When Amanda Ripley began writing about education issues, she was puzzled by the varying achievement levels among neighborhoods that couldn’t be entirely attributed to “the usual narratives of money, race, or ethnicity.” When she looked at international test results, specifically those from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which has been administered to 15-year-olds since 2000 and was designed to test critical thinking skills, the journalist discovered that some of the highest scores in math and science were attained by students in Finland, Korea, and Poland. The results from American students in these subjects were average at best.
In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got that Way (S & S, 2013), Ripley reports on her year-long “field trip to the smart-kid countries” to see if she could account for the success of the high achievers. What made these kids smarter than their American peers? To offer an insider’s perspective, she recruited three teenagers participating in student exchange programs: Kim, a sophomore from a low-performing high school in small-town Sallisaw, OK, made her way to Finland after the hard work of raising $10,000; Eric, a recent graduate of a high-achieving, affluent Minnetonka, MN, high school, deferred college for a year to attend high school in Busan, South Korea; and Tom, a western literature enthusiast from Gettysburg, PA, opted to spend his senior year in Wroclaw, Poland.
So, what did Ripley’s investigation reveal? While many of the problems that plague schools, such as principal and teacher complaints, strong unions, political maneuvering, and test anxiety are universal, where children live often determines how seriously they take their role as students. In Finland, Korea, and Poland, the stakes are high; students’ college choices and future careers are determined by how well they do on their exams. Though also true to some extent in the United States, many American students appear fairly blasé about academic success. Interestingly, access to technology wasn’t a deciding factor in motivation or better learning. In fact, the three countries profiled had no digital whiteboards and few computers in the classroom. (They also didn’t have school sponsored sports teams.) What mattered most was rigor and equity, that all students were expected to perform to a certain level and held to the same standards, as were their teachers. In Finland, especially, Ripley describes how improving teacher-training programs by limiting admissions to highly qualified applicants, demanding subject area expertise, and extending the internship period, also improved the level of rigor in the classroom. And they did this while rather than after adopting stringent national standards.
It’s clear that no one country has the answer to America’s public (and sometimes private) school morass. Each has specific issues and problems; consider Korea’s late-night hagwons, private tutoring schools that reduce equity because they charge for access to the best teachers while wearing down students to the point of exhaustion. But what is clear is that in each of the three countries profiled, policy makers and educators and, more importantly, parents and students have decided that a good education matters and excuses for failure are unacceptable. Ripley’s reporting is top-notch, fluidly presented, and well-documented, and her coverage of the teenagers’ personal journeys and experiences, both social and academic, make this a must-read for anyone interested in getting American schools back on track.
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