If you live in the northeastern United States, you may not know that on school days in Texas, public school students pledge allegiance twice: once to the American flag, once to the flag of Texas. I know. I was a little shocked, too. I bring this up in the context of Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World (subtitled And How They Got That Way) as one small data point that bears on the challenges we face here in the United States when it comes to improving our educational system. Namely, that the process is like herding cats.
Ripley explores—with the assistance of student “field agents” Kim, Eric, and Tom—the educational reforms that have enabled Finland, South Korea, and Poland to show dramatic performance gains on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), an international test that places heavy emphasis on critical thinking. Kim (from Sallisaw, Oklahoma), Eric (from Minnetonka, Minnesota), and Tom (from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) each spend in year in their respective countries as high school exchange students, giving us the students’ perspective along with Ripley’s research on the reform initiatives. In addition to being informative, this combination of stories and history also makes the book highly readable.
Educational policy books are not unlike Rorschach tests in that different people interpret them in different ways. Indeed, a quick Internet search for reviews of this book will amply illustrate this phenomenon. My own view, as someone who has worked in the field for more 25 years (as a teacher, advocate, and consultant in both district and charter schools), is that 1) Ripley raises some important points and 2) although we have made some progress, we still have a ton of work to do. Or as my friend Norman Atkins put it recently in a speech at the Harvard Ed School, “We are on the 20 yard-line. Our own 20 yard-line.” Yes.
The need to increase rigor in instruction seems to be a key linchpin. And if you look at the Common Core State Standards, which most states have adopted, they are definitely rigorous. But how they are implemented (and assessed) from state to state and school to school is still a Very Big Question.
Along with raising standards (and establishing ones we can all—or almost all—agree on), we must ensure that our teachers are adequately prepared and supported. Here is where Ripley describes what these other countries have done, but overlooks a potentially important factor in what they have been able to accomplish. In Finland, along with a number of other steps along the way, they closed and “rebooted their teacher-training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous.” Ripley notes that in 2000, “ten out of ten new Finnish teachers had graduated in the top third of their high school classes; only two out of ten American teachers had done so.” What she fails to mention is that Finland’s population is less than 6 million. That’s right. More people live in New York City than live in Finland.
In Poland (population: 38 million), along with raising requirements for all students by instituting more rigorous standards and requiring all students to stay in academic classes for an extra year (instead of shunting them off to vocational tracks at age 15), they also incentivized teacher re-training, paying teachers bonuses based partly on how much professional development they undertook.
In South Korea (population: 50 million), where students’ futures depend on their performance on college entrance exams, the education minister established a teacher evaluation scheme and rules that directed low-scoring teachers to go for retraining, but according to Ripley, in 2011, less than one percent were actually sent for retraining. And the fact is that much of Korea’s success hinges on the existence of hagwons, after-school tutoring businesses that apparently compensate for the ineffectiveness of the regular schools. Eric, the foreign exchange student who went to Korea, found his high school so boring and depressing that he sought a different placement.
So, here we are in the United States of America, with a population of 316 million, with an array of different states, different governors, different commissioners of education, different schools of education…. In short: lots and lots of cats. I think we need to look at what other countries have done and figure out how we can improve our own systems, but we must also recognize the size and scope of the challenges we face. We should not use our giant population and multi-dimensional governance structures as excuses. But we need to take these factors into account. Maybe find more ways to pilot ideas and then be more thoughtful and strategic about how we scale them up.
In any case, Amanda Ripley’s new book provides useful food for thought.