Where The Smart Kids Are

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Note to Brilliant readers: What follows is my review of a new book by journalist Amanda Ripley, “The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way.” The review will appear on the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. I found Ripley’s book to be powerful and persuasive reading, and thought I’d share my take on it with you.—Annie

“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 Bébé” 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 hagwon instructors, 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.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Why do the students in other countries score higher than American students?

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34 Responses to “Where The Smart Kids Are”

  1. Lucy says:

    I believe a lot of this has to do with how other countries are taught about the world and its history. Not everything is centered on their own country- much of their education is about learning about how people in the rest of the world live. For example, I remember visiting Italy as a child and a friend of mine there (from a tiny little village) asked me if I had ever driven through the massive trees in British Columbia. Being from Eastern Canada, I remember that I had no idea what this person was talking about. I never heard about this—and here we were discussing my own country! Examples of this sort are numerous for me. As for the U.S., I remember vacationing in Florida in the early 80′s and an American asking me if I lived in an igloo because I was Canadian! So, this is what makes me believe that there needs to be more global teaching and learning in Canada and U.S. More history and geography, that’s for sure.

  2. What defines a smart student? Let’s take a look at the student who will succeed in 2030, not 2013. Are these schools environments that foster creativity and divergent thinking? Or are they simply preparing students for a test that is already past its due date? Are the students involved in project-based action research, or learning facts and figures? These are the questions to which I would like answers

    Some alarm bells go off for me. Rows of student desks (possible lack of collaboration and communication skill development?), not an iPad or interactive white board (good) in sight. But what other technologies are present? Surely a lack effective integration of technology in the classroom doesn’t prepare students for the world they currently live in or the one they will leave school into.

    I honestly think we need to look beyond these standardized tests and countries that do well in them! Give me a student who is creative, a problem solver and confident communicator any day. Mix this with skills and competencies in coding and designing and throw in qualities such as risk taking and perseverance and you have a student that I would be happy to send out into the world. Such a student in my eyes could be defined as “smart.”

  3. LarryAT says:

    Why do students in other countries score higher than American students?

    1. Parents and peers emphasize academics—not sports, popularity, or the attitude of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

    2. Teachers undergo a more stringent selection process and are trained better.

    3. Exit exams are much more rigorous.

    4. Anti-science quacks and politicians have little influence on curricula.

    5. (Maybe) No “grading on the curve”? Which leads to hostility of poor and mediocre students vs those who study well and test well, encourages poor teaching and grade inflation.

    6. THE WAR ON DRUGS — too little responsible drinking, smoking, and helping addicts medically/psychologically — too much binge drinking, smoking, and glamorizing illegal alcohol and drug use.

  4. Marc says:

    Many international students score higher than Americans because they work a lot harder and smarter. If American students want higher scores, they need to turn off their devices and read. Historically, American students were avid readers until they became distracted with their devices. High reading comprehension produces a rigorous intellect and higher scores.

  5. Saikat says:

    American students do not have hunger—a hunger to achieve. It is the parents who fail to instill the hunger—they are too busy with their own lives, with weekend parties and all the other non-essential activities.

  6. Norah says:

    ALEC and other groups with an axe to grind often say that US students are behind, and quote PISA stats to do so. Teachers unions are often thrown under the bus. But let me ask you: Does it makes any sense at all for a public school in southern California, where most of the students are recent immigrants from Mexico whose parents have no experience in higher education (only 4% of all Mexican immigrates have a college degree, compared to over 50% of Indian immigrants), should perform as well as a private school in Silicon Valley? Or in Finland?

    The stats and the way they are used is highly questionable. If you analyze this data with demography you see a different story than the steady 30 years of headlines… Each EU country has a different number of native speakers and of immigrants. Sweden in 2009 PISA data had 17%, and Finland 4%. It’s just not fair to the Swedish public school system to demand that they must produce the same outcome, when Sweden has many more disadvantaged students.

    There is a important story which could produce some pretty pithy head lines. Your review “Where the smart kids are” completely misses that story.

