Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,
has garnered positive reviews in the Economist
, the New York Times
, USA Today
, the Daily Beast
and US News and World Report
. Is it really that good? It's pretty darn good. As the subtitle promises, Ripley sets out tell the education success stories of three countries: Finland and South Korea (whose 15 year olds score very high on the PISA test) and Poland (offered as an example of a country in transition, and making significant progress).What's Ripley's answer to the subtitle? They got that way by engaging, from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.
In other words, the open secret is the curriculum.Along the way to this conclusion, she dispenses with various explanations for US kids mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. I've made these arguments myself so naturally I found them persuasive:
What is the explanation? According to Ripley, there is a primary postulate running through the psyche of South Koreans, Finns, and Poles when it comes to education: an expectation that the work will be hard. Everything else is secondary. So anything that gets in the way, anything that compromises the work, will be downplayed or eliminated. Sports, for example. Kids do that on their own time, and it's not part of school culture.
- Poverty is higher in the US. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don't end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The US fares poorly on this statistic.
- The US doesn't spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. But because of local funding we perversely shower money on schools attended by the wealthy and spend less on the schools attended by poor kids.
- The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.
- The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.
- Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? It's not a race. Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.
Several consequences follow from this laser-like focus on academic rigor. For example, if schoolwork is challenging kids are going to fail frequently. So failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.
If the academic work for students will be difficult, teachers will necessarily have to be very carefully selected and well trained. And you'll do whatever is necessary to make that happen. Even if it means, as in Finland, offering significant financial support during their training.
So what is the primary postulate of American education?
Ripley doesn't say, and I'm not sure Americans are sufficiently unified to name one. But two assumptions strike me as candidates.
First, that learning is natural, natural meaning that a propensity to learn is innate, instinctive and therefore inevitable. That, in turn, means that it should be easy. This assumption is pretty much the opposite of the one Ripley assigns to South Korea, Finland, and Poland.
Many Americans seem to think that it's not normal for schoolwork to be challenging enough that it takes persistence. In fact, if you have to try much harder than other kids, in our system you're a good candidate for a diagnosis and an IEP.
This expectation that things should be easy may explain our credulity for educational gimmicks, for that's what gimmicks do: they promise to make learning easy for everyone. Can't learn math? It's because your learning style hasn't been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.
The second assumption I often see is that "rigor" and "misery" are synonyms. Rigor means that you will be challenged. It means you may not succeed quickly. It means your cognitive resources will be stretched. It doesn't mean you are being punished, nor that you will be unhappy.
At the same time, I can't agree with the "play is all you need" crowd. Play can be cognitively enriching, but that doesn't mean that all play is cognitively enriching.
It's easy to create schoolwork that's rigorous and a grind likely to make kids hate school. Ripley offers South Korea as an example. Children there are miserable, adults hate the system, and despite kids' excellent test scores, everyone sees the Korean system as dysfunctional.
It's much tougher to educate kids in a way that is challenging but engaging. That's Finland, according to Ripley. And she's here to remind us that most of what has been pointed to as responsible for the Finnish miracle is not. What's responsible is the rigor of the work kids have been asked to do.
Will Americans embrace this idea, and demand that our education system challenge our kids? Will they embrace it to the point that they will follow this primary postulate whither it may lead?
I think Ripley's right to suggest that it's essential. I think the odds that Americans will follow through are remote.
Michael Gove, Secretary of Education in Great Britain, certainly has a flair for oratory. In his most recent speech, he accused his political opponents of favoring "Downton Abbey-style" education (meaning one that perpetuates class differences), he evoked a 13 year old servant girl reading Keats, and he
cited as an inspiration the late British reality TV star Jade Goody
(best known for being ignorant), and Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci
. Predictably, press coverage in Britain has focused on these details
. (So, of course, have the Tweets
.) The Financial Times
and the Telegraph
pointed to Gove's political challenge to Labour. The Guardian
led with the Goody & Gramsci angle. But these
points of color distract from the real aim. The fulcrum of the speech is the argument that a knowledge-based curriculum is essential to bring greater educational opportunity to disadvantaged children. (The BBC
got half the story right.)The logic is simple: 1) Knowledge is crucial to support cognitive processes.
