Editor’s Note: Amanda Ripley is the award-winning journalist whose acclaimed book “The Smartest Kids in the World” sought to understand why other countries’ children were outperforming U.S. children on international tests. The Detroit News interviewed her earlier this month.
Detroit News: In your book “The Smartest Kids in the World” why did you focus on schools in Finland, Poland and South Korea?
Amanda Ripley: I wanted to look at countries that outperformed the U.S. on more than one subject, so I looked at student performance data on the international PISA assessment, but particularly math PISA data, because math is our Achilles heel as a country. I also wanted to look at high school graduation rates as well as issues of equity. That’s how I ended up with Finland and South Korea, which have been consistently top tier performers. I selected Poland because it also is a top performer but only recently became one.
News: Some have argued that our education problems are the result of the struggles of our low-income kids, and that our middle class and wealthy children are competitive with the best in the world. What did you find?
Ripley: Poverty is definitely part of our problem, but it’s not the case that our more affluent students are doing as well or better than their income peers in other countries. In math, for example, even the richest 25 percent of American kids perform below a couple of dozen other countries when you compare them to well-off kids in those places. We do better in reading
News: What did you conclude were the key factors that enabled those three countries to outperform the U.S.?
Ripley: In South Korea, you have very strong, sometimes too strong, parental and cultural reverence for learning at a very high level. There are very high expectations for what kids can achieve all through the culture, including teachers, kids and parents. This drive is an important piece of Korea’s success, and is a factor we struggle with in the U.S.
One of Finland’s winning factors is teacher selection and training. In the late 1960s the Finns shut down their education colleges and reopened them in the most prestigious universities in the country. They make sure that their teachers spend a full year in classrooms learning from great teachers before being expected to lead their own class. Education colleges in Finland are as difficult to get into as MIT or Georgetown, with only 10-15 percent of applicants getting admitted. That doesn’t guarantee they’re going to be better teachers, but it does mean that teaching is a prestigious, respected profession. Kids know how hard it was for their teachers to become teachers. There’s a lot of respect and trust that flows from that.
News: You interviewed U.S. high school exchange students who were in these countries. What struck them as the key differences in their host countries?
Ripley: The kids were so valuable because they see things that I just can’t see. For example, Kim from Oklahoma talked a lot about how much other kids in Finland seemed to care about school. She could tell that these kids were not any smarter than the kids back home, but they seemed more invested in working hard. She asked one: “Why do you care so much?” Her classmate had a hard time with the question because it was so organic that Finnish students would care about school, because that’s how they would get into college, get a good job, and have an interesting life. It made Kim wonder why kids in her hometown in Oklahoma didn’t care as much.
There’s a lot of complexity there, but one of the things I learned was that kids take school seriously when it’s serious. That’s part of the explanation for why all three countries I studied did better than the U.S. — they saw education as serious business.
News: If you were advising a state like Michigan that has consistently scored poorly on these same international tests, what actions would you suggest?
Ripley: One thing that works around the globe is investing in great teachers by choosing them carefully, training them rigorously, and putting them in a classroom for a least a year with great teachers. We’ve tried a lot of things in the U.S., but we’ve never gotten serious about teacher training and support. If we think teaching is important, intellectually demanding work, we should act like it the way we do with other jobs.