I read a lot. My interests range far and wide. I will read anything that’s well written. I like words; I adore well-crafted sentences. Good thinking and fresh insight delight me.
This book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, combines all of the above. Amanda Ripley is a talented journalist; her research is thorough and her insights profound. Beyond that, she is a great writer. She deftly weaves together stories, statistics, history, and analysis. I would read this woman’s to-do list.
Do not be put off by the title of this book, as I originally was. This is not a book for competitive parents about how to make your own children achieve more; it is not a book that aims to teach you how to get your kids to score like South Koreans. It is not even a book written primarily for parents. Rather, it is a book written for citizens, all citizens of the United States, parents or not. It is a book that examines how we can improve our entire education system so that it successfully educates all our kids to a much higher level, from the poorest to the wealthiest. And, rest assured, it will not lose you in the weeds of education policy. It takes a big picture approach and succeeds in bringing along even the least policy-oriented among us.
Ripley begins by describing a test that has been administered five times since the year 2000 to fifteen year olds in countries throughout the world. The test is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and it aims to test students’ critical thinking skills, not simply what they know in math, science, and language but what they do with what they know. To score highly, students need “fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate.” Ripley took the test herself and does a good job describing it to readers and giving sample questions, such that I could immediately understand its value. From her description, I agree that this test is measuring important aspects of students’ abilities and that the countries whose students score high marks on it are indeed educating their students effectively.
You may not be surprised to learn that never in the five times this test has been given have American students scored at the top of the world or even near it. Our kids do okay in reading and writing, but in math and science, they consistently put forth mediocre performances. The countries that do best are a diverse bunch, ranging from Finland to South Korea to Canada to Singapore to Poland. Ripley calls them the “education super powers.” So, what are these countries doing that we in the United States are not? Why are their kids beating ours so handily?
That is precisely the question Ripley set out to answer when she began her research in 2008. She decided to focus “most of all on developed democracies, countries where changes could not be made by fiat. I wanted to go where parents, kids, and teachers had to tolerate the vagaries of politics and the dull plod of compromise, and succeeded anyway. That was a magical thing that had to be seen to be believed” (emphasis mine). Indeed, she does uncover something magical: countries no more functional than ours politically who are yet managing to educate all of their kids to much higher levels. Countries where even the poor kids are scoring higher than our kids.
What Ripley discovers is actually encouraging. Yes, I said encouraging. How? Because if Poland can do it, and Canada can do it, and Finland can do it, so can we! I will not summarize here every bit of wisdom that Ripley uncovered, but I will tempt you with two of her insights:
When it comes to math, we are thinking about it all wrong. In our culture, we seem to believe that whether a person will “get” math is a matter of innate ability. This is in contrast to reading where we think hard work can propel almost any child forward. We act as though reading competence can be attained by everyone with enough work and instruction, but math competence can only be gained by those who were born with certain built-in hardware. The education super powers prove this assumption entirely wrong. They are managing to educate their entire populations to high levels of competence in math, not just a “gifted” portion. These countries assume that anyone can learn math, and guess what, their results show this to be so. They have high expectations, they work their kids hard, and they see results.
Further, Ripley does a good job showing why math competence is important. She explains that “Math is a language of logic. It is a disciplined, organized way of thinking. There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed. More than any other subject, math is rigor distilled. Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher-order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, for example, to detect patterns and to make informed guesses.” Exactly.
Ripley also helped me to see that we need to totally rethink how we train our teachers and how selective our education schools are. Ripley explores at length how teachers are trained in Finland. She learned that “the Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and the brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously.” Finland’s education schools are as selective as MIT, their programs remarkably rigorous, and their teachers commensurately esteemed. Six years of intensive education and training are required to become a teacher in Finland. In other words, to become a teacher in Finland is nearly as difficult as it is to become a doctor in the U.S. Think about that. Imagine if our education schools selected only the best and brightest, and then worked them very, very hard as they prepared them to teach our kids. Think of what our teaching force would become. And before you retort that we would never be able to attract enough people into the teaching profession if we raised our standards to such a degree, let me inform you that currently, we are producing 2.5X as many teachers as we actually need. Our supply far exceeds our demand.
We have quite a lot of room to increase the selectivity and rigor of our teacher preparation. As Ripley points out, “At most U.S. colleges, education is known as one of the easiest majors. Education departments usually welcome almost anyone who claims to like children. Once students get there, they are rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work. Instead of taking the more rigorous mathematics classes offered to other students, for example, education majors tend to take special math classes designed for students who do not like math.” She reminds us a few pages later, “You cannot teach what you do not know.” Or as one unnamed Korean policymaker has wisely said, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Let us soak in that wisdom for a moment.
These are just a few of the powerful insights in The Smartest Kids in the World. Friends, go read the rest! Ripley manages to uncover some fundamental flaws in our system and to point the way forward to serious improvement. Her answers do not lie with the usual solutions; she champions neither more funding for schools nor less power given to teachers unions. She advocates neither more technology in classrooms nor more innovative curricula. She plants herself in none of the usual camps of our education debates. Her ideas feel fresher and less complicated.
I believe in this book. If I could put it in the hands of every governor, school superintendent, teacher, and citizen in this country, I would. I cannot do that, but I am going to give copies to five of you! I contacted Simon and Schuster and asked if they would provide me with several copies to give away on my blog (“a modest blog that yet has a diverse and thoughtful readership”!). They said they would be happy to send books to five winners selected by me. To enter this give-away, all you need to do is comment on this post. You are free to make any sort of comment you’d like or you can simply put the name of the best teacher you ever had and what they taught. The comments sections will be open for entries until this Thursday, March 19th, at 8 PM. After that, I will randomly choose five winners who will receive copies of the book.
If you don’t win, get yourself quickly to a library or a book store. This is an important book.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.