  7. Norah says:

    Here is a more cogent piece than my rambling two part comment above:

    Rankings Reconsidered
    http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2011/tc20110112_006501.htm

  8. Norah says:

    Just one more article and then I will stop bothering you…

    Despite recent test scores, China is not “eating our lunch”: http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2013808513_guest03chan.html

  9. Marshall Kirkpatrick says:

    Very interesting review to read. If my memory serves me correctly, my high school was made up if an upper class youth that was entitled and vacuous, a lower class youth caught in cycles of trauma and nihilism and completely overwhelmed teachers operating under laws passed by tone deaf legislators. It felt to me, as a person who loves to learn, like a deeply wounding insult to my human spirit. And that was before any of us were on the web yet! Can you imagine sitting in some stupid classroom listening to some stupid lecture and knowing that you’ve got a whole world of living knowledge and opportunity sitting dark in your pocket? Horrifying.

  10. biggie says:

    This is interesting indeed. I wish developing countries (like Zambia, where I live) were also included in the book’s survey. i have taken two free online courses from Harvard (my dream school) and MIT provided through Edx, and if what I experienced is anything to go by then most students in the US are not made to work very hard. Most developing countries have low literacy levels because of lack of resources. This background of poverty and hardships has made us more aware of the importance of an education.

  11. Dirk Faegre says:

    Great article with some serious lessons to be learned. I worked in Information Systems and Technology (business-oriented) my entire career of 37 years. I changed jobs often in the early years which turned out to be key to my many successes later. This is because it provided the wider view of how different industries, using different solutions …. failed or succeeded. I really learned only one particularly valuable lesson: IT IS ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. Not the “right” computer hardware/software. Not about the working conditions. Not about the education. Nog about the pay. Not about much of anything but the people. Hire especially good and effective people, allow them to perform, treat them fairly, and you’ll succeed. Guaranteed.

    Finland figured this out (it’s not that hard!) and has guaranteed success. The best teachers (it’s about the people) equals the best students. Go figure!

    Here in the USA we seem, often, to think of that last. We focus on money (pay) and tenure, but the number one issue seems to have become educational degrees (of various sorts). But getting a degree in this country is no guarantee of anything. Some of the worst employees have lots of fancy degrees but they couldn’t find their way out of an open paper bag. Many of my very, very best employees were simply high school grads. I tended to ignore educational background for the most part. It was not a predictor of performance, not even close.

    As a side note: I made it a practice to NEVER, ever hire an MBA. Ever. They are the worst …. without question. The MBA schools are teaching the wrong stuff, like shareholder value and bottom line — an obscene education in my view. And most budgets drive me crazy — they’re especially counter=productive. Next in line is to refrain from PhD’s. They’re too focused on a narrow view of their world and are not flexible. (This would not be true, in some hiring situations, of course).

    Just give me some smart, willing, creative, caring, curious, persistent, common sensical high school grads and I’ll conquer the world (this is especially visible in all the very young hackers — they’re really, really good at what they do and they’re self-trained; no college needed). The interesting thing is that most companies don’t want the best (they don’t fit the HR profile)! …. so the sharp ones are easy to find and not expensive (at first, anyway. And they never become expensive because they’re so wildly productive.)

    We’re not, as a nation, facing the easy facts. We’re not willing to consider change. And the school mascot and school colors are a mighty focus. Education? Not really. But MONEY? — Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “To Future Generations: We apologize. We Were Roaring Drunk on Money.” This was a hand lettered sign over his desk at home. I submit we’re also drunk on college degrees (and other educational degrees too) but have no focus on the education necessary to get them. Good luck with that, America.

  12. Emmanuel says:

    The truth about American education, especially at the high school level, is that it is dominated by the assumption that the average American can succeed in life without earning a single diploma. This notion seems to have sunk so deep into the head of students that it becomes normal to avoid and even resist any form of educational stress.

  13. Toni Sottak says:

    Thanks for this great review and interesting insight. I’m an American currently living in France with two girls attending an International school here. I’m experiencing first-hand many of the differences of the education system that you describe. Maybe it’s because the American system is more familiar to me but it always seems like—on the surface—that the education system elsewhere is better. This is not just because of studies and reports but the fact that outside of the US you are likely to get a broader view of the world. I’m proud and grateful for my American upbringing but torn as to whether we should move back to the US to educate my girls or stay in Europe.

