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The Smartest Kids in the World

But aren’t they ours?

Maybe not, according to free-lance journalist Amanda Ripley and her research that followed three American students to exchange programs in (of course) Finland, but also Korea, and, surprisingly, Poland. Her quest was, as she put it, “to find answers for our own children” by studying the systems behind some of the most acclaimed PISA scores. “Yes,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “you’ve heard this before and, as we all do, cite all the reasons why our data shouldn’t be compared to others.” This may be true (although Ripley would now challenge that assertion), but what’s particularly fascinating about Ripley’s account in The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way is that she studied these systems in the moment and through the eyes of American students. First hand, these kids compare and contrast their experiences in foreign high schools with their US counterparts. Ripley learned that kids are kids everywhere, with the same social propensities and the same anxious parents that we have in the United States. But she came back heavy with reflection about the role education plays in America, how it imparts our values, and how it hinders our progress.

Seriously, folks…

Everywhere she went education was taken very seriously – by society, by the teachers, and, most contrasting to her impressions in the US, by the kids themselves. In Finland, Korea, and Poland kids knew that their ability to learn higher order thinking had everything to do with their success as adults and they took that seriously. And the kids were taken seriously with far more independence than we allow here. As she noted, “the closer they got to adulthood, the more they got to act like adults. ” The relationship between seriousness and autonomy extended to the adults as well. Teachers in these countries are carefully chosen –some prepare for years to gain a precious spot in a teacher training program – and with that expertise came the autonomy to tackle the serious work of educating students, to adapt and differentiate their instruction as needed. We often suggest that autonomy be driven by expertise in that same way: high capacity, high discretion. And we follow that advice with, “high discretion, high accountability.” Ripley saw this in action – for students and for their teachers.

Rigor Matters, Poverty Doesn’t

We talk a lot about rigor in the US – sometimes in reference to higher order thinking or simply as a catchall phrase for challenge. But one takeaway Ripley references a lot in her book is a lack of rigor – however defined – in American schools and a downright reluctance to subject kids to content that is challenging for fear they might fail. She explored the relationship of poverty to achievement, particularly in Poland – a country where child poverty is almost equal to that in the United States. Poland experienced a dramatic shift in results when it buckled down and made sure that all students made the gains they needed. Their commitment: all kids had to learn – a slight twist from ours, which is that all kids can learn.

But there’s more. Ripley found that we treat students of poverty differently in the US in terms of our overall resource allocation. For example, in Finland, education spending is tied to need. In fact, she found that to be true in all of the top performing countries. “The worse off the students, the more money their school got.” She contrasts that with the per student allocation in Pennsylvania where the poorest school districts spend 20% less than the richest districts. In fact, “in 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.”

And to what end? What did these additional resources accomplish? As Ripley discovered, it is entirely about rigor. “In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity – a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking – was a telltale sign of rigor.” Equity a telltale sign of rigor….

And that’s her main theme. She concludes that America’s wealth has made rigor optional and that our system excuses kids who come from less privileged backgrounds, to the detriment of their future. Rigorous learning, coupled with the drive to understand is something our students will need all their lives.

The good news is that her provocative title is less about pitting one country against another and much more about the potential that exists among American students, what our kids are capable of doing if we treat them and their education with the seriousness it deserves. They can, if we can.

Can we?

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley, was published by Simon & Shuster in 2013.

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