Ripley, A. (2014). The smartest kids in the world: And how they got that way. New York: Simon & Schuster
I haven’t written an update here for about a year. But I have been overwhelmed with requests from my readers to persevere . . . OK, actually I just realized that I read closer when I hold myself accountable for writing a post about the book I am reading. So here we go . . .
I figured I would make my triumphant return by sharing Amanda Ripley’s great book in case anyone out there interested in education has not read it yet. We were fortunate in my district to partner with our Glenbard Parent Series and bring Ms. Ripley in to our district to speak to our entire staff. I also got the chance to talk to her after her keynote, and I learned a lot from her perspective as someone who is not an educator, but is an amazing investigative journalist writing about education.
WARNING: This post includes spoilers regarding her conclusions. If you haven’t read the book and know you are the type of person who won’t read it if you know “where it is going”, please just stop here and go read the book. Otherwise, read on for the moments from the book that I found most salient and motivating. I do not try to summarize any of the students’ individual stories here, but this is where the book really comes to life and why you need to read it yourself. It is the poignant student perspectives she captures so richly that make the book’s recommendations for reform so compelling.
In a perfect school, Amanda Ripley Would Be Our Public Relations Coordinator. Ok so I need to remind you here that this blog is completely hypothetical. In a real world, she would be a bad choice for this role, because I am afraid she would be a little “too” honest if there is such a thing in public service (her take on high school sports, for example, would not go over well). However, in a perfect, hypothetical world she would be an ideal public relations coordinator for our school district because she would tell a narrative about our students, families, and teachers that would emphasize how urgently important it is for us to have high expectations for our students and back up these high expectations with actions that send the right signals to our students.
At the outset, I would like acknowledge that there have been several excellent critiques published over the last couple years that have taken issue with the misuse of the word “rigor” in education circles. However, I think if you read her book, I think you will find that this criticism does not apply to Ripley because she defines it so comprehensively throughout the book. In fact, to put the biggest spoiler right up front, her conclusion is unequivocal on this term alone: “One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.” (p.193)
Here is the frame for this bestseller: Ripley studies 3 U.S. high school students studying abroad in Finland, Poland, and South Korea in depth, while also analyzing results from many other U.S. exchange students in these nations and students native to these 3 nations doing exchanges in the U.S. She juxtaposes these very personal vignettes and survey results with her own investigative reporting, which includes interviews with educators and policymakers around the world, data analysis, and personal projects (she personally took the PISA test to see what it was like).
Her passion for the project stems from her discovery that some nations were doing an amazing job educating their children without any clear advantages over the U.S., at least upon initial examination.
. . . in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.
How to explain it? American kids were better off, on average, than the typical child in Japan, New Zealand, or South Korea, yet they knew far less math than those children. Our most privileged teenagers had highly educated parents and attended the richest schools in the world, yet they ranked eighteenth in math compared to their privileged peers around the world, scoring well below affluent kids in New Zealand, Belgium, France, and Korea, among other places. The typical child in Beverly Hills performed below average, compared to all kids in Canada (not some other distant land, Canada). A great education by the standards of suburban America looked, from afar, exceedingly average. (p.4)
The metric she uses to define which nations are getting it right is The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which she provides a detailed description and history of in her book. She also takes the PISA test herself to go through what students experience. She seems to score pretty well, but she should right? She leaves the test thinking that it does indeed measure critical thinking, which is the cornerstone of 21st Century learning.
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. What did it mean for a country if most of its teenagers did not do well on this test? Not all of our kids had to be engineers or lawyers, but didn’t all of them need to know how to think? (p.23)
By the way, the only metric we beat all of the other countries (except Luxembourg) on was spending per pupil. (p.24) Without commensurate results, this is not something to brag about.
Why do these nations achieve better results with their students than we do? Well, Ripley is too good of a reporter to make it simple, but she is also too good to not distill it down. What she reduces it down to is what I mentioned earlier: a societal consensus “that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.” (p.193) She argues that “Wealth had made rigor optional in America” in the past, but the fiercely competitive and flat global economy now makes it essential. (p.193)
So what is Ripley’s definition of rigor? It is very comprehensive and you need to read the book, but I think all of the components she cites revolve around the various “signals” (this is the word show uses throughout) a society expresses around if and why learning is important.
