I am not an insatiable reader, and never have been to be honest. I like intellectually stimulating art, but reading always held such a slow pace that it never seemed to stick for me. Insightful movies were always great, but I just don’t read books all that often. When I do read, they tend to be *gasp* works of nonfiction and journalism. These tend to be unbiased and informative, and I’m only interested in reading about stories that are truly fascinating, like the lives of inspiring people (Steve Jobs and Nelson Mandela are my latest two reads).
So when I stumbled across this gem, it was an easy pickup. It was essentially a long magazine article about something that hits home for me as a teacher: why are our kids so far behind the rest of the world? It followed three exchange students from the United States into some of the top ranking countries on the PISA test: South Korea, Finland, and Poland. It highlighted the differences between the key countries as described by the students, as well as some observations the author made during interviews she conducted with academic support staff, parents, and government officials.
The result should be eye opening for anyone who reads it, including someone like me who is entrenched in the scene every day. Students, parents and teachers in Korea, Finland, and Poland are really not that much different than they are here. Students slack off, play video games, are distracted by social media, and sleep in class. Parents are sometimes too overbearing for their kids, complain about grades, and are sometimes not involved at all with their kids’ education. Teachers can underperform, they complain about governmental reforms, and they have uniquely strong unions.
In fact, the book distilled the differences down to only two items. In the top scoring countries, students have a culminating exam that has an enormous impact on the rest of their lives, and serious consequences for those who don’t score well on it. In Korea, results on this exam literally determines one’s career, salary, and in some cases, happiness. In Finland, the stakes are a little lower, but certain professional training paths in college require a high score in the test. The most picky? The teacher preparation colleges. Only the top 2% of scores on the exam are accepted into the teacher preparation programs. In Poland, a culminating exam only 8 years old has boosted them from the bottom to the top of the PISA rankings. The SAT doesn’t even compare in consequence or in administration to these exams. Nothing sends the “school doesn’t matter” message more than a culminating exam that actually doesn’t matter.
One of my favorite segments of the book talked about sports in the other countries. One of the exchange students wanted to join the soccer team at his new high school, only to learn there wasn’t one. The students looked at him like he had three heads when he asked. These countries don’t have school sports because their schools revolve around one thing: student learning. I wholeheartedly disagree with the fact that these two things can’t happen simultaneously, but as I held this very thought, the author pulled out her secret weapon: the NCAA requries a minimum GPA of 2.3 for eligibility, while the national average for teacher preparation programs is 2.5. If our teachers need to be as academically affluent is a collegiate athlete which, on the average, is pretty poor, then how can we expect our students to be much better?
The other difference is that these countries have all experienced this change through the actions of a strong (and sometimes oblivious) political leader. It took a widespread and sweeping reform from the government to enact these types of changes. These reforms were all met with widespread criticism, praise, and controversy. Yet they all stuck around, and they weren’t changed every 8 years by new administration. The reforms enacted in these three countries (Poland especially) happened extremely quickly too, despite the controversy. Imagine if we tried that here? There would be chaos, lawsuits, and practically a million marches and demonstrations.
There is hope though. In my opinion, the Common Core standards are the first good steps towards teaching students to think that we’ve really made. All of our exams are mostly fact recall and memorization but these standards really are excellent and enforce thinking. Still, the exam that assesses student progress on the CCS doesn’t have any real consequences, which has been shown to be an important piece of the PISA puzzle.
If nothing else, this book is a fascinating look at, well, the “smartest kids in the world and how they got that way”. I highly recommend it for anyone who cares about the field of education. It’s short, informative, and fairly unbiased, which contributes to the enlightening experience it provides. It doesn’t actually say anything we don’t know, but it does invoke the question, “is America willing to do what it takes to give our kids the best education in the world?”