The Smartest Kid in the World Reviews
The book covers a lot of ground, but mainly focuses on three American high school students who spend a year at regular public schools in Finland, Poland and South Korea – all countries that, unlike the US, have made great progress educationally and now score well above us (despite, needless to say, spending a ton less per pupil than us). Each country has lessons for us:
· Finland is the model we should aspire to, especially the way they recruit and train fantastic teachers – and then give them great autonomy. It’s the way EVERY successful school (and school system) I’ve seen works, rooted in what Charlie Munger calls “a seamless web of deserved trust” (he was referring to how one of the largest companies in the world, Berkshire Hathaway (of which he is Vice Chair to Warren Buffett), with nearly 300,000 employees, operates with only a couple of dozen people at headquarters).
· I’d never heard anything about Poland’s educational system, but we could learn a lot from their first phase of reform in which the country re-set the bar to a rigorous, high level and outlined a standard national curriculum – but then gave schools and teachers freedom in how to meet the goals (Poland’s next phase is upgrading teacher quality).
· South Korea has a laser-like focus on education – to an obsessive, insane degree, including private cram schools calledhagwons – that could never be fully replicated here, but if we took education even half as seriously as they do, it would make a HUGE difference.
To summarize the book in three points:
1. Set up a system to get only top-caliber people into teaching and then train (and retain) them well (like we do with doctors, for example).
2. Set a high bar and demand hard work and critical thinking. “Nine out of ten international students reported that school in America was easier than school back home. Seven out of ten American students agreed with them.” Ripley’s research confirms that what I’ve long said is true worldwide: young people, like big organizations, will like up – or live down – to whatever expectations you set for them.
3. There needs to be a national ethos regarding the importance of education (as opposed to, say, high school football).
As I write these points, I’m realizing that there’s another reason this book might be very powerful: it focuses on things that folks like Ravitch and me might (I hope you’re sitting down) actually agree on.
So much of the book is a must-read and I underlined and starred so many pages that I had trouble narrowing down what to share. I scanned 27 pairs of pages and posted them here:
Here’s a rough table of contents (using my page numbers since the book’s page numbers were cut off by my scanner):
a) Page 1: a chart that shows how different countries have done on the PISA test since the 1960s – note the US stagnation, Korea and Finland soaring (and, lest you think all rich, homogeneous countries do well, Norway crashing).
b) Pages 2-3: Korea rising from the ashes of the Korean War
c) Page 4: our startling (and horrifying) math deficiency
d) Pages 5-11: if you read anything, read this section, called A Tale of Two Teachers, which compares how Finland and the US recruit and train teachers.
e) Page 12: Finnish students answer the American student’s question: “Why do you guys care [about school] so much?”
f) Pages 12-13: A Finnish student comes to the US and can’t believe how dumbed down our standards and expectations are.
g) Pages 14-15: traits of good parents (authoritarian vs. authoritative; cheerleader vs. coach)
h) Page 16: Summary of what top countries are doing (“everything was more demanding”)
i) Page 17: Our glorification of sports (at the expense of academics)
j) Pages 18-20: The Poland case study
k) Page 21: Inequalities in our system (but not in top countries)
l) Page 22: The complaints and obstacles to change are similar around the world
m) Page 23: How we make excuses for poor kids – but top countries don’t. (A Finnish teacher said: “Wealth doesn’t mean a thing. It’s your brain that counts. These kids know that from very young. We are all the same.”)
n) Page 24: The one test in the U.S. that’s highly rigorous, which schools and students treat seriously: the Presidential Fitness Test.
o) Pages 24-25: Summary of what top countries are doing.
p) Page 26: A top teacher in a low-performing DC public school “discovers the airless void where the rigor should have been.”
q) Page 27: Summary of what good parents should be doing.
Here’s a 5-min video of Ripley presenting her work at a Stand for Children event.
Here’s a great review of the book in the NYT:
This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure 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. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.
Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”
Dana Goldstein’s review:
Ripley believes that compared with their counterparts abroad, too many American educators rely on poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. Indeed, a large body of research shows that teachers who hold high expectations for all children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, get better results. At a Finnish school, Ripley interviews a teacher who articulates this way of thinking. “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them,” he says of his immigrant students, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”
…Yet Ripley’s policy recommendations are sensible and strong. High-performing nations have shut down sub-par teacher training programs at non-elite colleges, and there is little doubt the United States should do the same—especially because we are producing an over-supply of teachers. Academically, American schools are too easy, with surveys of students showing pervasive boredom and low expectations. Our curriculum needs a booster shot, and not just in reading and math, the two subjects covered by the new Common Core national standards, but in every area, including technical and career education. Standardized testing is a blunt instrument, although every nation uses it to some degree. The real improvement happens when great teachers are given the autonomy to create engaging lessons. And we should stop throwing tax dollars at school sports programs and at gadgets like interactive white boards and iPads for every child. International comparisons show that the best schools are usually low-tech and focused on academics.
