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Here’s What Schools Around The World Get Right And The U.S. Gets Wrong

This is the latest in our series of Crib Notes, 1000ish-word summaries of parenting book you’d totally read if you weren’t too busy parenting. Read more here.

Remember the SAT? However you fared on the original standardized torture test, be glad you didn’t have to grapple with the PISA. Also known as the Program For International Student Assessment, the test was introduced in 2000 to measure teenagers’ ability to think critically and solve new problems in math, reading, and science. It has been administered all over the world, and promises to reveal which countries are teaching kids to think for themselves. According to Amanda Ripley, author of the New York Times bestselling The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way, it totally works. Not only do poor individual PISA scores correlate with higher dropout rates, but economists also found “an almost one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation’s long-term economic growth.”

So, how does the good ol’ U.S of A. fare on the PISA? If you bubbled in answer c: “We suck” you are correct! Sometimes, we break into the Top 30, and we’ve edged the economic the clusterfuck that is Greece at least once. But for a country that spends so much time, money, and energy trying to educate its kids, the U.S. performs middling, to put it kindly.

That inspired Ripley to follow American exchange students into 3 of the highest-performing countries — South Korea, Poland, and Finland — and look for clues to why they are eating our educational lunch. Good news: she found some.

The Smart Countries
There’s a surprising lack of commonality between high-performing PISA countries, which means results can’t be explained based on demographic or cultural stereotypes. Ripley proposes 3 distinct approaches, each characterized by one of the nations she studied: the “Utopian” model of Finland, the “Pressure Cooker” model of South Korea, and the “Metamorphosis” model of Poland.

  • In Finland, the rapid rise from a largely illiterate, agrarian society into a fully modern country was made possible by an educational overhaul in the 70s, including a radical transformation of teacher training. Before the reforms, Finland’s teacher training was much like that currently employed in the U.S.; afterward, education programs became much more rigorous and selective (“On the order of MIT,” writes Ripley). Oh, and there is broad national consensus on both the importance of education and how to best educate — hence, “utopian.”
  • In South Korea the most remarkable (or batshit crazy, depending on your point of view) part of the system are hagwons, for-profit after school tutoring centers where kids stay until as late as 11 PM each night. The regular schools teach exactly what the hagwons do but, in a perverse cycle of pure free-market education, the “real” learning only occurs where there is an economic motivation, and the more expensive the hagwon, the higher the test scores the students can expect to log.
  • In Poland, radical education reforms followed the fall of Communism, when Poles as a nation realized they were a poorly educated backwater. This created strong political will to act and, since no one was in favor of or beholden to the existing system, their minister of education was given a sweeping mandate for change. An analytical, science-y type, he studied educational success stories from around the globe and borrowed aspects of them to create the Polish system.

What You Can Do With This
Move to one of those countries, or run for the Board of Education and operate your school district like one of those countries.

The U.S.
Ripley identifies no shortage of educational sins here, but 2 that she comes back to repeatedly are a lack of academic rigor and a criminal disrespect for the profession of teaching. Despite the disparate approaches in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, 3 constants are high expectations of their students, broad acceptance of failure as a key component of learning, and highly educated, well-compensated teachers who command respect akin to doctors and lawyers in this country.

What You Can do With This

  • Don’t coddle your kid and intercede when they struggle — struggling is how they learn. You want them well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure (and the sweet, sweet taste of overcoming failure) long before they hit the higher stakes of the grownup world.
  • Have high expectations and communicate those expectations so there’s no daylight between you and your kid.
  • Unless you followed the above advice and have taken over your Board Of Education, your ability to affect teacher salaries is probably limited, so the least you can do is acknowledge their expertise.

The Smart Schools
Even in pedagogically mediocre countries, you can find excellent schools. Ripley goes into some detail of her methodology for identifying them, which can be helpful for any parent trying to navigate a crowded school district.

What Can You Do With This

  • Watch the students: In effective classrooms, kids are engaged or engrossed with assignments, rather than breezing through busy work or drifting off to their happy places.
  • Talk to the students: Ask them meaningful questions like, “Why are you working on that right now?” or “What do you do when you don’t understand something? Try not to make them squirm.
  • Ignore shiny objects: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value,” Ripley writes. By comparison, high-performing PISA countries tend to be fairly low tech.
  • Grill the principal: “How do you choose your teachers?”, “How do you help them develop their skills?”, “How do you measure success?”, are all questions that will give you a sense of the school’s academic culture. In this case, it’s ok to make them squirm.

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