i first heard about amanda ripley’s book about the state of global education on an episode of this american life just before its publication in 2013, but i only got around to reading it now. and i am so glad that i did, because i learned a lot about education in a global sense that i did not previously know.
you cannot measure what counts in education — the human qualities.
in the smartest kids in the world, ripley follows three american students as they participate in year-long exchange programs in three of the top-performing countries in the world: poland, finland, and south korea. all three students wanted an educational experience different from what the were receiving in the states, and ripley was curious to know why these countries, among others, were outpacing the united states in literacy and maths scores year after year.
in korea, school never stopped.
education acted like an anti-poverty vaccine in korea, rendering family background less and less relevant to kids’ life chances over time.
as ripley follows the three students during their adventures abroad, she also recounts information about how these three countries overhauled their education systems and became global superpowers. poland, for instance, was once the butt of all jokes [you know, the ones about the american, the englishman, and the polish guy…], but they appear to have gotten the last laugh now. south korea has created a rigorous system where students attend school all day and then spend their evenings and nights at private tutoring centres to prepare for their standardized college entrance exam. and finland has found a way to make teaching both a valued and a sought-after position, thereby instilling the value that education is of utmost importance.
the finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously.
throughout her book, ripley is careful to note that no system is perfect, whether it be polish, south korean, finnish, or any other. cultural contexts are different, people are different, and every country is continually searching for the system that works best for them. instead she focuses on the decisions that were made in each country and the measures that were followed to elevate their education systems to where they are today.
when children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen.
all over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better at reading.
what is evident throughout, however, is that until the united states undertakes a similar overhauling of its education system, american high schoolers will continue to perform lower than their counterparts from these countries and many others in the areas of reading and math. american schools are not teaching rigor or higher-level thinking the way these top-performing countries are, and the gap will continue to grow over time.
in fact, the united states was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track.
in almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the united states, israel, slovenia, and turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.
i know that i was one of the lucky ones. my parents read to me every night for as long as i can remember. i had the opportunity to attend a high school that taught me to think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. and i attended an academically rigorous undergraduate institution which prepared me for the life i lead today.
there was a consesus in finland, korea, and poland that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world. in every case, that agreement had been born out of crisis: economic imperatives that had focused the national mind in a way that good intentions never would. that consensus about rigor had then changed everything else.
wealth had made rigor optional in america.
but many others are not as lucky as i was. and until the system changes, these countries which have prioritized education will continue to outperform students from the united states.
the stories of finland, korea, and poland are complicated and unfinished. but they reveal what is possible. all children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. the only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true. as more and more data spills out of schools and countries, and as students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they culd do, these counternarratives will, i hope, become too loud to bear.
i found ripley’s book both fascinating and compelling. i have known for years that the united states has been lagging behind others in education – particularly in literacy and maths – but having the facts laid out in this way was really eye-opening for me. i know education has been a hot topic for years in the states with no real consensus having been reached, and this book really drummed home the message that countries around the world, including the united states, need to refocus their attention on this topic. if you are an educator or simply interested in global education, i think you will find this book as interesting as i did.
crossing off the popsugar reading list: a nonfiction book.