Where Do the Smartest Kids in the World Go to School?

Imagine if teachers in the United States were as revered as doctors or lawyers, were paid salaries that rivaled corporate executives, and had dedicated students more interested in academics than making varsity sports teams. It may sound far-fetched, but  journalist Amanda Ripley discovered these scenarios by following three exchange students who attended school in other countries. She shares their stories in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Ripley follows Kim, 15, who raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, who exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, who leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Their experiences and Ripley’s exhaustive research into the educational systems of these countries reveals a startling transformation in student achievement. NEA Today asked Ripley what educators in America can learn from these countries.

What was it about this topic that motivated you to write a book about it?

I kept hearing about these countries with incredibly high achieving students and I kind of didn’t believe it. I wanted to find out, and really see what it’s like to be a student in these countries. It’s incredibly exciting to see how they’ve transformed. Finland had a 10 percent graduation rate in the 1950s. Now the graduation rate is in the 90s. I wanted to report on how other countries can transform complicated education systems by raising the bar on what students can do.

If America were to emulate the rigorous teacher-prep programs of Finland, and attract the best and the brightest to the profession as they have done, what would be the necessary steps?

Finland closed down its education colleges in the late 1960s and reopened them in the top, most selective universities in the country. The impact was significant in a variety of ways — it sent a signal to politicians, taxpayers and especially to Finland’s kids about how serious their country was about education and how hard and important the teaching profession was. Getting into a teacher education program in Finland is like getting into MIT in America. Students know their teachers have to be incredibly well educated in order to get that job, and they understand how hard it is to get into a teacher education school. They respect that process and what their educators can offer them. One thing we underestimate in the United States is the importance of student buy-in – how much do they believe in the system? Students recognize the apparent hypocrisy in our country. We say education is important and that teaching is hard, and then we don’t act like it. What we can learn from Finland is that if you make the profession more prestigious, more people will want to be a part of it. In Finland, being a teacher is like being a surgeon or fighter pilot or CEO. The entire country recognizes that it is serious, challenging and dynamic work requiring constant collaboration.

The South Korean university entrance exam given to all high school seniors is considered the most critical exam of a citizen’s life and students will study 12 to 16 hours a day throughout high school to make sure they’re  ready. The preparation and pressure surrounding these exams is excessive, but is there anything educators here can learn about motivating students from South Korea?

There are fascinating lessons from Korea even though we don’t want to emulate the whole system. While sometimes we underestimate what students can do, South Korea has a history of overestimating.  There’s an assumption that all kids can do better in school if they work harder and get more help. If you work harder, you’ll do better, no matter what. That assumption is pervasive in a lot of Asia and it’s a mindset we can learn from. Too many of us think that some students have innate talents for math and some don’t. But the growth mindset is incredibly healthy and powerful and other countries have adopted it while we have not.

Finland also has a final high school exam that is hard core – it stretches out over three weeks, lasts 50 hours, and is extremely rigorous. Everyone understands that this end of school exam directly impacts what college or training they’ll attend, and it’s easy to connect the dots between the test and how interesting their lives will be. Finland has a focus on quality and rigor of tests rather than quantity – they give fewer high-stakes tests, but they’re harder. The Finnish section, for example, takes two days.  Students read several texts and write essays over 6 hours. They answer questions like why is it so difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East? If we created smarter tests, we could have fewer of them, and it would likely create more parent and teacher buy-in.

It’s probably unrealistic to keep the sports culture out of schools in the U.S., but are there lessons we can learn from Poland about celebrating academics and academic achievement, as much as we do high school football wins?

None of these countries takes sports as seriously as the U.S. In fact, they don’t celebrate athletics in school at all. The student who went to Poland was from Pennsylvania, a big high school football state. At his hometown high school, there were three different reporters who covered every football game, and the local paper had an entire section devoted to high school sports. At his school in Poland, there wasn’t even a sports field. When students end up the newspaper in South Korea, it’s because of an academic triumph. There’s a real difference in the message kids receive about what’s powerful and important. Kids enjoy sports in all of these countries, but they play on their own, particularly in high school. Sports get less time consuming as students get older because the mindset is that they should invest more time in school as a teenager.

I wouldn’t suggest that we get rid of sports in our schools, because they’re really fun and build community and school spirit. But is there a way to find a balance and carry more of that spirit and good will into academic endeavors?

What are the ways parents are involved in these top countries that are different and more effective?

One of the biggest surprises for me was that you didn’t see parents at the high schools in these countries pretty much ever. Parents weren’t volunteering or holding fundraisers or attending Parent/Teacher conferences. I asked Kim’s Finnish host mother what the school asks her to do to get involved, and she was totally confused by the question. They don’t ask her to do anything, she said, though she sort of liked the idea of volunteering. But in Finland it’s understood that parents are involved at home. This was true of South Korea as well. There’s the sense that part of your job as a parent to be a coach for your child in learning from a very young age. It can be very powerful. Surveys of parents have has shown that Asian American parents talk to very young kids about numbers, and teaching them can be fun and loving, not at all “Tiger Mom,” whereas some Caucasian American parents buy placemats with numbers on them and feel their job is done.

There are many parents who are involved at home, and many educators here who would agree that a parent who partners with them at home to help their child think more critically is more valuable than one who volunteers in the classroom. Parents can ask their educators how best to get involved and trade ideas with each other. When my child was in kindergarten, for example, the teacher sat a group of us down and gave us tips to help make our children become critical thinkers. One way was to always ask questions while reading stories, like, “Can you predict what happens next?”

Are standardized tests that measure teacher or school performance a part of the educational systems in any of the countries? How is teacher performance measured?

Most of the top performing countries do not routinely use standardized tests to measure teacher performance, and the reasons vary dramatically. In Finland test data isn’t used because of the high level of trust in their teachers. Still, there are some checks and balances. The Finnish government administers tests of a sample of students around the country every couple of years to make sure achievement is up, and they share that data with principals, but it’s not used to evaluate teachers. In South Korea, they actually expressed a strong desire to use tests to evaluate teachers but they didn’t know how to do so fairly. There is so much education going on, with so many teachers teaching kids the same subject in school as well as in the after school “hagwons,” nobody could could identify who led students to the high test score.

Do you think the new Common Core standards will impact the rigor and therefore the outcomes for American students?

All of these countries also came to an agreement on higher, fewer, and clearer standards. In that sense the Common Core is an obvious pre-requisite to a more rigorous system. It also opens the door to collaboration and is a huge opportunity with the creative things teachers can do with the standards. But they need to have the time and space to really marinate in the new standards. Teachers don’t have a lot of time to collaborate and plan in the U.S., whereas teachers in other countries do have that time built into their days.

What do you think are the main issues hindering the success of our education system?

I think our levels of child poverty make education much harder in the US. On average, our kids are better off than kids in other developed countries, but we tend to cluster low-income kids together in one school. Our schools aren’t that diverse, and we’re one of the few countries where more resources aren’t distributed to the neediest schools.

There’s also a lack of rigor throughout the system – in what kids are learning and what’s demanded of them, in how teachers are selected and trained, even in how parents are involved. There’s a persistent and systemic lack of rigor in math and science.

We could overcome a lot if we combined rigor with meaningful teacher training and shifted resources to where they’re needed most.