Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Smartest Kids in the World and how They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley, A Review

Amanda Ripley a former Time reporter used to try to  avoid education stories because they were in a word “soft”--by this she means that they were largely human interest stories that traded on various cliches--well intentioned adults and kids turned into photo opportunities--smiling and silently following authority figures. Evidence that there was anything particularly replicable or important was usually lacking and the result was invariably feel good mush. Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World is a praiseworthy step in the opposite direction. Ripley  provides a lucid and largely non mushy account of how and why three school systems (Finland, Poland and South Korea) differ by allowing us to see these systems through the eyes of three articulate Americans as they spend a semester in these countries as a foreign exchange students. For anyone who has been put off by the typical faceless data heavy accounts as to how US schools are typically failing when measured against international metrics this book is for you.  In this book we gather a more nuanced view as to how our schools shape up internationally (or at least in comparison with those that typically excel on international comparison tests South Korea, Poland and Finland) by seeing them through the eyes of three American exchange students. The book is a great example of deep reported journalism for a broad audience of readers who would not normally pick up a book about educational policy for light reading but are drawn in by books’ basic conceit, how three US students who spend a semester studying abroad cope with the complexities such markedly different school systems.

Along the way Ripley helps us to learn a lot about the world of educational comparisons in a way that avoids the usual academic jargon. For example, you are introduced to the Pisa test that undergirds all the international testing which is not as you might have first imagined a
a challenge to build a jenga tower but stands for the Program for International Student  Assessment and developed by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and not about students solving difficult equations that would fox adults and children alike but rather tests the ability to think creatively.  By taking readers through her own process of preparing and then taking the test itself Ripley leaves us more impressed with the clever way the test really examines whether the student is able to apply critical thinking problem solving and literacy skills to questions that seem on the surface quite simple such as whether an interpretation of some statistics makes sense and to justify their opinion based on the facts they are provided.

Ripley also illuminates the difficult issue of ‘rigor’ a word that is often thrown around in education circles but as you read about the way all the systems discussed in the book treat education comes to mean more than just whether students work hard at school (as it tends to do in the US) but the extent to which all the components of the educational system from teacher training to parental and public expectations converge and support students wrestling with complex ideas.

“it wasn’t that public respect for teachers led to learning, as some American educators claimed after visiting Finland; it was that public respect for learning led to great thing led to another. Highly educated teachers also chose material that was more rigorous, and they had the fluency to teach it. Because they were serious people doing hard jobs and everyone knew it they got a lot of autonomy to do their work. That autonomy was another symptom of rigor. Teachers and principals had enough leeway to do their jobs like true professionals. They were accountable for results, but autonomous in their methods.”

Ripley is eloquent about why rigor matters and why educational policy in the US often interferes with its attainment because it invariably wants to eat away at teachers’ autonomy and prescribe outcomes that should be in the hands of professionals not bureaucrats. The ‘education superpowers’ (as she refers to the countries she studies) had a ‘clarity of purpose’ as to what counted that translated down to the students and their families. The systems enjoyed the synergy that comes from families and schools reinforcing students motivation to learn and do well at school. All students in these countries knew how and why education mattered to their lives but as Ripley sadly opines in many US schools “the priorities were muddled beyond recognition.” One of the chief muddling factors was the oversized space that sports had in American students lives. While only a minority of American students actually played competitive sports they played an outsize role in budgets and time devoted to them. Other countries cared about sports but they were typically organized by parents, community centers or clubs outside of school time. The time and the amount spent on sports in the US all sent the message that was different to the one in the other countries studied that “what mattered, what really led to greatness--had little to do with what happened in the classroom. That lack of drive made the teachers’ jobs harder, undercutting the entire equation.”

The book is worth reading just for the sections on rigor and why and how it makes a difference for disadvantaged students just as much for advantaged ones but there are so many other things to enjoy about the book and more importantly to reflect on. The Korean bargain to place far too much emphasis on testing so that school and cramming colleges turned education into a joyless enterprise should serve as a warning signal to all test minded enthusiasts. However, the opposite was also true--”moon bounce schools” (as Ripley refers to many US schools where improving self esteem rather than achievement were the end goals) produced kids who had no experience of what it meant to fail, and only later would “discover that they had been tricked” and had essentially wasted their time and would have to struggle if they were to obtain even a minimum wage job. Although politicians like Bush and Obama have through their various signature initiatives to inject rigor from the outside into faltering schools through new kinds of testing regimes, Ripley views them as promising more than they could deliver “lifting the floor but not the ceiling.” For a more complete approach one that raised the standards for all students people had to believe in and demand rigor as a result of recognizing why it mattered it economically. The author is persuasive on this point down as she recounts that all three of the countries studied passed reforms that propelled them to the top of the Pisa League Tables as a result of serious threats to their countries’ living standards. Part of the reason the US has resisted adding more rigor to the school experience has been the general preference of some sectors of the society to continue to deny the connection between schooling and economic success. Ripley uses the example of Oklahoma’s resistance to any form of rigorous standards or assessments as something of a test case. The repeated efforts by some Oklahoma lawmakers to defeat a simple graduation test as well as more recently the Common Core make for some bitter if  humorous reading as the old canard of federal control over local standards was wheeled out by a series of demagogic politicians. However, despite examples like Oklahoma Ripley seems encouraged that Americans are beginning to get it and to “feel the urgency, the unsettling proximity of change and competition. The truth is that US is a difficult country to compare internationally as it contains a wide amount of diversity--as she illustrates by one map that looks at states as if they were PISA countries--some states like Texas compare to Poland and many Northeastern states in particular compare well to some top PISA performers. A charter school chain like BASIS (operating in Washington DC and Arizona) can produce students who outscore the average student in Finland, Korea and Poland or even Shanghai the region that ranked first in the world on PISA in 2009. Ripley maintains the issue is one of leadership. Rather than allow politicians to  play with education to indulge in their own pet ideas that might include teacher bashing or federal control, leaders from all sectors including from business and universities need to help build the consensus that what matters is rigor that starts with high standards, accountability for outcomes and market driven compensation for talented teachers. Read this book and then insist that your friends, family and most important your political representatives also read it!