I read a great book recently titled “The Smartest Kids in The World (And How They Got That Way)” by Amanda Ripley. It’s interesting because the book just ended up in my mailbox at school somehow (I have no idea who from), but it was a great gift because I really enjoyed reading it. The book is really investigatory journalism, as the author follows three American students as they venture abroad for a semester. She describes what school in America is like for each student in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota and then contrasts that with their schooling lives in Finland, Poland, and South Korea respectively. I am very interested in international education and the comparison between countries’ policies, so I found this book quite illuminating on the topic. I think it paints a good picture of how fragmented the American system is–each state has control over its own policies, standardized tests vary, graduation requirements vary–versus what goes on in other countries.
Some of my favorites mentioned about other countries that we should adopt:
1) Finland’s respect and elevated status for teachers
In Finland, it’s difficult to become a teacher. Gee, why would you only want the best and brightest educating the next generation? In America, it seems that any Joe Schmo can become a teacher. In fact, most teachers in America are those who had higher ambitions and then lowered them because they didn’t have the test scores to get into other professions–a truly sad reality. Of course that’s not all teachers, so the brightest ones who do become teachers quit after a short period of time (a path I feel compelled toward in some ways), because they get burnt out by trying their hardest and receiving little to no reward. Teaching is not about the money, but I will say that I want to leave the profession because there are days when I don’t feel like a professional with a Master’s degree. I think that as a society we dictate that teaching seems like an easy job (summer vacation is such a great perk, right?) and that anyone who understands a subject well can be a teacher. This is ridiculous and in Finland they understand the work that it takes to be a great teacher. So teachers in Finland work harder, strive to be accepted into a teaching program, and then receive more freedom and higher pay because of their competence in educating. Teaching should be reserved for only those who want to be lifelong learners committed to obtaining results from their work and willing to accept the feedback of their professional peers.
2) Poland’s drastic reform measures
Poland used to be a country falling behind in education. Their history had put them in the position of subservient to most developed European countries so in the late 90s Poland decided to do something about it. They did so by instituting some drastic policies that promoted change. Granted, they took a risk and it was no easy task to convince everybody to agree with the plan. The clear message though was that Poland cared about scoring well on the international tests and proving that their citizens aren’t second-rate to anyone else. It has done great things for their economy and when they took the next set of tests their students made great improvements. The point here is that sometimes an archaic system needs a shock in order to achieve necessary reform. The United States obviously faces a different set of challenges, but somebody has to be willing to take the risk to fix them.
3) South Korea’s art of teaching students to embrace challenge
I think what was interesting about the book was how it revealed the educational styles of each country according to their ranks on the international tests. South Korea ranked high, like many Asian nations, because society is very strict about education and it’s very competitive environment for students. The United States is neither strict nor competitive when it comes to high school education and falls lower on the list. Then, at the top of the list, Finland has a strict educational system that is not all too competitive. There must be a fine balance and many do agree that South Korea’s system is too competitive and stress-inducing for students, but what I do admire is that they challenge students to embrace difficulty in learning. Their style is such that teachers in South Korea give a problem to the students and let them figure out. They don’t coddle them by giving them answers and then test them only using recall methods. I’m not saying everyone in America does this but our system is designed with multiple choice and getting the A in school. One can’t simply measure how well students actually used their brains to think through a problem and learn, so we just give them the answers. In fact, I have experienced too many times in the classroom when students complain that something is too hard or too time-consuming or too confusing. They don’t have the right attitude to embrace the struggle of learning, because let’s face it if there is not struggle then one isn’t truly learning. Something should be done to create more resilience in our citizens so that schools can do what their supposed to do and inspire creative problem-solving as learning. South Korea does this very well, albeit under too much pressure.
Ripley also mentioned in her book the advent of the Common Core curriculum and how that aligns more with what other countries do in terms of providing a unified educational framework under which all citizens learn. It’s not to say we know that Common Core will improve the education in America, but it could be a step in the right direction. It seems ludicrous that in the day and age where people can travely quite easily from one area to another that our country would allow for a child who grows up in one area and then moves to be at a disadvantage educationally. Yet as a teacher I can say of course not just state to state but as small as district to district makes a huge difference in the student’s knowledge and abilities.
I stumbled upon an interesting article recently that backs up what I read in the book. The article- Foreign Education Policies That Could Transform American Schools— highlights the major issues that the U.S. is falling behind in education. The article does also mention the same policies I listed above from the book. I know we go through a lot of fads in education, but most of the fads only affect curriculum and not much change occurs in actual policies. It’s not to say that what we’re doing to education the people of this country is wrong, rather that because of the technological transformation in how people learn schools need to update and adapt to these changes to better support students who grow up learning differently than their ancestors.
The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores came out very recently and made breaking news in the educational world, but not for good reasons. Just as before, the U.S. is still trailing most developed countries when it comes to scores in reading, math, and science. This is not indicative of failure; however, it is indicative of ways to improve. Some critics lambasted the system, but I would simply like to see more collaboration between educational advocates toward recognizing the successes of other countries and working with them to improve education on an international scale. There are things that the United States does well, but there are many things that we should seek to reform.
For all those interested in improving the American education or learning more about PISA, take the time to read Ripley’s book for yourself. I highly recommend it!