America is exceptional in many ways. Sadly, secondary education is not one of them. The most recent rankings for the Program for International Student Assessment has American 15 year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, among other developed nations. Countries like Finland and South Korea always rank near the top.
In a 2011 GPS special, we went to those two countries to see what they were doing differently. Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley went one step further. She followed some American kids as they spent a year abroad in high school in those two countries and in Poland. The results are fascinating. The book is called The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.
Amanda Ripley joins me now. So what did you find about those three countries that struck you? You actually have three models that you say that they represent. What are they?
So, South Korea is the pressure cooker model. The extreme case of what you see all over Asia, where kids are working night and day, literally, under a lot of family pressure, to get very high test scores. Now, South Korea does get those high test scores, but at great cost. So that’s one, the pressure cooker model.
Finland is, in many ways, the opposite extreme of South Korea. Not in all ways, but in some. And Finland is what I call the utopia model – they've really invested in quality over quantity and the kids are, on average, doing less homework than our kids, but still achieving at the very top of the world on tests of critical thinking and math, reading and science, with very little variation from school to school or from socioeconomic status from one to the other.
And why did you choose Poland?
Poland is the surprise. Poland is an example of the metamorphosis, a country that has a high rate of child poverty and plenty of trouble and trauma in its background, and yet has radically improved its education outcomes over the past 10 years.
So Poland is not yet at the level of Finland or Korea, but a place that shows that there is hope. You know, change happens, even in places with problems. So in a way, looking at Poland is almost like going back in time and looking at Finland and Korea 50 years ago.
Talk a little bit more about the Finland model, because that's the one that's the most intriguing. What makes Finland work? Why are those test scores so high?
It's remarkable to everyone, including everyone in Finland. They can't quite believe it, year after year. One thing that they've done that's very clear and is very unusual around the world is, in the late 1960s, they shut down their teacher training colleges, which were like ours, of highly variable selectivity and quality. And they reopened them in the top eight most elite universities in the land as part of a broader reform of higher education.
When they did that, it set off a series of cascading consequences that I don't even know that they realized. One thing that happened is the obvious – you eventually have teachers who, themselves, have the advantage of a very strong education, which makes it easier to teach higher order thinking skills.
And they're, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think they draw their teachers from the top 10 or 20 percent of the graduating class. We tend to draw teachers from the bottom third.
Yes. Thank you. We educate twice as many teachers as we need. And in many, many of these colleges, there's a very low bar for entry. So you don't have to have very good grades yourself in order to get in. And that's true around the world, actually. That's very common.
So Finland is unusual.
Finland is unusual, yes, for doing that. But I think what's really surprising about it, and what I noticed when I spent time with kids in Finland, is that the kids pick up on this. So there's a signaling effect, like economists would say, where you know how hard it is to get into teacher training colleges.
And that alone isn't enough, but it sends this message to everyone – the parents, the taxpayers, the politicians and the students – that this is serious, that you are serious about education and that teaching is really hard, not just in rhetoric, but in reality. And so it adds this credibility to the whole enterprise that helps kids buy into the promise of education.
You also point out something about all these countries – and this is true of all three of them – which is, there is almost no sports in the best schools in the world.
Right. Kids play sports, but not in school. It's sort of separate from school – pickup games or community rec centers, but it’s not a part of the core mission of school. This is controversial. I get in a lot of trouble when I talk about this, because Americans love their sports and American kids love their sports. And when I surveyed hundreds of exchange students, you know, they all agreed that sports were more important to their American peers than their peers back home.
But many of them actually really like that. They liked that there was this school spirit and this bonding. The problem is that sports can sometimes, if you don't constantly keep it contained, eat away at the mission of school, which is supposed to be education, right?
So when we are routinely spending two to three times per football player what we spend per math student, when we routinely have teachers leaving to go coach away games and have to bring in substitutes, and we're spending tens of thousands of dollars on buses for the marching band, that's something that should be weighed against the benefit.
It seemed to me, what you really said is that the systems are quite different in all these three countries, the structures are different. The one thing that's true is there's a psychology that says school is hard. You've got to spend a lot of time at it. You've got to work hard. You've got to succeed. And that's missing in America.
It's almost exactly the same attitude many of us take towards sports, towards academics. It's literally: this is important, there's a big contest at the end, not everyone is going to win. To get better, critically, you have to practice and work harder, you know, and get more help. But you're not innately just bad at math.
So that's a really powerful combination, when you take that intensity on education, when you make it rigorous through highly trained, highly supported teachers and then back it up. Kids know if this is bogus or not.
Did it leave you depressed about America?
No. Actually, oddly, I felt more optimistic when I came back than when I left. I feel like, you know, we have 45 states that have now adopted the common core state standards. Big fights still happening and still to come about that. But those are more rigorous in math and reading, which is much more aligned, particularly in math, with what these countries are doing. It's an obvious first step. Not enough, but exciting that it's even happening in 45 states. I mean that's a huge deal for America.
And I think, you know, more and more people are starting to talk about the quality of our education colleges. To get into education college in Finland is like getting into MIT in the United States. And imagine what could follow if that were true here. I mean you could make a case to pay teachers more, to give them more freedom in the classroom, and to finally give that profession the respect it deserves.