Monthly Archives: August 2013
The education book of the moment is a work of journalism that shows how the countries with the best educational systems are succeeding — while the U.S. treads water.
Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way tracks the experiences of three American exchange students who spend a school year in Poland, Finland and South Korea. Each of those countries outranks the U.S. in international comparisons.
In each place, the American kids are “startled by how hard their new peers work and how seriously they take their studies,” says The Economist‘s review of Ripley’s book.
Maths classes tend to be more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.
Ripley finds that much of Finland’s success comes from ensuring high-quality teaching from the beginning, “allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America,” says reviewer Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Those better-prepared teachers can be given more autonomy, making them more likely to love their jobs and stay in the profession. It’s just the opposite of how we do it in America, where teaching’s mediocre status and pay attract few top students in the first place, and teachers are subject to morale-killing “complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as Paul puts it.
Just as important, Ripley finds: School systems excel when they demand high-quality work of every student.
Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.
Not all is rosy in these high-performing countries, Ripley reports. South Korea’s pressure-cooker culture — all study, all the time — is a “hamster wheel” that has “created as many problems as it solved.”
All three counties revamped their education systems when they grew alarmed by the poor state of their economies and national sense of worth. Ripley thinks that America might soon reach a similar moment.
“She cites the World Economic Forum’s most recent ranking of global competitiveness, which placed America seventh, marking its third consecutive year of decline,” The Economist writes. “Meanwhile Finland, that small, remote Nordic country with few resources, has been steadily moving up this ladder, and now sits comfortably in third place.”
Not that Ripley’s findings are entirely new. PISA, the international survey of 34 countries’ education systems, has reached many of the same conclusions. Check out this video:
Educators at a Chicago elementary school spent the summer redesigning their reading program for the first and second grades.
They came up with the “CY-BEAR.” This fall, each student will receive a stuffed animal to read aloud to.
Sounds goofy, but principal Shawn Jackson says it reduces the anxiety to read in front of others and can help improve scores for the many children whose parents don’t read to them. That accounts for a lot of Jackson’s 930 students at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. About 85 percent read below grade level and nearly all are from low-income homes.
It took about two months to come up with the plan — an example of how schools increasingly are seizing the summer break as an opportunity to innovate.
“During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them,” Jackson told the Associated Press.
According to a story by AP reporter Philip Elliott, Jackson and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund’s Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.
“Most people would take the time to relax,” Jackson said.
Instead, he and his team rewrote the school’s reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.
Elsewhere, educators are seeking to prevent the learning loss that many students experience while school’s out for summer
Without classes to attend, most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.
That’s according to the National Summer Learning Association, But summer learning programs targeted to low-income students can help close the achievement gap, the association says: “The effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after participation,” long-term studies indicate.
In Harlem, 40 students attended a day camp this summer intended to keep up their reading skills. At LitWorld Camp, they could read whatever they wanted over the six-week period.
If students show an interest in cooking or animals, hip-hop or vintage toys, leaders find books that match up with their interests. Students wrote songs based on books on hip-hop and designed their own toys based on the ones they read about from the Depression, Colonial times and ancient Egypt.
Read more about creative uses of summertime here.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews: Youngsters attending LitCamp.