I read a fascinating book this summer. (And by read, I once again mean that I listened on Audible.) So fascinating, in fact, that I keep thinking and talking about it months later.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way* by investigative journalist Amanda Ripley, seemed to take many of the things we argue over on the topic of education in the United States, and turned it all on its head. (*Affiliate link.)
At the crux of Ripley’s book is the question: Why are education outcomes around the world so different? And perhaps even more to the point: Why does the US – the country that’s spends far more than any other country per pupil – get consistently mediocre results?
You can get a sense of the book’s perspective by watching the video below of the author presenting some of her findings, as well as in this article on the PopTech blog.
The book is an engrossing mix of data and anecdotes. As Ripley says, the data tells a story, but what many overlook is the input from the kids. The book certainly isn’t perfect, but it does open some amazing perspectives. Here are just a few that stuck with me:
Start with Teachers
Teachers are SO important. Technology, facilities, sports — they get a lot of attention, but they have little to nothing to do with our kids’ actual education. (Skewed priorities is a topic unto itself!) Teachers matter, and that should go without saying. But in America we’re arguing about how to best go about improving teachers or perhaps, in some cases, proving teachers.
Ripley’s observations pointed out where the US might be attacking this problem from the wrong perspective. She highlights the critical difference in other countries where it is difficult to even become a teacher. The training is rigorous. The hiring process is selective. And then……their work is rather autonomous. No need to haggle about many of the things we fixate on here, when you start with amazing, well-trained teachers.
I mentioned recently that I am in awe of so many of the public school teachers my boys have had. They are amazing. I can’t help but think that much of the tape that ties the hands of our teachers, is created because of the teachers who aren’t as well prepared.
It appears that we in the US approach math from a completely different stance. And it’s not helping. In America, we laugh cooly and announce that we’re bad at math and move along, like that’s OK. Some say that as a society, we are mathematically illiterate. As kids get into trouble with concepts they don’t grasp, they get buried under the next level and the next and the next.
Soon, they simply decide that they don’t “do math”.
As painful as it is for many of us, we may have to get out of our comfort zone and change the way we think – and talk – about math.
Separate, yet connected, is the problem of apathy. Students in the higher performing countries had a stronger sense of purpose when it came to education. They believed it mattered — for their university opportunities, for their career options, and for their future lifestyle comforts.
The prescription is unclear, but we do have to figure out how to help kids value their own education.
Appearances May Be Deceiving
When looking at education with a global lens, it’s tempting to simply announce that we should be more like Country X, because they do better on the PISA test. But Ripley also points out that when we go beyond the numbers and find the story, some countries, like Korea, actually have a very inefficient public education system, but a vast and intense private tutoring system. Claiming we should spend more hours in school to catch up with students in Korea is misplaced, because the real learning there appears to take place after hours. “Successful” education systems go beyond raw test scores.
The Picture is Hopeful
Ripley points out over and over with example after the next, that there are countries that have been where we are and made significant changes. She sees patterns in countries that are now highly successful that look very similar to the struggles we find ourselves fraught with now. Poland, she shares for example, has a story that is full of upheaval, poverty, and a complicated history. Yet within the past decade or so, they’ve gone from below the US, to completely surpassing us. They made changes that mattered. And it made a difference. And we can too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read the book, or if you’ve simply watched any of Amanda Ripley’s presentations. As I said, I don’t necessarily endorse all of her perspective wholesale (and I do wish she had looked at early education as well…..next book, maybe?) , but I did find her broad, researched, unpoliticized perspective of education to be refreshing and exciting.
What are your thoughts?