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Summer Reading - The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley’s examination of the achievement gap plaguing the United States is titled The Smartest Kids in the World. But a more apt title would be The Smartest School Systems in the World. The poor performance of American kids relative to their affluent peers in other countries, particularly in math, is not the fault of students, but of the school systems built by adults.
As a former teacher, I know that the decisions made by adults make all the difference for each kid sitting in the classroom. If the principal isn’t competent, the school environment probably isn’t meeting student needs. If a teacher isn’t qualified, their instruction is probably lacking. If parents don’t nurture learning at home, their child might start off behind. If local, state and federal officials make ill-informed decisions, students pay the price for their misguided efforts. And what many don’t realize is that, ultimately, all of us pay the price. Ripley offers this insight in the opening chapter: “Economists have found an almost one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation’s long-term economic growth . . . the ability of a workforce to learn, think, and adapt was the ultimate stimulus package. If the United States had Finland’s PISA scores, GDP would be increasing at the rate of one to two trillion dollars per year.”
Ripley’s underlying thesis is that: “In countries with strong education systems, school is actually harder. Rigor runs through those countries’ approaches to learning and parenting, shaping everything from teacher training to the make-up of standardized tests.” These things all fall to adults.
This idea of rigor, Ripley believes, is key. A unifying belief in rigor leads to schools that help all students master complex material successful. Ripley follows three American high school students as they navigate their way through successful school systems in other countries to learn what sets them apart: Kim from Oklahoma studies in Finland, Tom from Pennsylvania studies in Poland, and Eric from Minnesota studies in South Korea. Although none of these systems are perfect, they’ve figured out a thing or two.
•Equity: “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 is a mindset, not just a tracking and spending issue. The diversity narrative that blames failure on kids’ circumstances endorses low expectations, and rigor cannot coexist with such expectations.
•Autonomy: Countries with successful systems select highly educated, well-trained teachers and give them autonomy over their classrooms. In these environments, collaboration is normal and trust is high. Autonomous teachers allow their students autonomy, which cultivates more driven, independent high school graduates. For students and teachers alike, being allowed to make decisions and mistakes is incredibly valuable.
•Failure: The real world does not always give second and third chances or rewards for just showing up. Kids are being misled if they think failure is without consequence. But those who understand the value of persistence – who know what it feels like to fail, and then to work harder and do better – are ready for the modern world. For the Finns, this is called sisu: a word meaning “strength in the face of great odds, but more than that, a sort of inner fire. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity.” Failure in American schools is too often thought to be demoralizing and something to be avoided at all costs. In the countries highlighted by Ripley, if the work is challenging, routine failure is a normal and acceptable part of learning.
•Meaningful tests: There is consensus in countries with high performing students that tests matter. When tests have distinct purpose, they motivate kids and teachers to work towards a clear, common goal. In the U.S., tests do not have the same direct impact on students’ lives, and the connection between testing and its effects are unclear. The message students often receive in the face of failure on “high stakes” tests is that the test was unfair; not everyone can be good at [insert subject here]; it’s OK because you tried; it ultimately has no bearing on your life. Whereas in other countries, the message is: you didn’t work hard enough, and you have to work harder next time.
American adults, including parents, community members, teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers, must consider these things moving forward. Starting now. As a matter of urgency. Countries can change. None of the countries profiled by Ripley started with a stellar system – and they’re still not without flaws. But they rallied behind a set of ideals to ignite change. It begins with us as adults to make our systems, and ultimately our students, the smartest in the world.