Amanda Ripley Replies To Your Comments

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Note to Brilliant readers: Last week I posted my New York Times review of a book by journalist Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids In The World. The review generated a lot of reader comments about the subject of Ripley’s book, which compares the American educational system to those in Finland, Poland, and South Korea. I invited Ripley to respond to the comments; she does so below.—Annie

Thank you, Annie! These comments are so interesting. I found this one particularly revealing:

Giark Rotnem: “Well, a recent school meeting which lasted several hours informed parents about the new items being added to the ‘what constitutes bullying’ list, new drug education programs, grants for drug education programs, teacher pay, why our kids deserve iPads, things we could do (sell) to raise money to buy iPads, fund raising for field trips to amusement parks, report from the self-esteem counselor, and of course fielding complaints that the buildings should be torn down and new, state-of-the-art structures erected. Nothing, nothing at all, was discussed pertaining to the kid’s educations.”

What is a self-esteem counselor, I wonder? I’d love to hear more from Giark!

As for the specific international test used for many of these comparisons, we could get into a spirited debate about the value of PISA if your readers come prepared with a stiff drink and 4-6 hours of free time. (And I’m happy to do that by the way, with a little advance notice, should people really want to.)

But for now I’ll just note that these other countries are not testing an “elite” subset of their populations, as Courtney suggests, and the US is not testing “all” of its students. In all cases, the PISA exam is given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in each country. Many of these countries now educate a higher proportion of their children than we do, so the old argument that we educate all of our kids and they educate only some of their kids is not true–and has not been true for a long time.

As for Poland, I was surprised to read Magdalena’s impression of the book. Starting on page 130, I detailed four major changes that seemed to contribute to Poland’s progress. None cited the introduction of graduation exams, which, as Magdalena notes, had existed for many years in Poland.

Instead, I described the introduction of a new, more rigorous core curriculum that required the teaching of fewer subjects more deeply; a new structure of school that delayed the tracking of vocational students and academic students and required opening 4,000 new schools (the most important change, as it turned out); the opening up of the graduation exam to all  students, including vocational students, along with a series of other centralized/standardized tests along the way to check students’ progress (perhaps this is what Magdalena was talking about?); and finally the decision to grant more autonomy to schools and teachers, which injected a bit more flexibility into the system.

The book also details Tom’s typical day, including the lack of a cafeteria, the brutally public announcements of test scores, the frequent smoke breaks, and the lack of classroom technology, among other things. It’s true that I did not describe the teaching in Tom’s classrooms in detail. I saw strong teachers and weak in Poland—and every country I visited. I met great principals and dud principals in every country, as well.

I found that, as in U.S. schools, the teaching varied wildly depending on the classroom. It seemed unfair to generalize about hundreds of thousands of Polish teachers based on one or two, and so I relied more on the research data and the opinions of students I surveyed to get at those important differences.

That said, I can understand why a teacher in Poland might want more detail, and I would urge her to share her own version of what happens in Polish classrooms. If she feels she can make such a generalization (and I’m sure she’d be more qualified to do so than I would), then I’d love to read her conclusions. Poland is a big and complicated country, and the education system remains in need of further improvements. There are important and healthy debates to be had about what has contributed to Poland’s PISA outcomes.

Thanks for letting me chime in! I am grateful to learn what people think about these comparisons and what we can—and cannot—learn about education from other countries. I hope the debate rages on!

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2 Responses to “Amanda Ripley Replies To Your Comments”

  1. Ron Boyd says:

    It’s interesting that Ms. Ripley claims to “hope the debate rages on” and that she took the time to come here to respond to comments when she just recently eliminated comments from her own blog–just before the publicity launch of her book.

    It’s also interesting that that NY Times book review editors elected to use a reviewer who is funded/works for the same “public policy institute”–The New America Foundation– to review Ms. Ripley’s book.

  2. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guest that “Glark Rotnem” (Mentor, spelled backwards) is yanking your chain big time, Ms. Ripley. I seriously doubt that that list he cites is real, and there is no one getting paid as a “self-esteem counselor.”

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