The American school reform debate has been desperately in need of such no-nonsense advice, which firmly puts matters of the intellect back at the center of education where they belong.
They agreed on a surprising number of things. Nine out of ten international students, for example, reported that school in America was easier than school back home. Seven out of ten American students agreed with them.
Individually, Eric, Kim, and Tom each noticed how much more seriously students seemed to take school in their host countries. The kids themselves were similar to American kids in every other way, but they seemed to connect the dots between what they were doing in school—and how interesting their lives would be.
There are many reasons why kids were connecting the dots, but one was fairly simple: Kids took school more seriously because it was more serious. Students were expected to be capable of working hard on advanced material, especially in Korea. The teachers were seriously trained, with only the best educated allowed to even attempt the process. In Finland, there were fewer standardized tests and homework assignments, but the ones that existed required students to write, reason, and think for themselves.
Kids pick up on those signals. They know and care if school is a joke—or not. "My Finnish school fostered a great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students," one American exchange student to Finland reported. "This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure. The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were."
Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman’s review:
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is a gripping new book by Amanda Ripley that answers the question, "what exactly is happening in classrooms in the countries that out-perform the U.S. academically?" Ripley investigates this question by spending time where the action is: in classrooms abroad, specifically in Poland, South Korea, and Finland. Her "informants" are American high school students who chose to study in those countries, and foreign students who come to the U.S. to study.
I literally couldn't put The Smartest Kids in the World down. Ripley's characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh. There's no hint of tired education talking points or polarizing rhetoric. Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around.
The first "aha" moment in The Smartest Kids is this: The performance of students in other countries has changed dramatically over time. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, it has improved markedly; in others, such as Norway, which has a homogeneous population, low poverty rate, and generous social safety net, it has gotten significantly worse . The U.S. is actually the exception, not the norm, in that we have plodded along at the same level for decades as other countries pass us by.
The fact that student achievement levels across the world are so dynamic is an enormously hopeful fact. If other countries have steadily improved their performance, we can, too.
But how? What gives in the countries that have already surpassed the U.S. or are heading that direction?
Ripley’s chapter on the “The $4 Million Teacher” in Korea got a lot of attention (it was published by The Wall Street Journal, which I blogged about here) and triggered this thoughtful, insightful essay by Bruce Smith, one of the teachers at Locke HS in LA who, earlier in his career, taught in Korea. Here’s the beginning:
Last weekend Amanda Ripley had a much discussed article, “The $4 Million Teacher”, published by The Wall Street Journal. It is adapted from a book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, which will be published this week. I definitely look forward to reading her book, having been a student of comparative education well before I travelled to South Korea in 1992 to teach in that country; but a deeper acquaintance than Ms. Ripley’s with South Korean education raises a concern that many readers will draw the wrong lessons from her article.
Ms. Ripley’s readers might guess that South Korean students succeed because of the excellence of South Korean teachers; but one wonders, if that were true, why they would go to such exorbitant lengths to supplement the education they receive for free in their public schools, and why so many Korean families spend so heavily to help their children escape their national school system. And while she is praising public school teacher preparation programs in South Korea near the end of her article, the reader must ask if she remembered, while writing that praise, her earlier paragraph (18) which shows that Korean students rate their cram school (hagwon) teachers more highly than their day school teachers, and that the cram school teachers do not have to be licensed by the state?
Although the source of South Korea’s success is more readily found in its cram schools than its regular public schools, the former are no solution to America’s crying problem of educational inequality of opportunity, but instead, when introduced here, worsen the problem by recreating East Asia’s “bidding war for education, delivering the best services to the richest families.” I should know: I was one such tutor myself, for seven years, in the 1990s. Although I began working in South Korea in a hagwon, and was quickly rented out to four more, I made the majority of my money in the last six years there through privately tutoring the children of relatively wealthy (middle class by American standards, upper class by Korean) families who had lived abroad and wanted their children to be able to continue to strengthen their English skills, something that could not be provided by regular Korean schools at that time (or now), largely because there were almost no trained, professional teachers in the country who were also fluent speakers of English. I do not know if Kim Ki-hoon, the “$4 million teacher” of the article’s title, is such another pseudo-expert as those I learned of while I was in that country; but I do know that I had students who were studying with those reputed to be the highest paid English teachers in that country at that time, one of whom once had to write a letter of recommendation so that a student we shared could get accepted to an American private school: this teacher, famous (and better paid than I was, though I was at the top of the scale for foreign teachers in South Korea) for his grammatical lectures, wrote a two-page letter in which every single sentence but one had a grammatical mistake requiring correction; and all of the dozens of Korean English teachers I met were more competent in their grammatical knowledge than in their ability to speak or otherwise communicate in English. In spite of colossal spending, and in contrast to its comparative scores in mathematics and other subjects, South Korea has never had a high average TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score, and is notorious for having to send students abroad in order to have them effectively learn our language, in spite of devoting the highest percentage of household income to after-school lessons of any country on earth; so any argument that we should learn from the excellent example being set by Korea’s famous, highly paid English teachers is laughable on its face to anyone with more than an educational researcher’s passing acquaintance with the country, and bitterly ironic to the Korean families being so poorly served while bearing such a heavy burden.
