“The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley


Why do so many other countries do so much better than the US on standardized tests, like PISA?  That’s the question this book tries to address.  Many of the countries at the top of the charts — like Finland, South Korea, and Poland — spend a fraction on education vs. the US, and computers and iPads are virtually absent from their schools, but they still are able to make almost every student into a decent critical thinker by the time they graduate.  Ripley investigated a few of these countries during her own visits, but also by profiling some US exchange students who went abroad.

The main finding is that American schools have something of an identity crisis.  The undisputed focus of schools in these other countries is to teach children how to think.  The idea of the importance of education is universal in those countries.  In contrast, American high schools seem to place a higher priority on football or other sports.  People who want to be coaches become a teacher “on the side.”  I remember having a few of these; while they were nice people, but it was very obvious that what they valued most and what they spent most of their time on was not their classrooms, but the athletic field.

Finland in particular has very strict standards on who can become a teacher.  Finnish teaching colleges are about as selective as MIT.  This makes sense — you want to make sure that your teachers are undisputed masters of the subject they are teaching.  Teachers are respected, by the students and by society, since everyone knows what elite levels of scholarship they have attained.  They are well-trained, intelligent, and creative and thus are given large degrees of autonomy as to what and how they teach, while still conforming to some top-level guidelines on curriculum (which is derived from the comprehensive graduation exam; more on that later).  In the US, the importance of good teachers is also recognized, but the standards for becoming a teacher are so low that many teachers are not well prepared for the job, and probably will never achieve very high performance — you can’t teach a goat to be a sheep.  US schools and school districts have multiple levels of bureaucracy to try to counter poor teacher performance by dictating a detailed curriculum, conducting training, and otherwise trying to turn those goats into sheep.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to only hire the sheep in the first place??  Along with the misplaced emphasis on technology, this is the second reason why US education is so expensive.

The other thing the top countries have in common is a rigorous, comprehensive end-of-school exam.  Besides being required for graduation, the test results sometimes directly determine a student’s professional and economic opportunities.  This is very much the case with the Korean test.  It’s a big deal.  The Finnish test is spread over three weeks and takes about 50 hours total to complete.  These tests motivates students to learn throughout their career.  Schemes have been tried in the US, but they are so watered down that they don’t mean anything.

So in the end, it’s all about setting the bar.  Set it high for teachers, and you will have great teachers.  Set it high for students, and they will rise to the challenge.

Sign of a good school — are the students engaged and actively thinking, or are they bored?

Lots of other good commentary and quotes from this book from Phil Greenspun: Korea America Poland Finland Private school Parenting 



One response

  1. Everyone in Korea cheats

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