The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is the title of a new book by Amanda Ripley. Ripley has traveled around the world, to the countries where students consistently get the highest scores on international student assessments (like the PISA test of the OECD). In Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and more recently Poland, students far outscore American kids. Her key strategy is to follow “field agents,” U.S. students who are each studying abroad for one year–one in Finland, one in South Korea, and one in Poland. The take-home message is consistent with all of the previous research on schools in these countries: It will be very hard to replicate and adapt these models to U.S. schools.

Take Finland, for example. In Finland, only top students are admitted into teacher training programs. And the curriculum in these programs is rigorous and demanding. The teachers that graduate from these programs are trusted professionals, who are granted a high degree of autonomy to manage their own classrooms and make their own instructional decisions. In the United States, policy makers seem to be moving in the opposite direction–increasingly constraining teachers in a belief that they can’t be trusted with autonomy, and lowering the salaries and benefits so that the profession becomes less desirable to the top students. Top students will not choose a career that pays starvation wages. (Ripley’s book doesn’t visit Singapore, but Singapore is another country where teaching is one of the highest paid professions, and where the top students apply to teacher education programs.) If U.S. politicians truly want to follow the models of Finland and Singapore, they would be paying teachers a lot more, investing in schools of education, and granting teachers the freedom and autonomy to follow their training and instincts in the classroom. Anyone who has been following the U.S. news knows that our politicians are moving in exactly the opposite direction–cutting school budgets, removing benefits like tenure that help to attract talented people to the profession, and imposing top-down bureaucratic rules and guidelines that restrict teacher autonomy.

Ripley’s second country is South Korea. Like many Asian countries (including China), in South Korea all that matters is the high-stakes graduation exam. Ripley describes a situation that I have already learned about from Asian students in my university classes: After the school day is finished, students go immediately to an after-school “cram school” where they study for another 6 to 8 hours. Students were staying up so late at these cram schools that the government passed a law imposing a curfew of 10pm. The curfew is widely ignored, both by cram schools and by parents. I personally am a critic of this high-stakes exam model. I think it is blocking curricular innovation and change in many Asian countries. In particular, it makes impossible any attempt to introduce creativity to the curriculum. Ripley is a bit more positive; even though she calls it a “hamster wheel” she concludes that it prepares students for the modern world. I am not so sure.

The third country is Poland, which has emulated Finland in hiring only the best and brightest to be teachers, and by using a rigorous graduation exam. One thing that stands out in Poland is that schools only do academics. There are no sports teams, no marching bands, no big school musicals. And by the way, this is also the case in every other top-scoring country–schools focus on academics and nothing else. I remember years ago, an colleague told me about a conversation he had with a German professor. He was trying to describe what a cheerleader was, and for the German professor it just didn’t compute. When he finally understand what a cheerleader was, he broke out laughing. My colleague said “It’s hard to get a German to laugh, but hearing about a cheerleader made him laugh like crazy.” What does the football team and the cheerleading squad have to do with learning and education? My stepdaughter was on the cheerleading squad at her high school, and I have a sense that something valuable is being learned–about teamwork, about social skills, about community and leadership. But whatever is being learned, it’s definitely not going to show up on the international PISA assessment.

In the New York Times book review, Annie Murphy Paul (8/25/2013) calls this a “masterly book” with a “startling perspective.” I agree that any politician and policy maker who is serious about school reform needs to learn the real story about what’s going on in these other countries. I’m pretty sure that the U.S. doesn’t want to emulate any one of these other countries. I doubt anyone will advocate getting rid of high school sports, for example. Or will advocate that our children spend 8 hours every night, after school, cramming for the graduation exam. But the core take-home message of this book is that school reform will not be easy. It won’t be a matter of tweaking around the edges. It will involve dramatic change and radical innovation.