In The Smartest Kids in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Time magazine writer Amanda Ripley sets out to answer a puzzling question: How are a few countries able to educate all of their kids to succeed at high levels, while the U.S., which spends more per student than most countries, cannot? Ripley uses the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to compare student performance across countries. PISA is designed to measure both the ability of 15-year-olds to solve math, reading and science problems using critical thinking (rather than memorizing facts) as well as their ability to communicate their answers in writing—including the math problems. (See sample questions here.)
U.S. teenagers perform in the middle of the pack—above Greece but below Canada. According to Ripley, the most successful countries fit into three categories: the “utopia model” of Finland, the “pressure-cooker model” of South Korea, or the “metamorphosis model” of Poland. So she visited those countries to learn more about their schools. She also had three articulate and observant “informants”—U.S. students who went to those countries as exchange students—and she interviewed hundreds of other exchange students to learn more about how U.S. schools differ from schools in other countries. Click here for a short YouTube video summarizing what she learned.
Poverty isn’t the explanation, says Ripley, because even our most privileged kids score below privileged kids in 20 other nations in math. Diversity doesn’t explain our lackluster performance, either, because countries with similar percentages of immigrant students do better than the U.S. Adds Ripley, “American kids at private schools tend to score higher, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school.”
For this long-time PTA volunteer, it was disconcerting to learn that, according to Ripley, parent involvement in the school community matters little. However, in all countries, early childhood education makes a difference, and students who were read to by their parents at a young age performed much better in reading. And children were more likely to enjoy reading if their parents read for pleasure on their own. “What parents did with children at home seemed to matter more than what parents did to help out at school,” writes Ripley. “What if schools, instead of pleading with parents to donate time, muffins or money, loaned books and magazine to parents and urged them to read on their own and talk about what they’d read in order to help their kids?”
In the top-performing countries, education spending is tied to need—the poorest students received the most funding. In most of the U.S., the opposite is true. Because most funding for schools in the U.S. is derived from property taxes, it tends to be most generously available where—guess what?—property values are highest. The top countries also put less priority on technology and gadgets in the classroom and more on teacher pay and equity.
The loud-and-clear message in Ripley’s book is that in high-performing countries, school is serious business and students take it seriously. Expectations of students are higher, and the consequences of poor performance are more significant. Students are given more autonomy over their school work and their school day. And sports are not as central to the lives of students in the education superpowers as they are in the U.S.
That seriousness of purpose in the top-performing countries extends to teacher training and hiring. They have stricter standards for teachers; in all of the education superpowers, students who are accepted to teacher colleges must be in the top third of their graduating high school classes. In Finland, teacher-training colleges are about as selective as MIT in the U.S., and all teachers are required to get a master’s degree. Principals require job candidates to teach a lesson as part of the hiring process. Interestingly, the top performing countries have teachers’ unions, which are often blamed for the poor performance of U.S. students relative to other countries. (Teachers are rarely fired in any country, says Ripley.)
One other characteristic that sets the U.S. apart from the education superpowers: America’s tradition of local control of its public schools. Ripley calls this “a nightmare for teachers,” who must contend with both state and local district standards, which frequently conflict with each other. U.S. textbooks are far longer than they are in other countries because they are written “to appease thousands of districts and many states all at once.”
Ripley weaves together the stories of her young reporters and the data that she collected from around the world to produce a fascinating read. Her book offers some important new perspectives on education reform, challenging us to look beyond standards of learning, high-stakes testing and political ideologies to how we should invest our education dollars more wisely to prepare today’s students and train tomorrow’s teachers.
How you can help promote literacy locally
Alexandria has its very own program to help share the gift of reading with families who may not have many books of their own. It’s called Alexandria Book Shelf, and the nonprofit organization collects gently used books to distribute to families in need. You can drop off book donations at Hooray for Books (1555 King Street), Mount Vernon Recreation Center (2701 Commonwealth Avenue), UpCycle (1712 Mount Vernon Avenue, 2nd Floor), or CrossFit (805 North Royal Street). Board books are especially needed!