When NCTQ staff attended a communications training session a few years back, we were admonished never to talk about Finland. Those not caught up in endless edu-debates think that the people praising the Finnish education system actually want to replace our teachers with Finns. And, truth be told, the examples of Finland and other countries whose kids out-perform our own have become hackneyed. Very few of the "experts" citing these countries in their arguments have a sense of how these superior educational systems function or what it took for them to scale the heights of academic performance.
That's what makes Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World so refreshing. With the help of three American high school foreign exchange students whom she follows as they travel to Finland, Korea and Poland, Ripley manages to convey what it feels like to be immersed in educational rigor. And she deftly dispels the notion that the intensity with which these countries approach schooling is some immutable trait of national culture. These countries' leaders all took radical steps to jumpstart their educational systems. Their astounding progress begs the question: does the U.S. have what it takes to do the same?Finland, for example, realized in the 1970s that if it wanted its students to meet the much tougher national standards it had enacted, it would have to close down all of its free-standing two-year teacher training institutions. Henceforth, its teachers had to have the academic aptitude to get into and succeed in its universities. I
n 1998, the Polish government enacted higher standards and established 4,000 new junior high schools to delay academic tracking. These and other reforms enabled Polish 15 year-olds to raise their attainment by the equivalent of three-quarters of a year's worth of learning between 2000 and 2006 and move from below to above the average level of the developed world.
These kinds of results don't produce perfect harmony. Around the world, Ripley finds that everyone complains about the same issues: ill-thought out top-down mandates, friction between teachers and management, and whether equity might come at the expense of excellence. Korea's leaders rightly wonder if they might have gone too far. With the competition to get into the country's top universities so fierce, its high school students regularly catch up on sleep in class. That's not where they learn the most anyway: Korea's best secondary teachers, some of whom make as much as $4 million a year, teach in private after-school tutoring academies known as hagwons. Ripley accompanies Korean officials as they make a futile effort to shut down any hagwon still open after 10 pm.Ripley and her student informants all come away from their experiences abroad with the sense that Americans only pay lip-service to school improvement. We are altogether too quick to water down our standards whenever it looks as though students, teachers, principals and superintendents won't meet them. Indeed, this could well be the fate of the Common Core. The elites in the countries Ripley profiles all thought it was a matter of national survival to raise their countries' educational performance. As long as education reform in this country is about "other peoples children," we might not be able to generate the will necessary to do what it takes.