Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Review: "The Smartest Kids in the World"

Amanda Ripley. The Smartest Kids in the World.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 306 pp. (199 pp. main text). Hardcover. $28.

On December 3, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) will release the results of the 2012 PISA test, which ranks countries based on the performance of 15-year olds around the world on assessment of reading, mathematics, and science skills.  When the test was last administered in 2009, U.S. students ranked 17th overall, and a below-average 25th in math. At the top of the list were Shanghai, Korea, and Finland.

The following school year, 2010-2011, journalist Amanda Ripley, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, set out to discover how Korea and Finland had become educational powerhouses while the United States, despite a decade of educational reform under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, still languished in the middle of the pack. To tell her story, she enlisted three American exchange students bound for Finland, Korea, and Poland, and used their experiences to contrast the educational systems in their host countries and back home in the United States. The story was different in each country, but Ripley came to the conclusion that what each of the educational powerhouses shared was a commitment to academic rigor.

The educational powerhouses have rigorous teacher training programs. All students in these elite countries are required to pass a challenging exam to graduate from secondary school. Students are characterized by an intense drive to succeed. Both teachers and students take learning seriously.

In Finland, where her informant Kim spends a year as an AFS exchange student, Ripley finds much higher standards for teacher training than in the United States, much greater respect for teaching as a profession, and higher compensation for the teachers themselves. In contrast, she offers the example of Kim’s math teacher back home in Oklahoma, who didn’t major in math in college and became a teacher so that he could coach high school football. Ripley concludes that in the United States, the obsession with sports, classroom technology, and the cultivation of self-esteem distract from what should be the core focus on educating students to a high academic standard.

Ripley returns to the subject of high school sports in a recent piece in The Atlantic,The Case Against High School Sports.” In that article, she focuses on a school district in Texas that was able to boost its academic performance after it eliminated its athletic programs. In a reponse to Ripley’s article, David Cutler takes her to task for “expecting readers to go along with sweeping generalizations based on a single case study.” In The Smartest Kids in the World, the focus on the experience of her three exchange students—Kim from Oklahoma in Finland, Eric from Minnesota in Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania in Poland—gives the book that same feeling of presenting generalizations based on limited case studies.

For example, she talks about “the stoner kid” that Kim encounters in her Finnish school. She reports Kim’s surprise that “stoners” even existed in Finland, and that, unlike “stoners” back home in Oklahoma, this Finnish “stoner” was “a model student.” The lesson that Ripley draws from this is that all students in Finland, even the stoners, were more serious about education than American students.  But basing her conclusion on the stereotypical responses of a sixteen-year old exchange student doesn’t exactly make for a convincing argument. She excels at anecdote, but falls short when it comes to analysis.

Ripley has been roundly criticized for relying exclusively on data from the PISA, which doesn’t account for the relative levels of poverty in the countries whose students are being tested. According to a report of a study of PISA scores conducted at Stanford University: “Based on their analysis, the co-authors found that average U.S. scores in reading and math on the PISA are low partly because a disproportionately greater share of U.S. students comes from disadvantaged social class groups, whose performance is relatively low in every country.” If the effects of socioeconomic inequality were factored into the data, the United States would join the ranks of educational powerhouses. The Stanford study, co-authored by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, also indicated that the achievement gap is smaller in the United States than in “similar post-industrial countries,” and that the achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students has been rising significantly over time, while it has been falling in countries like Finland and Korea.

According to another analysis of 2009 PISA data, when schools in America with a lower than 10% poverty rate were compared to schools in Finland, the U.S. outranked Finland by 15 percentage points. The problem is that, while the overall rate of child poverty is about 3.5% in Finland and about 10% in South Korea, it’s about 23% in the United States. If we want to be in the same league as Finland and South Korea, we need to reduce poverty. That’s the most significant step we can take in school reform.

Child poverty rates in OECD countries. From the Washington Post

 But Ripley largely ignores the issue of poverty, except to say that Poland, with a poverty rate comparable to that of the United States, achieves comparable educational results.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Korea (which doesn’t report its poverty data) outranks the United States is that most of the learning takes place in after-hours for-profit tutoring and test preparation centers called “hagwons.” Such centers, with their high fees, would be out of reach for less affluent students. In South Korea, the culture seems to promote intense, even suicidal stress among students prepping for the high-stakes graduation and college entrance exam—but even Ripley admits that many Korean students burn out once they get to college. The system doesn’t appear to foster a life-long love of learning.

Ripley is an engaging writer who easily carries the reader along with her anecdotes and her unfeigned passion for education, and there’s a lot that she gets right. Yes, it’s important for parents to read to their children. Yes, a good teacher is more important than an interactive whiteboard.

But Ripley, with her love of the simple, defining anecdote, too often seems to fall for a version of the “great man theory,” believing that all it takes is a visionary leader—Andreas Schliecher, who devised the PISA; reformist Polish education minister Miroslaw Handke; reformist Rhode Island education commissioner Deborah Gist; Success Academy charter schools CEO Eva Moskowitz—to push education in the right direction. But I’m more persuaded by the model outlined by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars [see my review here], who argues that it’s not the headline-grabbing reformer, like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, but the steady effort of a team of dedicated educators working together that yields the best results.