. The tests determine whether they can enter the highly selective colleges.

U.S. students take more standardized tests than the other countries, but the tests are “low stakes” and too frequent. Federal programs like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top did a lot of measurement of student performance but didn’t do much to change incentives, methods or resources.

Ripley explained how Poland, a much poor country than the U.S., was able to raise its test scores, even in poverty-ridden areas.   Despite push-back, political leaders instituted needed changes. They did this because of bad economic conditions and the realization that they were falling behind. Poland implemented four reforms, under the guidance of Miroslaw Handke, Poland’s minister of education from 1997.  Both Handke and the Prime Minister were former chemistry professors. The four reforms were:

  1. More rigor, via a new core, common curriculum, and the requirement that a quarter of teachers go back to school for retraining.
  2. They instituted national standardized tests at the end of elementary school, middle school, and high school.
  3. They keep students together in the same classes until age 16, instead of tracking the weaker students into vocational schools (equity). This required the construction of thousands of new middle schools.
  4. Teachers were given autonomy. They could choose the textbooks and which curriculum to use from among over one hundreds approved options. Teachers earned bonuses based on professional development.

Ripley’s book is a pleasure to read. To a large extent, it’s an indictment of American softness and inequality. Even elite, wealthy school districts in America under-perform the best overseas countries.

Even if you disagree with some of its conclusions, the book raises important issues.  I suspect that many U.S. teachers and parents will oppose the book’s emphasis on consequential (but rare) standardized testing and on accountability.

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