Our expectations for what students can do is a signal. She argues that we have low expectations for kids in math for example, citing surveys where “four out of every ten American fourth graders said their math work was too easy. . . Compared to countries around the world, the typical eighth grade math class in the United States featured sixth or seventh grade content; by the same measuring stick, the highest performing countries taught eighth graders ninth grade math.” (p. 77)
Our standardized tests, although often criticized for putting too much pressure on kids, resonate with students differently than the few, but very important matriculation tests students in other countries take. Ripley cites a reflection of one of the American students she followed.
Now, thinking back on the rhetoric about high-stakes testing and stressed out kids, Eric almost laughed. American tests were not high stakes for students. In fact, the stakes couldn’t have been much lower, especially for standardized tests. The consequences, if there were any, extended mostly to the adults who worked at the school; their school might, for example, be labeled in need of improvement by the federal government and, in a few places, a small fraction of teachers with extremely low scores might eventually lose their jobs. But for most kids, standardized tests were frequent, unsophisticated, and utterly irrelevant to their lives. (p.57)
The lack of focus shown in our frequent, low-stakes standardized tests, is also seen in our often incoherent standards. Ripley argues that countries that have fewer, clearer, and higher standards are better positioned than in the U.S. where “America’s tradition of local control was a nightmare for teachers. They were left to pick and choose between clashing standards as best they could, repeating subjects again and again under the direction of repetitive, sprawling textbooks.” (p.74) She cites studies that show our textbooks are four times the length of nations where they are clear about what standards students should learn when so they can master key skills and move on to higher order learning. She has a great section specifically on math which she sees as a “language of logic” which is of “rising value in a world in which information was cheap and messy.” (p.70)
In her section focused on Math, Ripley describes how it is not just the coherent standards , but also the engaging, artful instruction that makes a difference in student learning. She describes the experience of an American student re-engaging with math due to the way the teacher interwove mathematics disciplines in real-world applications.
He noticed, however, that the students were learning geometry in a totally different way from how he had learned it. The teacher wove trigonometry and calculus into the lesson, following the thread of the lesson across disciplines, as though geometry were just one solar system in a larger universe of math. Together, the different disciplines could solve problems in the real world, where mathematics was not boxed into neat categories. Geometry was the study of shapes, after all, and calculus was the study of change. To figure out how shapes behaved when they changed perhaps to design a video game you needed both. (p.76)
Teaching is an incredibly complex craft, and this kind of integrated instruction has very high demands on the skill of the artist. To scale this kind of teaching requires another key signal Ripley sees as a common thread in each of the three nations she dives deep into: they have very high standards for who can be a teacher. Her book is replete with stories of universities in these countries having very high admission thresholds, student-teacher applicants being rejected multiple times, and rigorous batteries of performance assessments that require a candidate to prove they can teach before they are allowed to do so. The bright side of these high expectations for those who enter the profession is that it allowed these nations to do as Finland did and remove authoritarian accountability measures and top-down control of instruction.
The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated. (p.90)
It isn’t just teachers who Ripley says we need to hold to higher expectations. She criticizes parents for sending the wrong signals about what is important. Some of the things she criticizes border on sacrilege (the emphasis in the U.S. on sports takes a beating in her critique). Some things she says parents should do are less controversial but too infrequently practiced: things like having in-depth conversations with your student about what they are doing in school, reading to them when they are young, and (gasp!) reading for pleasure in front of them.
And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said. (p.111)
Ripley ties the reform stories in these countries together beautifully around this theme of rigor. But she doesn’t make it sound easy. When you read the book you will get a good picture of the growing pains these countries needed to suffer through to achieve these reforms. But you also get a vision about how the change happens.
One thing led to another. Highly educated teachers also chose material that was more rigorous, and they had the fluency to teach it. Because they were serious people doing hard jobs and everyone knew it, they got a lot of autonomy to do their work. That autonomy was another symptom of rigor. Teachers and principals had enough leeway to do their jobs like true professionals. They were accountable for results, but autonomous in their methods. (p.116-117)
The huge takeaway that was common between the U.S. exchange students she profiled was the clear message they experienced in the cultures of these other countries that learning was serious work: “one message: that kids’ futures depended not on their batting averages, their self-esteem, or their Facebook status, but on how hard they worked to master rigorous academic material.” (p.58) Ripley beautifully concludes with a simile addressing this unanimity of high expectations that manages to get in one last dig on American sports culture in the process.
That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else. High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted. (p.191)
Amanda Ripley would be our Public Relations Coordinator because she would tell a narrative to our educators, our students, and their families that would hold us to the high expectations of our rhetoric.
Next On In A Perfect School . . . Dan Rothstein & Luz Santana Would Teach Us (and our Students) to Ask Our Own Questions . . .