Amanda Ripley went on a year search to try and identify what makes international students perform so well in school and describes her search in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got That Way. She identified three American foreign exchange students and one American who spent years in Korea going to countries with high math PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores: Poland, Finland and Korea. Math was selected because a) American students perform relatively poorly on international math tests and b) math is a better predictor of future economic success than other subject areas. The importance of this is emphasized by the fact that Americans are second only to Luxemburg in education spending (p. 24). We are not getting the bang for our buck.
She performed extensive interviews, visited schools and conducted a survey to gather data for the book. Throughout the text she traces key moments of the experience for each student and then wraps up in an appendix with her summation.
What were the differences? First there was a high expectation that education was the key to adult success. In the foreign countries, technical jobs were highly valued. Families expected a high degree of rigor. In the countries studied there was far less testing than in the US, but students were expected to take a rigorous test at the end of their school. Unlike American exit exams which are gatekeepers to graduation, the international tests were a gatekeeper to the entrance to higher education. Good performance virtually guaranteed a good university placement and job, whereas poor performance was limiting. Students in Poland and Korea dominate their high school years with preparation for success. The 50 hour Finnish test includes one extended essay for which the students had six hours. In Korea, planes are rerouted on test day. There is no retest for a year. Students cannot plead extenuating circumstances. These tests are taken seriously.
Another difference was in the concept of self esteem. Personally I define self-esteem is a measure of someone's resiliency- how well they bounce back from challenges and persist with hard things. It is not built from doing well or Atta boys; it is constructed from striving against challenges. If your NBA player only practices against primary school basketball travel teams, he will do very well, but will not improve his skills. She points out that "during the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children's self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed ." (p. 109) By way of contrast, in the other countries, student test grades were read off with rankings- everyone knew who was the top performer and the worst performer on every exam. The world is a giant competition and students should try and fail when young so they can avoid it as adults, when it is more expensive. This caused stress and motivation for the students to move up in the ranks or maintain their status.
Sports constitute another major contrast between the US and the other high performing countries. In the US high school sports are nearly revered. My sister's school district built an $80 million football stadium. Parents have been known to hold students back from kindergarten access in order for them to be relatively older than their peers and consequently bigger when sports teams were constituted. If a New York school budget does not pass, the first thing put out is that the sports program will be canceled and the budget usually passes. Sports teams get lots of attention in local news but academic teams get virtually none. Teachers are hired and pressured to be coaches, or worse, hired because they would be a good coach. The list goes on. In these other countries, high school sports are virtually non-existent. Korean students might spend an extra 8 hours a day at school, but it is studying not playing sports. Finnish teachers do not coach. Polish students play recreational sports that are unaffiliated with high schools.
Technology is another division. In American teacher colleges, technology plays an important role. Teachers in training learn how to use interactive whiteboards and prepare lessons using them. "Good" schools have an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. One to one initiatives are all the rage. Flipped instruction means teachers prepare online lessons for students to view as homework and then the guided and independent practice takes at school. Rare is the international school with this level of technology. The money is not spent on gadgets. Students go home to technology not available at school.
Perhaps most telling however is the caliber of the staff. In America just 5% of Schools of education were located at highly selective institutions (p. 85). When I took my exams to be a teacher, NY required a passing rate of 79% whereas Mississippi only required a 39%. NY just eliminated the ELA part of the new praxis test because too many minority students failed the exam. Instead of working to increase their skill set, they were content to dumb down the profession. In all of the other three countries all of the schools of education were highly selective. Only the best were admitted to the programs. When I was in Denmark they talked about their special education teachers. First they had to teach for at least five years in a general education classroom. Then they had to get a recommendation from their administrator. Then they had to earn a high enough score on an entrance exam. Only a few made it through the process. While not all of the nations reserved high salaries for teachers, they were all in the upper middle class range, rather than the lower middle class range in America.
Teachers in other lands also had great input in their curriculum when compared to American teachers. In our nation, textbooks could be used for weightlifting. The average 8th grade math text is 800 pages. In other nations that number is only around 200 pages. (Interestingly I have a slim volume, a math text from 1898. It has fewer than 250 pages and covers grades 1 through 12, with examples of entrance exams from several selective universities, such as Harvard, in the back.) New York State sponsored the creation of a series of math and ELA Modules to correspond to the Common Core, available online to all schools for free. If you were to print them out there would be hundreds of pages per unit. One of my friends commented that her principal was so happy because every teacher in her building was doing the same thing on the same day. I was horrified- how does that showcase teacher skills and differentiation for students? A robot could do that. While the Common Core was touted as having slashed the standards at each grade level so that they could go a mile deep rather than a mile wide, the 5th grade math strand, which was the most reduced, only took out 10% of the standards when compared with the NY standards. In the other nations, students were expected to learn it or score poorly. Teachers were expected to reach each student, afterschool tutoring abounded, students spent an increased amount of time working on higher order problems. In Finland half of the students received specialized instructional support at some time during their academic career- no label required. Teachers were also tasked with creating programs that aligned with the standards.
In the wrap up section, Ripley highlights a couple of ways we can increase our country's educational performance. All of them require a significant cultural shift, something Americans are reluctant to propose. First increase the rigor of the program both for the students and the teachers. Increase teacher autonomy so that teachers make decisions not politicians. Then eliminate most of the testing but maintain testing that enables access to post secondary education. Increase the requirements for teacher colleges- both in order to access the program and exit the program with certification. Understand that math is a critical skill- at least as much as reading- and students need mental math fluency and problem solving expertise. No one should say I can't do math, my parents are not good at math and so neither am I, or math is not that important. True, you might not need trigonometry to survive as an adult, but a deep understanding of probability and statistics, fractions and decimals and using algorithms to solve problems is essential. We can do better, but it requires a cultural and cognitive shift to get there.