When journalist Amanda Ripley was assigned to learn why the United States fared poorly on the global PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, she was in for a surprise. PISA, administered every three years, evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in 70 countries. Ripley found that the highest ranked countries, not previously known for their “smart kids,” had made remarkable turnarounds in recent years. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World (Simon & Schuster 2013), she tells what changed and how it could happen here.
There are many people in this country who have never heard of the PISA test.
The PISA test is one measure I think is better than the alternatives in trying to compare kids’ ability not to memorize information and regurgitate it, but to really use it to manipulate knowledge to solve problems they haven’t seen before. I took the PISA to make sure it was different than your typical standardized test, and it really was. It’s not perfect, but I had to think to answer the questions. There was a lot of long-form writing I had to do. There was no right [or wrong] answer to many of the questions. And they were the kinds of problems that I encounter in my actual adult life, where you are trying to sift through a lot of information and come to a conclusion about something that is complex and dynamic.
We don’t know what the jobs of tomorrow will be, but we know that kids who have the ability to learn and to think for themselves and persist will be better off than kids who don’t.
You found that there are other countries that invest more in education and seem to take it more seriously than we do. It’s not a flattering picture of American education.
No, it’s true. And it’s hard because this is a big country with huge strengths and many thousands of amazing teachers, many of whom I’ve been privileged enough to meet and spend time with. All the rigor, and joy, and hard work that goes into teaching—all those things do exist in the U.S., but it’s just a question of scaling it up and getting the public behind it.
Do you think we don’t care enough about education?
We care about education but we don’t think it needs to be hard. In other words, we want it to be fun, and we want it to have sports, and we want teaching to be accessible to anyone who wants to teach, and there’s a kind of fog about what the vision is. Education is about a lot of things, but it’s not necessarily about rigorous academic mastery here.
The countries you wrote about spend far more time and money on educating teachers.
Right. The problem here is that we spend a lot of college students’ money and federal loan money on educating about twice as many teachers as we need. It’s harder to play on the football team than it is to become a teacher.
I repeatedly encountered people in Finland who had not gotten into teacher training college on their first attempt, or even second attempt, or never. And that is not something you see here in the U.S.
Their standards are more strict. These countries all recruit from the top third of their graduating class. But I had underestimated how much that matters to everyone else, too. It sends a message to politicians, parents, and kids about how serious the profession is. Once you have that, it’s easier to justify paying teachers more, giving them more autonomy, and easier to get kids to buy into school, because you are walking the walk. You are not just giving lip service to the idea that education is hard and teaching is hard, and serious, and important. You are actually acting like it is.
I think those “signaling effects,” as economists say, are profound and underestimated in the debates we have about education policy.
Where did you find the young people that served as your field guides?
I learned as a reporter that kids can tell you in 20 minutes what it will take you three or four years to figure out as an adult visiting a school or reading about education from your office. I wanted kids who could actually see the water they swim in and compare, in some small but profound way, what they saw abroad to what they saw back home in the U.S. Luckily, there are thousands of teenagers who switch places every year on exchange programs, through organizations like AFS and the Rotary Club. The kids themselves weren’t any more intellectual or nobler than their friends back home, but they seemed to buy into the idea that what they did in school would directly affect how interesting their lives were. And that was fascinating.
You also worked with exchange students coming to this country. How did they perceive our education system?
The ones who had come here to live and go to school here did comment on how much they liked their American teachers. This is an important part of the story I don’t want to forget to mention. I think there was a real sense of surprise and excitement that their American teachers were friendly toward them, wanted to hear from them, talk to them. The classrooms were so egalitarian compared to classrooms in Germany or Austria or Italy.
There’s a big push here for charters and privatized schools. Is there anything comparable in the countries you wrote about?
No. There are a lot of countries with the greater percentage of their kids in private school. The U.S. does not, relatively speaking, have that many kids in private school. But you don’t really see charters in the same way over there. In Finland and Korea there are specialty high schools almost like magnet schools. So there is more school choice than I expected in different forms.
But whatever these countries did to get where they are, it wasn’t by blowing up their systems and starting over with charter schools or using vouchers.
They didn’t blow up their systems but they did change what they were doing, right?
What they did was blow up their education school. Finland, for example, shut down its teacher training schools and reopened them in the top eight universities. But they worked within the system they had. They did make big changes and they did, at least in Finland’s case, have a less adversarial relationship with labor. There’s more flexibility to make changes within the system when there’s less contention.
I think the lesson for me from Finland was to really focus on quality above all else. They have fewer standardized tests but the kids are smarter. And they have less homework but it’s much more challenging and requires kids to think. And they have teachers who are extremely well-educated, well-trained, and well-supported.
One big difference between our schools and those in the countries you wrote about was the absence of classroom technology. Can you weigh in?
And none of the kids I followed missed the technology they had back in their American classrooms—the smartboards, iPads, and laptops. I find that after the first couple of weeks it’s really adults who are more interested in classroom technology than kids.
Kids like technology in their pockets and their book bags, but what they find when they are actually sitting in a classroom for 35 hours a week depends on what the teacher does with these things—you have an iPad and then it breaks, or you have a smartboard and it never gets hooked up, or you just use it like a chalkboard.
That speaks to a broader tendency of our culture to look for quick fixes and shortcuts, when really rigorous work—trying, failing, making mistakes, trying a different way, getting help, collaborating with teachers—those are the kinds of things that seem to lead to exceptional results all over the world. Not iPads.
That’s teaching higher level thinking, which we don’t emphasize here.
Right. There’s just no evidence, as you know, that these investments in technology are leading to learning and, particularly, higher level thinking. So, here again you see a kind of mission confusion about what school is for and what kids are capable of.
Can we replicate here any of the success you witnessed in other countries?
I think we already are to some degree. There are individual classrooms in schools right now that are every bit as rigorous, and probably better in many ways, than schools in Finland, because they have this kind of American legacy of holistic activities for kids, but they’ve got a real focus on rigorous learning as the priority.
In the book I talk a little bit about Success Academy’s school in New York. I know that’s a charter school, but I think it’s a great example that could be done anywhere. They call it “joyful rigor.” They teach their kindergartners science five times a week.
They believe there is nothing more exciting and engaging than rigorous intellectual work. They give their teachers time to prepare for that and expect them to prepare to read a book to a class of first graders like you’d prepare to defend a dissertation. It’s really cool. They are also doing chess, and doing sports to some very limited, reasonable degree. Yet 75 percent of their kids are low-income students. So they are dealing with huge, huge challenges and still getting top of the world results.