    • George DeMarse says:

      Toni–you’re not missing anything unless you want a lesson in dysfunction. Stay in Europe.

      I just came back from southern France to North Carolina and already miss France.

      The Sage of Wake Forest

  14. Mark Brady says:

    These kids may end up having a prosperous life. And my bet would be that they’re going to need the money they earn to spend on health care.

    Hopefully, they will all become bazillionaires by age 30. Then they can retire and spend the remainder of their lives recovering from the stress damage they’ve done to brain and body.

  15. George DeMarse says:

    Nice article.

    I think all the bruhaha comes from the STEM comparisons mostly, it’s all about U.S. kids don’t stack up to Korean or Finnish kids in math and science international competitions.

    That’s true, they don’t, but I don’t get all that excited about it. Modern science, including mathematics as an intrinsic part, is just too dull an experience these days to attract the most intelligent and creative people. The normal course of events being sitting in graduate science/math classes for ten years–then becoming an endless postdoc working on somebody else’ problem; doing science because a particular project is funded rather than interesting, and on and on.

    This ruthless and burdensome process successfully weeds out interesting and imaginative people.

    So let’s not worry too much. The Koreans, the Fins, the Chinese, etc., are merely capturing the dull and less than stellar world of science as practiced these days.Not a big loss.

    The Sage of Wake Forest

  16. Wendy says:

    I think besides teacher training not bein up to snuff (or not attracting the best and brightest to the field), the bigger problem is Americans don’t want to work hard or to make their kids work hard. Parents don’t make kids understand that it’s not only necessary in life but desireable to not get whatever you want whenever you want or not do whatever you don’t want to do because you don’t feel like it. Too much of our culture is based on self-gratification and entertainment. Happy should not be an end-goal, but productive member of society should be. And that menas we ought to learn that we have to work towards what we want…

  17. You cannot compare an elite subset of each country’s population against the entire US school population. Our smart kids are just as smart as their smart kids. “the conclusion seems to be based mainly on those countries where students still are in comprehensive school at age 15, the time of the implementation of PISA.” http://www.pisa2006.helsinki.fi/files/The_Finnish_education_system_and_PISA.pdf

    Finland doesn’t test ALL their students on the PISA, unlike the US. Note the word voluntary in this passage: “The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.”

    South Korean disabled students often don’t even attend school! “more than 13,000 students were delaying their schooling and staying either at home or at hospitals” http://www.global21online.org/education/articles/April20076.html

    Language matters: “The theory that language complexity plays a role in PISA results is gaining credence. Again, taking Finland as an example, English and Finnish are at opposite ends of the spectrum of language complexity. Finnish has a simple orthography, non-complex syllabic structure, and a regular morphology. Relatively few children struggle to learn to read in the early years of school. Performance in the PISA tests depends heavily on reading ability. The PISA maths test is more highly correlated with the PISA reading test than with the maths test in the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), suggesting that
    reading ability is a better predictor of PISA maths scores than maths knowledge. Some researchers argue this language advantage is irreducible.” https://www.cis.org.au/images/stories/issue-analysis/ia136.pdf

    People are ignoring the real secret of Finland’s success: “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

    In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.”
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

    We’re not a socialist country, and thus can’t reform our whole education system in one fell swoop:
    “….cases of Latvia and Poland are particular, in the sense that both countries have been developing their education systems from a quite specific starting point, namely a system in which education was embedded within a planned economy and the teaching of an official ideology. Hence, the experiences from Latvia and Poland may not be relevant in other countries to a very great extent. ”
    http://ec.europa.eu/education/more-information/doc/basic_en.pdf

