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Are American schools failing or pretty dang fabulous? Better than we know, or worse than we hope? In recent years, there’s been a push to answer such questions with data, studies, and let’s face it, endless arguments between adults who make a living having opinions about this stuff. In the maelstrom of invective and statistics that has come to define the battle over American education, Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World enters the fray with a rare equipoise. She looks at test scores that show American students lagging behind students in many high-performing nations, then asks a simple question: Why are some countries doing so much better than the U.S. on international tests — and what’s different about their schools?

To find the human thread of experience in her story, Ripley leaves behind the think tanks and education departments, and enlists the people who experience schools on a daily basis: the kids themselves. She follows three American teens as they participate in exchange programs in South Korea, Finland, and Poland, then uses their insights to hold up a mirror to American education — revealing all its peculiarities, challenges, and potential. Ripley talked to GreatSchools recently about America’s educational obsessions, how to tell if your child’s school is rigorous, and the virtues of never giving kids a perfect score.

There’s a huge debate about public education in America but you’ve always steered clear of it until recently. What made you devote three years to researching and writing this book?

I avoided writing about education for a long time. It always seemed like the education stories were assigned to these young women who you never saw again — they didn’t end up going to Afghanistan or becoming bureau chiefs.

Then I got a chance to interview Michelle Rhee when she was superintendent of the DC schools and I was following her around, literally running after her as she parachuted into classrooms in her pumps. I was struck by just how much time kids spend in school and how unbelievably boring a lot of it was, and multiplying that by thousands and millions of kids — it made me wonder: Why are some kids learning more than others?

So I spent a couple of years writing about education and I went through all the stages of grief. There was shock when I learned that, no you can’t observe classrooms, you need to make an appointment, even in your own school. And then there’s the period of outrage when you see things in schools that you can’t believe are still happening. And then you eventually move toward accepting the complexity of it all.

I started looking at international test scores and the variance of how countries perform over time around the world. The scores went up and down in a lot of countries, there was huge movement. The United States was the only one that was flat — that is, test scores didn’t change much.

I started to wonder what happened in the countries that had reached these stratospheric heights — high-performing countries like Finland and Korea. I discovered that they that weren’t always that way — some of the top education countries once had low-performing schools.

So you set out to see what was going on in the high-performing countries, which is common territory for education wonks, but you decided that students should tell the story. Why?

I’m always amazed by how much kids can tell you. When I’m reporting, I always wait to talk to kids, and then they change the story.

Kids can tell you who are the best and who are the worst teachers. They can tell you with precision and passion and clarity. For the book I wanted that perspective — because they are on the inside.

But I also wanted the kids to have something to compare their education to. It turns out about 30,000 high school students from around the world come here or go abroad each year through study abroad organizations. So I found American kids who were going to schools in top-performing countries.

Your three high schoolers go to three very different countries — Poland, South Korea, and Finland — countries that have school systems radically different from our own. We’ve heard that South Korea and Finland are education super-achievers. But Poland?

Poland is the surprise. Poland has dramatically improved its education system in the last few years. In terms of PISA scores, in 2000 Poland was below average in reading and below the U.S. Now it’s outperforming us in math, reading, and science, and this has all happened in six to nine years. So I was interested in what was behind Poland’s recent improvement. It has a fairly high level of child poverty — 15 percent to the U.S.’s 20 percent — and it’s a country with a lot of serious social problems. Actually, Poland looks a lot like Finland did 60 years ago, and I was interested in how they got where they are today.

You followed a young man named Tom from Pennsylvania, who attended high school in the Polish city of Wroclaw. What did he find there? Was he prepared for the classes?

Tom attended an upper-middle-class high school in Gettysberg with middling results. It’s a big football high school. Tom noticed right away: there were no Smartboards and no shiny objects at his high school in Poland. His high school in Pennsylvania is very tricked out, it’s a sort of a shrine to modern education. He also noticed that his classmates in Poland took school seriously. They had a sober approach to education. This was a big deal in their lives. He noticed that they publicly announced the test scores in math class every week. Tests were graded on a 1 to 5 scale with a 5 being the highest, and Tom waited every week for a student someone to get a 5. No one ever got one.

The trouble with our system is that we’re teaching kids that failing is a personal failure, instead of treating failure as a part of learning.

We know that the U.S.’s lackluster math scores [on international tests] are partly demographic [that is, the our high poverty rate affects test outcomes] but that doesn’t explain it all. Even our richest kids score 18th in math compared to rich kids in other countries. So there’s clearly something going on with math in the U.S.

You also tell the story of Eric, a kid from Minnesota who goes to South Korea, a country famous for high-stakes testing and high pressure high schools. What happens to an American student plopped down there?

It’s shocking for an American student to go to school in South Korea. I admit that the Korean education system feels almost inhumane to me, too. But it’s funny. They’re still kids and kids are the same everywhere. They scream, they’re so excited, they’re super-friendly. They’re called the Italians of Asia, and yet they grow up in an education system that’s incredibly harsh.

I’m sort of holding South Korea up as a model of education, while acknowledging it’s sort of a disaster, too. The level of parental pressure is so beyond what American parents do that it’s not a threat to our culture. It’s hard to imagine it happening here.

But Korean students know how to work hard, they know how to compete in a seriously fierce environment. And in the end they are better prepared for reality than a lot of American kids. I feel like the adults are being honest with them.

Eric also found that math instruction in South Korea was very cool and much more interesting than he found in his math classes back home. And he also found the grit of the Korean kids to be truly impressive.

