The posting below is a review by Robin Tatu of the book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley, Simon & Schuster 2013, 306 pages. The review appeared in the November 2013, issue of Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education. [www.asee.org] 1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036-2479. © Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Education Superpowers: How Finland, South Korea, and Poland Produce High Achievers
Rigor. The word appears more than 80 times in Amanda Ripley's new book, offering a key reason why American education is faltering: lack of rigor in classrooms, textbooks, curricula, teacher preparation, and even "conversations at home around the dining room table."
A lackluster and uneven educational system is nothing new to this country. The United States has long ranked as "typical, not much better nor much worse" than most nations when it comes to international student comparisons, particularly in math and critical thinking skills. Yet while a strong economy and high standard of living once cushioned the need for a highly educated populace - "wealth had made rigor unnecessary in the United States" writes Ripley - that situation is changing rapidly. Even as the world gears up for a fast-paced, technological, and globally connected workforce, American high school graduation rates are declining, while university freshmen and graduates alike lack requisite skills for college courses and first-time jobs.
Like others trying to make sense of the country's education dilemma, Ripley, an investigative reporter, turns to nations that achieve much stronger results. Her approach, however, moves beyond testing and political rhetoric to the students themselves. The Smartest Kids in the World follows three American high schoolers as each spends a year of study abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland - three education supernations. Ripley's "field agents" help her explore ground-level aspects of student life, from Koreans snoozing at their desks to Finnish "stoner kids" diligently taking notes in class. Some of her findings confirm what we've heard, that even Finnish rebels value their education, for example. Others are more surprising. Eric from Minnesota discovers that his Korean peers sleep during the school day because real study takes place at private nighttime academies known as hagwons, with the single goal of acing the national graduation exam. Performance on this exit test determines who joins the mere 2 percent to place into Korea's three top universities, ensuring them the best jobs and top social status. Korea's international test results may be laudable, but behind the country's stellar achievement is a troubled "Iron Child" culture, which even the minister of education decries. Nonetheless, this "hamster wheel" system produces young people able to grapple with complexity, persistence, and hard work. Unlike American youth, "they were prepared for the modern world," Ripley writes.
Finland and Poland emerge as countries with more balanced priorities and lessons to be studied. As we follow the adventures of Kim from Oklahoma, attentively cared for by her Finnish teachers, Ripley elucidates upon the intense training of instructors in this Scandinavian country, where acceptance into education programs is akin to that of top U.S. medical schools.
Less known, perhaps, are Poland's radical reforms over the past 15 years, from a revamped national curriculum to standardized tests, an additional year of high school, and incentives for teachers and schools. The new system catapulted the country from a year 2000 international test ranking of 21st in reading and 20th in math - below America and much of the developed world - to 13th in reading and 18th in math by 2003. By 2009, spending half as much per student as America, Poland outperformed it in both math and science. For Ripley, that success comes from rigor - a determination to push through reforms despite ongoing opposition.
When Ripley examines the schools of her three students at home in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, she finds everywhere an absence of rigor, from classrooms "tricked out" with sophisticated but ill-used equipment to parents far more invested in school sports than math instruction and lawmakers strenuously resisting comprehensive standards, likening tests to child abuse. Finland, Korea, and Poland are "complicated and unfinished" in their efforts, the author admits, but all three suggest ways to embrace a serious intellectual culture. Beyond another grim portrait of U.S. failure, this book animates the debate over K-12 education with lively directions for change. For engineering academics entering the fray, it provides a highly readable discussion undergirded with useful statistics and studies. The extensive bibliography, notes and appendix on "how to spot a world-class education" are all highly informative.
Robin Tatu is Prism's senior editorial consultant.