Nonetheless, the theme of Ms. Ripley’s article, and very likely its related book, is vital: “there are lessons to be learned” about “how to adapt to a changing world”; and perhaps the most important one is that the current strategy of the United States Department of Education, which focuses on improving the bottom 20 percent (and, most intensely, the bottom 5 percent) of American schools, will not solve America’s problem of global competitiveness.
One of the most critical take-aways from the book (as I’ve been saying for years) is that we need to COMPLETELY overhaul our system of recruiting, training, supporting, paying, retaining, and removing teachers, starting with our ed schools. There are a few traditional ed schools in which good things are happening (like Hunter College under David Steiner), but the two most exciting models I’m aware of are the Relay Graduate School of Education (originally started in conjunction with Hunter thanks to Steiner) in NY (and now Newark and New Orleans) and the Match Teacher Residency in Boston.
Below is an in-depth article about Relay which appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Education Next. The team at Relay shared a few updates since the article was written:
- We are accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (November 2012).
- We have campuses in NYC and in Newark, NJ, we launched in New Orleans this summer, and we hope to start small campuses in Houston and Chicago in Fall 2014.
- We piloted a year-long national training program focused on instructional leadership in July 2013 for 150 principals and principal managers from district and charter schools around the country.
- All total, this coming school year, we’ll serve nearly 1000 educators in our programs across the country.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
I was observing a class called Designing Assessments at the new Relay Graduate School of Education when a student asked if it was OK to rework questions from a teachers’ guide to fit the English lesson she was teaching in a Brooklyn middle school that week. Sure, said Mayme Hostetter, Relay’s dean: “No need to totally invent the wheel. Just make the wheel amazing.”
Hostetter might just as surely have been talking about Relay, which aims to transform teacher education to fit the needs of urban schools. The amazing—or at least attention-getting—improvement on the wheel is that New York–based Relay is linking the success of its students to the success of their students.
During their second year in Relay’s two-year masters-degree program, elementary-school teachers are asked to show that their own students averaged a full year’s reading growth during the school year. They must also set a reading goal for each child, perhaps two years’ growth for a child who is three years behind, for example. Students can earn credit toward an honors degree if 80 percent of the children they teach meet their individual reading goals.
To earn their degrees, elementary-school teachers are also asked to show that their students earned, on average, 70 percent mastery on a year’s worth of state or Common Core Standards in another subject, usually math. In other words, a math class would meet the goal if students’ individual mastery scores, when averaged, were 70 percent or better. Middle-school teachers use the same yardstick, but only in their specialized subject.
Relay’s cofounder and president, Norman Atkins, talks movingly about the crisis in inner-city teaching and the need to “grow a pipeline of effective teachers who can make an immediate difference.” But the true value of Relay’s model may go beyond potentially improving the teaching in the classrooms where Relay’s graduates work. Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, explained that Relay is creating a “feedback loop,” using child-level data to measure the outcomes of its teacher-training program, and using those measures to make decisions about program design. “This is how systems get better,” he told me.
Spreading accountability from the teacher back to the education school is an idea the Obama administration is also promoting in its efforts to remake teacher training. This spring, a federal panel looking at teacher-preparation programs debated, among other things, rating ed schools based on how much their teachers add to student learning. That possibility riles ed school deans, among others, but “individual accountability is coming down the pike,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group.
The Education Action Group wrote a nice article about the Match Teacher Residency, starting with a good description of a typical ed school program:
It all began in 2008, when Match officials opened a two-year teacher training program for graduate students, known as Match Teacher Residency (MTR).
The MTR program only recently graduated its fifth group of students, but it already has a reputation among school leaders for producing the best and most effective first-year teachers in the nation.
“Their teachers are the best from any graduate school of education in America,” says Scott Given, CEO of Unlocking Potential, an organization dedicated to turning around failing schools. “When we have teacher resumes from the grad schools at Harvard, Stanford and Match, we move fastest to consider the Match candidate. It’s not even a close call.”
Other education leaders apparently share Given’s enthusiasm for Match-trained teachers. According to Match officials, all MTR graduates get hired by a high-performing school (usually a charter school) immediately after they complete the program.
School leaders seek out MTR graduates not only because they’re well-prepared for the classroom, but because they’re likely to stay there. Of the 110 individuals who have completed the MTR program, 90 percent of them are still in the classroom.
That’s a stunning accomplishment – especially in light of new National Council on Teacher Quality analysis that concludes most teacher colleges constitute “an industry of mediocrity” that cranks out thousands of graduates unprepared for the classroom.