Almost everyone has opinions about how to make education better. In The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way, Amanda Ripley reports comparisons of education in the United States with education in other countries.
The beginning of this book is a story about three exchange students from different states in the United States, one of whom goes to Finland, one to South Korea, and one to Poland. These countries were chosen due to how well their students scored on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). While no test is perfect, PISA was developed and administered for the first time in 2000, to “measure the kind of advanced thinking and communication skills that people needed to thrive in the modern world.” p. 15 It has demonstrated its efficacy on a number of different scales including college performance and success in the workplace.
The United States has dropped from the highest rate of high school graduation in the world to 20th. “The PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: that spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything – everything – depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments. pp. 17 – 18 “By the time of my quest, the United States had wasted more time and treasure on testing than any other country.” p. 19
By comparing different countries, Amanda Ripley found a number of critical factors. Our aversion to having children fail and the emphasis on self-image is part of the problem. “Kids in Poland were used to failing, it seemed. The logic made sense. If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn. ‘Success’ as Winston Churchill once said, ‘is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.’” p. 72 “Failure in American schools was demoralizing and to be avoided at all costs. American kids could not handle routine failure, or so adults thought.” p. 72 Being hard does not mean that successful learning can’t be accomplished but it requires talented, well-trained teachers, work, time, and persistence. It also doesn’t mean being insensitive. Successful teaching requires individualized attention when a student is having a problem.
Minnesota is an example of what can be done in the United States. Students were doing poorly in math across the state. “A coherent, clear set of standards, which focused on a few important topics each year, rather than dozens, helped repair this damage. At the same time, elementary students across the state started spending sixty minutes per day on math, up from thirty minutes in 1995.” p. 75 Their performance in math soared.
Many children start having trouble with math in middle school and decide that math is either something that you are good at or you aren’t. “Interestingly, that was not the kind of thing that most Americans said about reading. If you weren’t good at reading, you could, most people assumed, get better through hard work and good teaching. But in the United States, math was, for some reason, considered more of an innate ability, like being double-jointed.” p. 77
One of the students that Amanda Ripley followed went from Oklahoma to Finland which has dramatically improved its student performance over the past 50 years. “The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and the brightest of each generation, and train them vigorously. So that’s what they did. It was a radically obvious strategy that few countries had attempted.” p. 89 Ripley compares the student’s math teacher in Finland to the math teacher that she had in OK who was hired to be the football coach. “Nationwide, less than half of American high-school math teachers majored in math. Almost a third did not even minor in math.” p. 93
Ripley also brought in statistics which represent universals across cultures. “When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen.” p. 100 “It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things.” p. 108 “At least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or school at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of income.” p. 111
Everyone recognizes that how children are treated is important, but pure research often ignores this to control variables. The model in Korea is pressure and extremely long hours – 12 hours or more of class a day. In Finland and Poland, students are given more freedom to make important decisions. They are not tracked as early and the expectation that all children can learn causes more children to be successful. They spend much less per student than in the US and don’t use calculators, iPads, buzzers, or interactive white boards. A high percentage of the students have a positive attitude about learning and understand that learning is important.