(e.g., Carnine & Carnine, 2004; Hasselbring, 1988; Willingham, 2006). 2) Children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances have fewer opportunities to learn important background knowledge at home (Walker et al, 1994) and they come to school with less knowledge, which has an impact on their ability to learn new information at school (Grissmer et al 2010) and likely leads to a negative feedback cycle whereby they fall farther and farther behind (
Stanovich, 1986). Gove is right. And he's right to argue for a knowledge-based curriculum.
The curriculum is most likely to meliorate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students because a good fraction of that difference is fueled by differences in cultural capital in the home--differences that schools must try to make up. (Indeed, a knowledge-based curriculum is a critical component of KIPP and other "no excuses" schools in the US.
I'm not writing to defend all education policies undertaken by the current British government--I'm not knowledgeable enough about those policies to defend or attack them. But I find the response from Stephen Twigg (Labour's shadow education secretary) disquieting, because he seems to have missed Gove's point. "Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, headteachers and parents who think his plans are backward looking and narrow. We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past."
(As quoted in the Financial Times.)It's easy to scoff at a knowledge-based curriculum as backward-looking. Memorization of math facts when we have calculators? Knowledge in the age of Google?
But if you mistake advocacy for a knowledge-based curriculum as wistful nostalgia for a better time, or as "old fashioned"
you just don't get it. Surprising though it may seem, you can't just Google everything. You actually need to have knowledge in your head to think well.
So a knowledge-based curriculum is the best way to get young people "ready for the world of work."
Mr. Gove is rare, if not unique, among high-level education policy makers in understanding the scientific point he made in yesterday's speech. You may agree or disagree with the policies Mr. Gove sees as the logical consequence of that scientific point, but education policies that clearly contradict
it are unlikely to help close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor. References
Carnine, L., & Carnine, D. (2004). The interaction of reading skills and science content knowledge when teaching struggling secondary students. Reading & Writing Quarterly
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental psychology
Hasselbring, T. S. (1988). Developing Math Automaticity in Learning Handicapped Children: The Role of Computerized Drill and Practice. Focus on Exceptional Children
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading research quarterly
Walker, D., Greenwood, C., Hart, B., & Carta, J. (1994). Prediction of school outcomes based on early language production and socioeconomic factors. Child development
Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps. American Educator
The British Columbia education system would seem to be doing an excellent job. Although very recent data are not available, performance by BC 15 year-olds on the 2006 PISA showed them lagging just one country in science (Finland), two countries in reading (Finland and Korea), and five in math (Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, and fellow Canadian Province Quebec). Meanwhile, in 2007, no one scored better than BC fourth graders on the PIRLS reading assessment. (
Eight countries or provinces scored about the same--36 scored lower. Test data summarized here
.)Despite this record of success, BC is not satisfied, and gearing up to change the curriculum.There's one sense in which this plan is clearly needed: there are too many
objectives. The document describing learning objectives
for the fourth grade runs 21 pages, and includes scores of items. No one can cover all that in a year, so the document ought to be tightened. Another stated objective in the document describing the proposed change is to offer teachers more flexibility
so that they can better tune education to individual students. Whether that's a good idea is, in my view, a judgment call. The BC Ministry of Education contends that the current curriculum is too proscriptive. It may be, but it's being taught (and learned) at very high levels of proficiency, at least as measured by international comparison tests that most observers think are pretty reasonable. Change the curriculum, and that level of performance will likely drop. But other benefits may accrue, such as better performance in academic areas not measured by students with strong interest in those areas, and greater student satisfaction.My real concern is that the plan doesn't make very clear what the expected benefit is, nor how we'll know it when we see it.At least in the overview document, the benefit is described as "increased opportunities to gain the essential learning and life skills necessary to live and work successfully in a complex, interconnected, and rapidly changing world. Students will focus on acquiring skills to help them use knowledge critically and creatively, to solve problems ethically and collaboratively, and to make the decisions necessary to succeed in our increasingly globalized world."Oddly enough, I thought that excellent preparation in Reading, Math, and Science was just the ticket to help you use knowledge critically and creatively. And then I saw this statement:"In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives."