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2015-01-01 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Smartest Kids in the World

As we gather more and more information from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and make the obvious comparisons between countries, questions arise. Why, after five rounds of testing do some countries continually rise to the top and other, who spend more money per student, settle for spots lower on the scale?

Amanda Ripley decided to ask this question and she reports her results in The Smartest Kids in the World: and how they got that way (Simon & Schuster, 2013). She begins with a background on the PISA test and comments on taking the test herself.


She explained that “PISA demanded fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate; in other words, the basic skills I needed to do my job and take care of my family in a world choked with information and subject to sudden economic change” (p. 23).


Ripley examined the impact of PISA testing in three high-scoring countries—Finland, Korea, and Poland. She interviewed American exchange students who had attended school in those countries to get their impressions of their experiences in those schools. She also traveled to each of those countries to witness the schools first-hand, as well as talk with teachers, administrators, and students in each location. The result is an interesting look at some aspects of education that are similar to what we have in America and some practices that are very different.


In Finland, Ripley found a culture that holds teachers in the highest level of respect. Just getting into a teacher education program is a difficult challenge. Only the highest candidates even get a chance.


Ripley wrote, “Because teacher colleges selected only the top applicants in Finland and other education superpowers, those schools could spend less time doing catch-up instruction and more time on rigorous, hands-on training; because teachers entered the classroom with rigorous training and a solid education, they were less likely than American teachers to quit in frustration. This model of preparation and stability made it possible to give teachers larger class sizes and pay them decently, since the turnover costs were much lower than in other countries. And since they had all this training and support, they had the tools to help kids learn, year after year, and to finally pass a truly demanding graduation test at the end of high school” (p. 95).


In Korea, Ripley found a very different atmosphere. In the public schools, many students showed up with small pillows strapped to their arms. As soon as class started, they put their heads down and slept through the entire class. This seemed strange in a country so high in the international rankings until Ripley discovered the “hagwon” system, a network of private tutoring schools that open at 3:00 when the public schools shut down. Most students attend a hagwon for as many as eight hours after school. In fact, the Korean government had to put a curfew on hagwons because so many students were staying far into the night, then going to public school to sleep through the day. This “pressure-cooker” system developed in response to a national test which determines which college a student will attend which in turn determines their future work and pay. Parents and students are willing to endure a few years of pressure for a lifetime of good work and high pay.


While not all of this is good news, Ripley did find that high-scoring countries in general had high expectations for their students, teachers, and schools. It was not just that regulations were put in place to demand excellence or that threats were made to remove teachers whose students did not perform at a specified level, but the quality education started from the beginning. Parents are deeply involved in their child's education. Teacher training programs take the best and develop them further. Those basics lead to far more productive results than any value-added measurements or punishments for schools or teachers.


Ripley noted that “Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning” (p. 111).


One education official in Poland, which climbed up the success ladder of PISA rankings faster than any other nation, summed up one of the most important aspects of success. He said, “Everything is based on the teachers. We need good teachers—well-prepared, well-chosen” (p. 147).

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