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.
My Facebook feed today has lots of links to this article
. The upshot: a new Pew study showing that Americans think that US 15 year olds rank "near the bottom" on international science tests, whereas the truth is that they "rank in the middle among developed countries."I guess "the middle" covers a lot of terrain, but the way I look at the data, this assertion doesn't hold.
The international comparison in question is the 2009 PISA. Here are the rankings. (Click for larger image)
Most everyone would agree that it's not appropriate to compare scores of US kids to those of poorer countries with little infrastructure and funding to support education.
That's why the article specifies the ranking of the US among "developed countries," and by the author's reckoning, kids from 12 developed countries scored better, and kids from 9 developed countries scored worse. That would put US kids at the 41st percentile. The US is ranked 30th on the list. Just eyeballing it, it's hard to see how 17 of the countries scoring better could be considered "not developed." On measures of "developed" status would be the International Monetary Fund's definition of "
advanced economies" which includes: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States (Click image for larger image
By this definition of "advanced" US kids are 23rd out of 32 countries, or the 28th percentile.
It's true that "near the bottom" is too grim an assessment. But I can't see a way to put the 2009 PISA data together such that American kids are scoring about average.
The PIRLS results are better than you may realize.
Last week, the results of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published. This test compared reading ability in 4th grade children.
U.S. fourth-graders ranked 6th among 45 participating countries. Even better, US kids scored significantly better than the last time the test was administered in 2006.
There's a small but decisive factor that is often forgotten in these discussions: differences in orthography across languages.
Lots of factors go into learning to read. The most obvious is learning to decode--learning the relationship between letters and (in most languages) sounds. Decode is an apt term. The correspondence of letters and sound is a code that must be cracked.
In some languages the correspondence is relatively straightforward, meaning that a given letter or combination of letters reliably corresponds to a given sound. Such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. Examples include Finnish, Italian, and Spanish.
In other languages, the correspondence is less consistent. English is one such language. Consider the letter sequence "ough." How should that be pronounced? It depends on whether it's part of the word "cough," "through," "although," or "plough." In these languages, there are more multi-letter sound units, more context-depenent rules and more out and out quirks.
Another factor is syllabic structure. Syllables in languages with simple structures typically (or exclusively) have the form CV (i.e., a consonant, then a vowel as in "ba") or VC (as in "ab.") Slightly more complex forms include CVC ("bat") and CCV ("pla"). As the number of permissible combinations of vowels and consonants that may form a single syllable increases, so does the complexity. In English, it's not uncommon to see forms like CCCVCC (.e.g., "splint.")
Here's a figure (Seymour et al., 2003) showing the relative orthographic depth of 13 languages, as well as the complexity of their syllabic structure.
From Seymour et al (2003)
Orthographic depth correlates with incidence of dyslexia (e.g., Wolf et al, 1994) and with word and nonword reading in typically developing children (Seymour et al. 2003). Syllabic complexity correlates with word decoding (Seymour et al, 2003).
This highlights two points, in my mind.
First, when people trumpet the fact that Finland doesn't begin reading instruction until age 7 we should bear in mind that the task confronting Finnish children is easier than that confronting English-speaking children. The late start might be just fine for Finnish children; it's not obvious it would work well for English-speakers.
Of course, a shallow orthography doesn't guarantee excellent reading performance, at least as measured by the PIRLS. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain had mediocre scores, on average. Good instruction is obviously still important.
But good instruction is more difficult in languages with deep orthography, and that's the second point. The conclusion from the PIRLS should not just be "Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading." It should be "Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn."
Seymour, P. H. K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-174.
Wolf, M., Pfeil, C., Lotz, R., & Biddle, K. (1994). Towarsd a more universal understanding of the developmental dyslexias: The contribution of orthographic factors. In Berninger, V. W. (Ed), The varieties of orthographic knowledge, 1: Theoretical and developmental issues.Neuropsychology and cognition, Vol. 8., (pp. 137-171). New York, NY, US: Kluwer
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."
Are we to conclude that the differences are due to educational practice? The vaunted Finnish system shows smashing results even at this early age, whereas the degenerate British system can't get it right?Countrywide differences in instruction could play a role, but Dehaene
emphasize that the countries in which children make a lot of errors--Portugal, France, Denmark, and especially Britain--just happen to have deeper orthographies.
A shallow orthography means that there is a straightforward correspondence between letters and phonemes. English, in contrast, has one of the deepest (most complex) orthographies among the alphabetic languages: for example, the letter combination "gh" if pronounced differently in in "ghost," "eight," and "enough." In short, children learning to read English have a difficult task in front of them--and so too, therefore, do teachers.Is there a lesson to be drawn here?To me, the difficult orthography
of English highlights the importance of careful sequencing in the learning of grapheme-phoneme pairs, along with a limited number of sight words--sequencing that exploits the regularities that exist, and bring children as swiftly as possible to the point that they can read texts and so feel a sense of accomplishment. In Italy, for example, the order in which grapheme-phoneme pairs are taught would matter much less because there simply is not that much to learn. Several months of instruction is sufficient for most children to reach a point that they can decode most texts.The deep orthography of English also sheds light on why American schools spends as much time on English-language arts (ELA) as they do: something like two-third of instructional time in the first grade (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2002). One might draw the conclusion that the difficulty of the task in reading requires enormous amounts of time. Another point of view--one I share--is that this practice places too much emphasis on ELA at the expense of other content, and runs a high risk of discouraging kids who might become passionate about science, or history, or geography
, but won't because the early elementary years contain so little content beyond ELA and mathematics. I think it would worth our accepting slower progress in reading in exchange for broader subject-matter coverage in early grades--coverage that will actually pay dividends for reading comprehension in later grades.
Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain.
New York: Viking.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network (2002). The Relation of Global First-Grade Classroom Environment to Structural Classroom Features and Teacher and Student Behaviors. The Elementary School Journal, 102,
Seymour, P. H. K., maro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94,