Tuesday, March 25, 2014


For those of you Americans with school-age children like me, you know that elementary and middle school can be a time of endless hand-wringing, soul-searching and parental banter about how to ensure the “best” or the “right” education for your children. Some previously public-school-minded parents truck their kids off the private school at the first sign of stagnation, and use the comparatively better institutional structure, like-minded peer groups & heightened academic rigor as salves for their tremendously lightened savings accounts. My wife and I not there (yet, if ever). We’re still working through how much of a contribution to make at home, at our son’s public school itself, and in advocacy on a broader scale to institute meaningful change at the district and even federal level, as soon as we figure out exactly what it is that needs changing.

It can get to be something of a preoccupation, you might say. I suppose that’s healthy at some level. Did our parents care so much about the schools we went to and the education we were getting? It depends on whom your parents were, but mine sent me to the neighborhood schools in the 70s and 80s; I was a fairly decent student in those schools; I learned the basics while doing almost no homework; and outside of admonishments to get A’s and B’s (which I mostly did), it didn’t seem like much hand-wringing about the broader system was happening at home. The only educational controversies I remember were racial flare-ups I’d read about in other states: busing, and other harbingers of white flight and black acceptance only a decade after the Civil Right Act.

Yet as the US sees itself fall further and further down the academic achievement scales relative to other countries (with math, science and reading scores being the harbingers of doom), and as American parents reach their boiling points with regard to intransigent teacher’s unions, underqualified teachers; dim-witted, dumbed-down curricula and so on, there’s a cottage industry in books and films seeking to make a difference. We’ve seen just in this country how successful people who challenge the institutional status quo can be, in the limited arenas in which they’ve been allowed to experiment; witness Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in New York or Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in the same state; or Michelle Rhee’s attempt as Washington DC chancellor to tie teacher compensation to student performance, while rooting out the ancient “battle axe” teachers collecting paychecks to babysit while the minds of the children rot in their classrooms.

Amanda Ripley decided not to rehash the arguments we’ve been having as a nation about vouchers, charters, unions and so on in her book, and instead trained her eye on those nations that were scoring highest on the standardized PISA test. What did Finland, South Korea and Poland do differently than the United States, mired as it is in test-taking mediocrity next to the likes of Estonia and Spain in collective scholastic ability, and yet with such loftier economic heights from which to fall? She followed a cadre of American high schoolers as they spent years abroad in Finnish, South Korean and Polish schools, and came back with some pretty strong insights that she dishes out piecemeal, in the Socratic method, throughout the book.

More than anything else, she observes that we Americans do not insist on rigor: in our teachers, nor in our students. We’re behind because we’re lazy and proud. We let teachers become teachers on the flimsiest of requirements, which institutionalizes mediocrity in students. We then barely pay them a respectful wage, thereby repelling the best and brightest in our society, whom we need more than ever as teachers, into other fields. In Finland, the teaching profession is revered, and only 30% of applicants to the teaching colleges are accepted, and must pass a series of intense tests to graduate and begin their careers. They’re also paid well, befitting their place in Finnish society. Teenage students in Finland, while far more alike than different than their American equivalents, take school extremely seriously. It is a culture in which kids can still be kids, with leisure time the equal of ours, but one in which education holds a central and sacred place in society from cradle to collage.

We also hold our students to far lower standards, letting them skate by to graduation and finding untold numbers of excuses in allowing them to do so. Other societies profiled by Ripley (as well as in my aforementioned US examples) have proven that kids, no matter whether rich or poor or white or brown, can deliver exceptional results with the right teachers, rewards and admonishments. It starts with rigor, and it continues with a belief in education for its own sake (and for its role in a better life, both economically and otherwise). We parents, important as we are as we dutifully read to our kids at home, actually have less to do with eventual scholastic achievement and skills-gathering than we think. Teachers, society-accepted incentives (If I go to college I will break the cycle of poverty and lack of achievement I was born into) and even peer environment matter greater more.

Ripley also takes aim at the ridiculously disproportionate importance of sports in American schools, relative to the nations with whom we compete in education. I heartily agree. The amount of money and attention lavished on athletic programs in high schools is shameful when so many students are dropping out or floundering in mediocre, rigor-free schools. We as a culture have let sports so define our way of life that we pretend that all this in-school and afterschool athletic activity funded by our taxes is good for all (reducing obesity etc.), when in fact only a small subset of students actually participate in it. In other countries, as Ripley deftly shows, sports have their place – but not at school. (South Koreans have their own obsession on scholastic achievement that’s potentially more damaging, which Ripley, to her credit, does not flinch from condemning in the least).

I found this book far more eye-opening and better-written than Paul Tough’s and a better spur to action to boot. Ripley write simply but forcefully, and she’s non-ideological while radiating acres of common sense. There aren’t miracles happening overseas that we can’t replicate, and there aren’t magical qualities genetically imbued in Finns or Poles that make their kids able to do things ours can’t. They’ve just received, and acted on, some essential truths about learning and achievement faster than we have, and their societies are reaping the gains accordingly. May we be so brave as to shake up our own stagnant and outdated educational systems as well as they have.