Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World…And How They Got That Way (2013) gets its impetus from this question: how is it that some countries have been able to make such remarkable progress over a relatively short period of time on tests of high school students’ higher order academic skills.
Her doorway into the complicated answers to this question turns out to be the personal stories of three American students who, through agencies like American Field Service, seek out a study-abroad experience, either as high school juniors or seniors.
Kim wants to get away from her claustrophobic small town and unimaginative classmates in Oklahoma and, through her own fund raising efforts, ventures to Pietarsaari, a rural community on Finland’s west Coast. Eric, a gay student from an outstanding school in Minnetonka, an affluent Minneapolis suburb, sets his sights on Pusan, Korea. Tom, a precocious teenager from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, selects Wroclaw, Poland. Through the complicated experiences of her three subjects and through her own visits to the communities in which they reside and the schools they attend, she arrives at a set of best practices.
The formulas for success are as different as the three cultures. Finland, an “authoritative culture,” provides rigor, seriousness of purpose, and support within an atmosphere of freedom. On one measure of happiness, Finland came in second in the world after Denmark. Korea, an “authoritarian culture,” has created a “hamster wheel,” approach to education, one in which education become an activity pursued throughout the day. After a lengthy, routinized public school day, most Korean youngsters attend hagwons, private tutoring services whose goal is to position their paying customers for entry into the three elite universities in the county, institutions from which most of the nation’s business and political leaders have come. Poland, recovering from long years of Soviet domination and, notwithstanding the world economic crisis of 2007-2008, strives to be a vibrant member of the European Union. A series of shock therapies, like the complete reorganization of the middle school experience, have borne fruit. All of these nations have shown dramatic improvements on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which measures education accomplishments in math, science, and critical thinking. Poland is still a work in progress, but there’s no question that Ripley prefers Finland’s mixture of rigor and permissiveness to Korea’s parent-dominating, pressure-cooker approach.
Writing primarily for an American audience, Ripley’s goal is to continually explore the difference in approach and results when American schools are placed on the scales with schools around the globe. She draws on the professional literature on cross-cultural education and she supplements it with the testimonies of many US study abroad students as well as their counterparts, students from around the world who come to the US for education and cultural exchange. Her book provides constant reminders that in education, as in many other matters, we’re not #1.
She also spends some time separating out the various factors that influence the performance of US students. For instance, she surprises us by saying that parental involvement, especially if it is the areas of PTA activities and sports attendance, has a negligible effect. Not surprisingly, reading to a young child early and often provides a strong foundation for academic success. But even the mere presence of reading material and the example of parents doing their own reading may produce a comparable disposition.
She traces the re-entry paths of her three subjects. Kim, faced with a reunion of incurious and undemanding classmates, is grateful that she can enroll in Oklahoma’s virtual high school and get her degree. Eric, already a high school graduate before he leaves for Korea, selects DePaul University, hoping for a diverse urban environment and stimulating classmates. Instead, he’s in class with under-prepared first-year students who stymie teacher’s attempts at more advanced instruction. He will most likely transfer. Tom’s story is different: he’s accepted into Vassar and upon matriculation discovers that his sophisticated classmates have a leg up on him when it comes to cultural capital. He quickly catches up. Despite these differences in their re-assimilation, these three students would undoubtedly agree that with Ripley’s survey results on perceived difficulty levels between American and international schools. 32% of American exchange students surveyed agreed that American schools were much easier, while 67% of international students believe this to be the case. Indeed, only 3% of foreign students who studied in American schools believed that American education was more challenging.
Two important take-aways for me:
First, that high school athletic programs are distractions from the educational mission of the schools and contribute to the mediocre performance of American students on international tests. In none of the nations that Ripley spends time is there any evidence of a school sports component. There is no veneration of the relatively small number of students who play inter-scholastically; there are no signs of community pride associated with the athletic talents of 17 year olds. That’s not to say that sports are banished from the culture. In these nations both talented and recreational players seek out self-supporting community sports clubs; exceptional talents are recruited into Olympic training schools. In American schools, sports programs are deeply interwoven into the image and daily rhythms of the school, perhaps so deeply enmeshed that it is impossible to reduce their importance.
The argument is frequently made that sports contributes mightily to the development of necessary character traits like commitment, persistence, and cooperation. And the argument is also made that school sports saves marginal students who, if deprived of opportunities for expression and achievement, will drop out. The implied explanation is that ordinary school life is insufficient to deliver these goals, yet Ripley’s examples show that these character development goals are being achieved in European and Asian schools through imaginative curriculae, and that overall international students are better prepared for adult life than American students are. The time and money spend on high school sports could be better allocated. Students are aware that this system is out of kilter. In Ripley’s survey 43% of American students with study-abroad experience think that the US places much more emphasis on doing well in sports; 69% of the international students agree.
Second, that the best way to achieve educational improvement is to be much more selective about who gets into the profession. Quality teachers diminish or neutralize obstacles like low family income. Finland is the exemplary case study here. Today there are only eight universities in the county that are authorized to prepare teachers. [If the US, with a population 50x the size of the Finnish population, pursued a similar approach, it would sanction 400 schools.] Only 20% of applicants are accepted. Thus, acceptance is a mark of prestige, comparable to being selected into an engineering program at MIT or the computer science program at Stanford. The training is rigorous and, once hired, the support from experienced master teachers is strong. By comparison, in the US schools of education are legion and admissions standards are low. Education majors are often not among “the best and the brightest.” As a result, the US produces about four or five times the number of teachers that the school systems can absorb. In addition, considerations unrelated to teaching ability factor into hiring. As Ripley points out, Kim’s math teacher doesn’t even have a degree in mathematics; a former football star at the school, he’s been hired primarily to coach football. A serious approach to education requires a serious approach to teacher preparation and compensation. The salaries of teachers in a social democracy like Finland are not extravagant. Kim’s teacher’s salary is $67,000, nowhere near the $4 million dollars made by Korean’s most famous hagwon teacher, but this salary is augments by the prestige that comes with the profession. It’s been reported recently that 40% of current Ivy League graduates are pointed toward careers in the financial services industry. What if a comparable percentage of high-powered students across the nation went into teaching, and not just Teach for America which for many is a resume-builder?
Even if other studies show that the US is more competitive than Ripley believes that it is, the means to academic success and personal happiness employ by other nations are worth considering. These best practices adapted to American culture should point us in the direction of creating higher expectations, being more selective about student teachers, and reducing some of the extra responsibilities that have been thrust upon schools.