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Looking at the world’s best school systems. Hint: They’re not in the USA

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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.

The Economist:

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:

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