Finally, there’s Kim, a girl from Oklahoma who struggles to raise money for a year abroad in Finland. Finland has become a beacon of progressive education for many in America who are fed up with testing and accountability measures. Your book traces the history of Finnish education and the big changes the country had to make before the schools improved.

Let me just say, it is ridiculous to compare Finland to the entire United States, we’re just too diverse. But it does make sense to compare Finland to individual states. Maine is 95 percent white for instance, Vermont and New Hampshire are also more homogenous — and yet not a single state in this country is raising teens to perform at the level in math that they do on average in Finland.

But in the 1960’s, Finland had only a 10 percent literacy rate. Then, about 50 years ago, the country did a number of things — some by accident. They closed down all teacher training schools and moved them to the most elite universities, which meant that prospective teachers had to be part of the top 20 percentile to get in the door.

This sent a signal about how serious the country was about education, especially to kids. Becoming a teacher in Finland was like becoming a doctor, or going to MIT. Suddenly, teachers were among the most accomplished, well-educated people in the country.

In America, we’ve been bending over backwards to reverse engineer a teaching force: instead of starting from the beginning, we’re trying to fire and train teachers who aren’t performing. The Finnish system says, if you want to teach, you need an exceptional education.

You conducted a fascinating survey of exchange students in the U.S. and around the world and you found some interesting generalizations about American education. One that struck me was your observations about American schools’ use of technology.

It started from observations from the three kids Erick, Tom, and Kim. All had Smartboards in the their U.S. classrooms, and they all noticed their very first day when they went abroad that there were no iPads and no laptops and no Smartboards in the classrooms. When I surveyed 200 exchange students from here and abroad, seven out of 10 said they found more technology in American classrooms.

And I can’t tell you how many unbelievably low-performing schools I’ve been to in the U.S. where there are Smartboards. There’s a lot of money wasted this way, and it speaks to a larger distraction about what matters in education

There’s not any good data across countries about the use of technology in classrooms, but surveying exchange students was a way of exploring this.

We have a culture that is pretty mesmerized by bright and shiny objects, and there’s an assumption that more technology in the classroom is better. But given constrained budgets, it’s worth reconsidering these priorities and giving technology in schools a more serious cost-benefit analysis.

You also looked at research that compares parenting from country to country. What are some of the things that characterize American parenting, compared to other countries? One of the differences that stuck with me was your observations about the relationship between sports and schooling.

In many high-performing countries, sports are popular but are totally separate from school. Kids play sports at the local rec center, but it’s not considered part of education. American schools use sports to lure kids in and keep kids engaged, and since we are 21st in the world in high school graduation rates, it’s worth rethinking that.

There’s mission confusion about what school is for. We need to consider the tradeoffs and the distraction when sports are given so much emphasis. Many schools let kids miss class for sports — for away games. It all sends a signal to kids about what school is for. Kids find out too late that it’s not about basketball. We have schools that are tricked out on sport stadiums and equipment.

Kids in a lot of other countries don’t pay for college, so there isn’t the economic incentive to get a sports scholarship. Parents go looking for a lottery ticket to college; I don’t blame them but the evidence suggests it’s not a good strategy or a good way to pay for college. Playing sports in high school and college takes a huge amount of kids’ time and it sends a message to kids about what’s important.

The concept of rigor plays a huge role in your book. It’s a somewhat vague idea — it’s essential to good school systems, but it’s hard to define. How can a country or school or family identify what a rigorous education looks like? What are some signs?

The signs of rigor are the signs of struggle — kids should have their eyebrows furrowed, and they should be doing hard work. Failure should be seen as part of the day, as a necessary part of learning and taking risks.

It’s not about “lalala,” going through a worksheet. That’s not rigor. Rigor means problems and questions that kids can’t immediately answer — kids need to know what to do when they don’t know the answer, and there should be systems in place to help them find it. You want to see a system in place for failing and working hard.

Great teaching requires an agility and skill that most people don’t have. How do you make sure that teachers are improving and collaborating?

I see a lot of American classrooms with a high bar for behavior and a flexible bar for learning. You see kids clearly doing work for praise — there’s something poignant here. You want a school with a high bar for behavior and high bar for hard work.

What surprised you most about American education that you hadn’t seen before you embarked on this journey?

The most surprising thing for me was how much depends on the kids themselves. As a journalist I’d thought a lot about education politics that reflect adult concerns: tenure, class size, curriculum. But if you have a high level of student and parent buy-in, where everyone values learning and working hard, you don’t have to do other things as well. Because kids’ futures do depend on their education — the question is, how to get them to understand that? There used to be ways to make a good living in the U.S. without a college education, but that’s not true anymore. Math matters for all jobs, and so does writing in a way that it didn’t before.

What matters most to kids? The answer is other kids. Not that all the kids at your child’s school have to be high-achieving and want to go to college. But if I go to school with kids that can deal with failure, then I’ll believe that I can deal with failure, too. It’s the contagion of drive and perseverance and grit.

I’ve definitely become aware of how frequently kids are underestimated — I don’t want to do that with my own kid. I’ve tried to be more like Chinese-American parents — to appreciate school plays and soccer, but also instill the idea that being smart is the function of hard work. I don’t want to be one of those crazy parents obsessed about schools. My poor husband has to listen to me rant all day. I’m constantly trying not to be crazy.

As a parent I’m trying to prioritize rigor and learning — and that has changed how I spend time at my child’s school. For instance, I will always speak or read in a classroom — I never do the bake sale. Learning is really important and the teacher’s job is really hard, so if I’m asked to come in and talk I will prepare for hours. I take it very seriously and I’m nervous and sweating — but I’m not making brownies.