  18. Paul Bonner says:

    The basic argument that American students are intellectually behind the rest of the whole world is misguided. First of all, PICA, although given as a scientific random sample, is not based on the majority of curricular formats used throughout the fifty states (Common Core not withstanding, this is a discussion for another day). Our growing testing culture has scores of testing formats promoted by a burgeoning corporate testing apparatus. Teachers teach to the standards articulated in state and local assessments where results are often posted publicly and results can impact employment. Our students are basically programmed to take the tests and are smart enough to know which ones matter. PICA, or NAEP for that matter, does not. Our insistence on local control for education makes the comparisons with other countries mute. For more detailed explanations I encourage you to read Gerald Bracey in the Kappan,
    This democratic experiment called the United States has produced the most resilient economy in history, not due to standards that mandate conformity, but due to our historic demand for individual liberty and entrepreneurial optimism. Of course there are profound flaws in our libertarian expectations that could lead to our eventual downfall, see all world powers since the beginning of recorded history, but there are fundamental flaws in every culture around the world (See Asian suicide rates). Our country has produced an education culture that makes inequality a tough nut to crack, while at the same time producing an entrepreneurial juggernaut that rewards ambition and guile(See Wall Street). Thus the challenge when facing the massive inequalities we see today.
    As with many of our attempts to solve societal ills, the Standards Movement that has been gaining massive momentum since the early 1990′s attacks symptoms and ignores the problem. Although there are anecdotal samples to the contrary, the profound impediment for universal education in the United States is unequal economic opportunity. We will not raise education standards until we as a country are willing to make a profound investment to enhance student experience. Regretfully, at the state level we are reducing investment in public education. No test is going to solve this. Do we need to improve teaching conditions? Yes. Do we need to improve our teaching and leadership in public education, yes. Do we need to force universities to improve teacher preparation? Yes. However, to do this we have to acknowledge the true conditions on the ground and work to enhance experience for every child. Shaming practitioners will not work. Comparing us to other countries and labeling our young people as intellectually inferior does not get us there either, because it is not true.

  19. Dick says:

    As a teacher who taught for 30 years and retired in 1985, I suppose I know something about the American educational system and how it compares with that of some other nations.
    I was particularly interested in the comments about the Finnish system – where the obvious difference from that of the US was motivation – both on the part of students and teachers. This is, of course the primary factor in exceptional teaching and learning. Most of my fellow teachers were not particularly motivated – they often felt unappreciated – which they were. This attitude carried over to students – who, in my experience, were enthusiastic about the subjects they were supposed to be learning in direct relationship to their teacher’s attitude toward them and the subject – as well as how well they thought the teacher knew their subject.
    The Finnish system demonstrates how little the gadgets of teaching add to the actual learning process – the old saw that all you need is “a log with the student on one end and Mark Hopkins on the other” is still true.

  20. Susan says:

    I was a smart, well trained teacher in 1972. I could not get close enough to a teaching job to spit at it. At one interview, the principal of the school told me, “We just want to hire people who can get along with the kids.” And that’s what they did. Intellectual abilities were not an asset in his school.

    That’s the way it is in MOST American schools. We don’t hire intellectual teachers because we don’t really want kids to get any ideas. We don’t support such teachers when they run up against the sports culture or the parents who are sure that their child shouldn’t have to work so hard, that A’s should be almost guaranteed, that reading doesn’t matter, etc., etc. We leave new teachers in the lurch when serious discipline problems arise, because it’s much easier to blame the teacher than it is to deal with the kid and his/her parents.

    You can judge a person’s priorities by the way they spend their time and money. You can judge American society’s real wants by the way we run our schools. Paper results, as in high grades and diplomas, abound. Glitzy new tech toys are great. Deep learning, not so much.

    • Thomas says:

      True enough that American schools are, in many ways, reflections of the priorities, whims, and often misguided assumptions of American society. However, your bad experience doesn’t mean, “That’s the way it is in MOST American schools.” Also, as a longtime educator, I meet a great many intellectual teachers who would be perfectly happy for their kids to get ideas. There’s a lot to criticize about schools, but putting most of the blame on teachers is the wrong approach.

      • anniempaul says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Thomas. Two comments on your message: First, neither Ripley’s book nor my review was based on a “bad experience” in American schools. She and I are both journalists who write about education on the basis of the research and reporting we do. Second, Ripley definitely does not “put most of the blame on teachers.” Rather, she sees the “culture of rigor” that many American schools lack, and many foreign schools have cultivated, as a choice that the larger society has made.

  21. CrowbarJoe says:

    Annie, You really touched a nerve with this one. Great discussion, and a great variety of perspectives.

