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THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD
And How They Got That Way
By Amanda Ripley
American kids far better off, on average, than typical child in Japan, New Zealand or South Korea, yet they know far less math than those children. Does it matter? Well it does when employers are saying that entry level workers need to read, understand instructions, and solve problems, and that the kids coming out of US high schools are unable to do those things.
PISA - Program for International Student Assessment - measures teenagers' ability to think critically and solve new problems in maths, reading and science; ie can they think for themselves.
Measurement necessary, bc "without data, you are just another person with an opinion."
Top countries pay their teachers well, but also have bigger classes, which makes cost more manageable. In Finland, that allows them to attract and select the very best applicants. Then they get a 6 year degree and training course, emerging as very good teachers.
Expectations crucial: in Finland pulled everyone up. In America, pulled people down, bc African-American schools (as a result of white flight to the suburbs), continually sent message that weren't expected to succeed.
S. Korean teacher Andrew Kim, earned $4 million in 2010, teaching in the private afterschool tutoring 'hagwons'. His lectures are posted online, where kids pay $3.50 an hour to watch. He also produces lesson plans and textbooks.
Western 'PTA parents' are 'involved' in fundraising and sports coaching, but, unlike say, Korean parents, are not demanding a rigorous education for their children. The parents hadn't needed a rigorous ed, so haven't woken up to the fact that their kids will. Korean kids set on a hamster wheel of relentless and probably excessive study, but they are continually stretched - they learn persistence and they learn to deal with failure (work harder). They are being prepared for the modern world.
"If you want the American dream, go to Finland." These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World, may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. "American educators described Finland as a silky paradise," she writes, "a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved."
The appeal of these books, which include French Women Don't Get Fat, Bringing Up Bebe and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"), comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing - and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We're Americans, after all. We're not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way, superior as they may be.
But Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic and an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation (where I am also a fellow), has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the 'Nordic robots' who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests - and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans' mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.
In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist field agents who could penetrate other countries' schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, "a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee." Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard - not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim's school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.
This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis, as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.
Kim soon notices something else that's different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. "Why do you guys care so much?" Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. "I mean, what makes you work hard in school?" The students look baffled by her question. "It's school," one of them says. "How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?" It's the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans "hadn't needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn't gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional." But now, she points out, "everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor."
Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired - they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.
Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, "the $4 million teacher," who makes a fortune as one of South Korea's most in-demand hagwons instructor, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10 p.m. study curfew. Academic pressure there is out of control, and government officials and school administrators know it - but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a successful, prosperous life.
Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved. Still, if she had to choose between "the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States," she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: "It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world." Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the knowledge and skill to compete in the global economy.
The author's third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In the city of Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom, a bookish teenager from Pennsylvania, and discovers yet another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and those in the United States. In Tom's hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were the core culture. Four local reporters show up to each football game. In Wroclaw, sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for - or what mattered to kids' life chances.
It's in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien - quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we've got the schools we want.
More books on Schools
BAMA Companies has been making pies and biscuits in Oklahoma since the 1920s. But the company is struggling to find Okies with the skills to fill even its most basic factory jobs. Such posts require workers to think critically, yet graduates of local schools are often unable to read or do simple maths. This is why the company recently decided to open a new factory in Poland - its first in Europe. "We hear that educated people are plentiful," explains Paula Marshall, Bama's boss.
Poland has made some dramatic gains in education in the past decade. Before 2000 half of the country's rural adults had finished only primary school. Yet international rankings now put the country's students well ahead of America's in science and maths (the strongest predictor of future earnings), even as the country spends far less per pupil. What is Poland doing right? And what is America doing wrong? Amanda Ripley, an American journalist, seeks to answer such questions in The Smartest Kids in the World, her fine new book about the schools that are working around the globe.
Though America's grim education results come in for special drubbing in this book, the country is not alone in failing to teach its children how to think critically. This, at least, is the view of Andreas Schleicher, the educational scientist behind what is known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or the PISA test. If most exams quantify students' ability to memorise material, this one aims to assess their effectiveness at problem-solving. Since 2000 it has been administered to millions of teenagers in more than 40 countries, with surprising results. Pupils in Finland, Korea, Japan and Canada consistently score much higher than their peers in Germany, Britain, America and France. The usual explanations for these achievements, such as wealth, privilege and race, do not apply.
To understand what is happening in these classrooms, Ms Ripley follows three American teenagers who spend a year as foreign-exchange students in Finland, Poland and South Korea. Their wide-eyed observations make for compelling reading. In each country, the Americans are startled by how hard their new peers work and how seriously they take their studies. Maths classes tend to be more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.
Ms Ripley credits Poland's swift turnaround to Miroslaw Handke, the former minister of education. When he entered the post in 1997, Poland's economy was growing but Poles seemed destined for the low-skilled jobs that other Europeans did not want. So he launched an epic programme of school reforms, with a new core curriculum and standardised tests. Yet his most effective change was also his wooliest: he expected the best work from all of his pupils. He decided to keep all Polish children in the same schools until they were 16, delaying the moment when some would have entered vocational tracks. Poland's swift rise in PISA rankings is largely the result of the high scores of these supposedly non-academic children.
This is a lesson Ms Ripley sees throughout her tour of 'the smart-kid countries'. Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed. Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to "diminish learning and boost inequality". Low expectations are often duly rewarded.
In Helsinki Ms Ripley visits a school in a bleak part of town, where classrooms are full of refugee immigrants."I don't want to think about their backgrounds too much," says their teacher, wary of letting sympathy cloud his judgment of his students' work. "It's your brain that counts". She marvels at how refreshing this view is when compared with that of teachers in America, where academic mediocrity is often blamed on backgrounds and neighbourhoods. And she laments the "perverse sort of compassion" that prevents American teachers from failing bad students, not least because this sets these youths up to fail in a worse way later on.
Not every story of academic success is a happy one. In South Korea Ms Ripley finds a "culture of educational masochism", where pupils study at all hours in the hope of securing a precious spot in one of the country's three prestigious universities. The country may have one of the highest school-graduation rates in the world, but children appear miserable. Even so, South Korea offers some good lessons for how quickly a country can change its fate. Largely illiterate in the 1950s, it is now an extreme meritocracy.
America's classrooms do not fare well in this book. Against these examples of academic achievement, the country's expensive mistakes look all the more foolish. For example, unlike the schools in Finland, which channel more resources to the neediest kids, America funds its schools through property taxes, ensuring the most disadvantaged students are warehoused together in the worst schools.
Ms Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book. She notes that Finland, Poland and South Korea all experienced moments of crisis - economic and existential - before they buckled down and changed their stories. America, she observes, may soon reach a similar moment. She cites the World Economic Forum's most recent ranking of global competitiveness, which placed America seventh, marking its third consecutive year of decline. Meanwhile Finland, that small, remote Nordic country with few resources, has been steadily moving up this ladder, and now sits comfortably in third place.
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