    I guess from my perspective, the most important question we can ask about these three situations is, ‘what can we in the US learn from them, particularly ideas that might work for us?” The one consistent theme I’m hearing is that the Paul Tough theme of “grit” is the key characteristic we need to nurture, or foster. Thanks for a great post.

  22. Giark Rotnem says:

    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.

  23. Martin says:

    As I got to the end of the comments, I was thinking what Crowbar Joe said. Yes, Annie, you got another intelligent discussion going.

    My perspective is that you can’t beat the results you’ll get with a zealous, dedicated teacher. A couple of weeks ago I was quizzing my sister about her life as a third grade teacher. She loves what she does, loves her students, and expends a lot of energy preparing and teaching. It’s no wonder all the kids hope they’ll be in Mrs. Watts’ class, and their parents hope for the same thing.

    I agree with Dirk: it’s all about the people.

  24. I am a substitute teacher and a fascinated observer of various school districts, schools, and classrooms. The problem, it seems to me, starts at a much younger age than high school. I asked the students I taught yesterday (as per teacher instructions) what the best part of their day was. The answer was overwhelmingly “recess”, followed by “going home”. When pressed to mention something they had done DURING instructional time, most of the students could not think of a single thing. The students seem to think that education is something that is done TO them and not what they do for themselves. There is no buy in to the process. They aren’t interested in the gimmicks that we try to use to get them involved; they aren’t interested in finding out answers to any questions. In fact, they don’t even HAVE any questions more complex than where to get paper and pencils, how much time they have until recess or lunch. They have no concern for the abysmal quality of their work, because, in fact, it is not THEIR work, it is work they have to do for the teacher.

  25. Imani Faith says:

    I am from the Caribbean–Jamaica, to be specific. We are taught to work hard in order to achieve whatever it is that we need. Simply put, better grades mean better jobs and hence, greater opportunity for social mobility. Our curriculum is rigorous, and a child who is not doing well here can go to America and get on honor roll very easily. Why? The level of work that he/she gets is usually something that was covered at a lower level. I often wonder why some concepts are introduced so late in the curriculum.

  26. Theresa D says:

    Fantastic conversation which I plan to share with my educator husband (He is an independent school administrator and I am a clinical social worker and executive functions coach working privately since I was rejected by the public school system – I was once told by a principal that they were looking for someone to “tow the line”, not come up with new ideas).

    I agree that the comparison of US students with other countries’ students is misleading given the differences in our heterogeneous, immigration-affected, and HUGE population versus the largely homogeneous, and much smaller countries noted. Also, testing often only demonstrates someone’s ability to test well, not necessarily their ability to apply skills and information or work collaboratively to solve real-world problems. Although our education system has been struggling for some time, we are still leading the way in technology innovation and scientific research(although I admit that statistic may be slipping).

    I also agree that teachers really make the difference. I once read an interesting article that blamed the rising equality of women with the downfall of public education. It used to be that the brightest and most ambitious women became teachers because it was the only profession really open to them. Once they could become lawyers or doctors instead, they left education degrees to those who couldn’t get into law or medical school. Thus, the best and brightest were no longer becoming teachers! Now while this is a trend only (because I have met some BRILLIANT teachers of both sexes), it is an interesting dovetail with Finland’s idea to only accept top students to get teaching degrees. The problem is that our culture does not VALUE the profession of teaching as highly as it does others. That would have to change before we could convince our “smart students” to become “smart teachers”. And the current emphasis on STEAM does not encourage this either.

    It is a conundrum, for all the reasons noted in the comments above. But we humans are often at our best when things are at their worst, so there is hope. In the meantime, I always encourage kids to seriously consider teaching, especially if they are not only smart but have great people skills as well (“emotional intelligence”, which, by the way, does not show up on standardized tests)

    For what its worth….

  27. Magdalena says:

    OK, so I very much enjoy your blog and actually bought the book after reading this review, and read it in one sitting.
    I was especially interested in how the author would portray the Polish system, since I live in Poland and am now an academic teacher here.
    Well… as someone who really wanted to like the book, I was a bit disappointed. The author seems to have really strong opinions and yet the book lacks depth and nuance. She had the really great idea to present the experiences of three exchange students, and I was looking forward to finding out what the learning experience of Tom, the one going to Poland, would be like. Yet, at the end, there was almost nothing about it at all. Nothing about what the school day was like, nothing about what teaching methods were used.
    Also, some of the things she said about the Polish system were simply inaccurate – for example, she says that the Polish system was improved by introducing graduating exams on all levels, and attributes the success on the PICA partly to this fact. But this is not true at all – graduating exams have been compulsory for the last fifty years or more. If anything, the academic rigor actually *decreased* during this time. Exams in maths went from being compulsory to elective, the grading became less strict (twenty years ago, three spelling errors on the Polish lit exam was an automatic fail, now not any more). There were more places in this book when I thought, wow, I cannot believe she is writing about the country I grew up and am teaching in.
    I wouldn’t really mind, that’s what you might expect if you just interview a politician and one or two other people, what bothers me is that she formulates very strong opinions based on limited understanding of the system. Interestingly, she quotes a head-teacher’s dissenting opinion and then dismisses it.

    I had been hoping to find out more about school in other countries, especially in Finland, and again, no idea about what the teaching is like. The author mentions Kim’s fellow students discussing a famous Finnish book, but what exactly happens during class? We never find out.

    On the whole, the book read more like a political piece where the author tries to prove a point.

    Really sorry to post such a negative opinion, I am a big fan of your blog, and find most of the ideas very compelling!

    • anniempaul says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Magdalena–it’s especially interesting to hear from someone who went to school and now teaches in one of the countries Ripley profiles. I would say in Ripley’s defense that it would be awfully hard to capture “what the teaching is like” in an entire country, let alone three countries. There’s no way, for example, that a book could capture “what the teaching is like” in American schools–it’s just too varied. But I do think Ripley did a good job of capturing in broad strokes how the educational systems in these three countries operate and how they are different from the system in the U.S.

  28. Magdalena says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, Annie (and Ms Ripley!).
    I guess what most interests me about a school is what happens during a lesson, and there was [for my taste] just too little information about the actual lessons in Finland and Poland.

    So talking about Tom’s typical day, I would, in addition to the presence or absence of a school cafeteria, like to know, most of all, how the classroom experience is different/similar. If we want to know where the (improved) critical thinking skills are coming from, wouldn’t any curious person want to know what happens in maths (or any other class)? Because I would. I’d love to find out how Finnish students go about learning maths (or Finnish, or biology, or anything). I do not think the presence or absence of a cafeteria has any significant influence on PISA scores [not trying to be snarky, I just don't think it's that interesting or relevant].

    The most informative part, for me, was actually the one about Korea – I liked it a lot.

    I guess part of my beef with the book was that I have some strong opinions on the subject myself.

    What I’m seeing as a teacher in Poland (an academic teacher, but I have lots of friends who teach in primary and middle schools) is actually less and less rigor, on all levels.
    The introduction of the middle school, and postponement of tracking until after 9th grade, is widely criticized in Poland, and has created a lot of new problems.

    But on the whole, after reading the book a second time, I think I was too harsh – I still don’t love the part about Poland, and disagree with a lot of what was said, and still wish there was more info on what I personally would want to know, but I think the author did a lot of work, and accumulated a lot of information worth knowing.

    I definitely do not regret buying it and will probably re-read it at some point.

    Kudoz to Ms Ripley for the classy response!

  29. Stefan Turnau says:

    As someone that has spent life researching, talking and writing on math education in Poland I read with much interest the Host’s review of Ripley’s book and the very, very rich discussion. I don’t possess nor have read the book but I dare to trust Magdalena’s somewhat sarcastic opinion. For her and others intersted in what is going on (or at least is intended to be) I recommend an indirect source: English edition of Japanese elementary math textbooks available as pdf files. To me it’s a revelation.

  30. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…

    I wouldn’t be so sure, that Americans don’t learn and work enough. We always want some kind of perfection, no matter what we’re doing, but perfection is highly overrated. Maybe we should just appreciate what we have. I don’t mean giving up and thinking that there is no such a thing we could do better. Improvement is always needed. Only one suggestion for you guys, for today and tomorrow – think positively!

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