Three Takeaways from The Smartest Kids in the World…

Over the break, I read Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. If you haven’t yet read the book, go read it and then come back, and we can have a discussion about it. If you don’t want to, then perhaps I can summarize the book by saying: using PISA scores, the US education system ranks quite low in comparison to those in a number of other countries. The author went to those countries (and talked to American teens who did the same in a study abroad program) to see what’s going on in those schools that makes such a difference.

As with any book about education, I took a lot of things away from this read. But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to limit it to three.

Takeaway #1: The problem with PISA

Much of the book’s central argument–including figuring out which kids are “smart”–emerges out of data from PISA scores. The PISA test is given to 15-year-olds in countries around the world, and as a professional educator I will go on record saying that, as a measure of broader understanding of important academic concepts, it’s a pretty good test. The questions are connected to real-world issues and not purely abstract, it’s not multiple choice so there are no tiny bubbles to fill, and you really have to know stuff in order to answer the questions correctly.

As a measure of how these skills are being taught, I’d say: yeah, it’s pretty good. If I wanted to know how my students were doing this is the kind of test I would give them, for both reading and math.

Lots of folks, though, have written about the problem of poverty as it influences PISA test scores–and, as it turns out, they influence them quite a bit. I don’t have much to add to that conversation, other than to say that I don’t know how one could listen to This American Life’s story about Harper High School and still think that teachers and schools are the biggest problem in the lives of impoverished American teens–and not something else, over which teachers and administrators have very little control.

It’s for this reason, among many others, that I find it supremely annoying whenever Ripley uses the word “smart” when she really means “scoring highly on the PISA test.” Every time I read a sentence that referred to kids in Korea as being “smart,” I cringed inwardly.

Another point I’d like to bring up has to do with population. Finland, a nation which is referred to as an “educational utopia,” has a population of about 5 million people, which makes it about half as large as the Chicago metro area. Poland, another country held up as being particularly “smart,” has a population of 38.9 million, which is about the same as the state of California. And so on.

These population numbers are particularly relevant because of the fact that the US, even in this era of NCLB, doesn’t really have a national education system. What we have is a collection of schools that are all locally administered, accountable to locally elected school boards and standards set by state legislatures. While many of our school systems are similar to one another, they are also different in a lot of important ways–so comparing the countless schools in our sprawling public system to those of much smaller countries and “ranking” them is patently absurd.

Takeaway #2: Popular books about psychology, education, and public policy oughta be better…

At the end of the book, Ripley appends a summary of survey results from students from other countries who studied abroad in the US and US students who studied abroad elsewhere that conform much more to the standards that one might apply to a scholarly article. Findings are shown without too much comment, and while explanations are offered, they include many important hedge words and alternative explanations.

In my opinion, this section of the book was the most interesting part. The findings are provocative but not presented as definitive–because, of course, they aren’t. Having this section appended to a book that was written in a very different format reminded me how much I hate it when authors of popular books about any subject with which I’m at all familiar overstate their case or misrepresent research to support their arguments.

For instance, at the end of this book, Ripley presents two findings from her survey that are certainly interesting. The first is that foreign students studying in the US and US students studying abroad seem to agree that sports are more important in American schools than elsewhere. The second is that schools abroad are “harder” than US schools.

In the research article-style appendix, each of the findings include important hedges. About sports, she’s careful to include the fact that it’s not at all clear that increased emphasis on sports has any negative impact on academic performance. About schools being harder, she mentions that “harder” may refer to expectations of behavior and conformity to teachers’ strict behavior demands–not necessarily the difficulty of the academic material covered in class. This second explanation is particularly interesting as students in the survey are talking about schools in countries that outperform the US on PISA as well as students in countries that don’t.

Of course, in the rest of the book, these hedges aren’t at all present. The fact that US schools are easier than those in other countries is presented as though it refers exclusively to academic content; the fact that sports are so important in schools is presented as a key reason why American schools seem to under-perform academically. While I might agree to a certain extent on the second point, and maybe even on the first, in both cases Ripley is overstating her case.

This of course, happens all the time. Some authors, like Malcolm Gladwell, do it in order to better “tell a story,” whatever that means. Others, like Leonard Sax, whose books about gender made the educational must-read circuit a few years ago, do so in a way that is patently dishonest. I think it’s terribly unfortunate that popular writers wield so much influence while at the same time feeling so unaccountable for ensuring that the information they hawk is at all accurate.

Takeaway #3: Pay Teachers More…

One thing that is presented in the book as a major problem is the lack of teacher preparation and “prestige” associated with the teaching profession. Though she mentions it, almost in passing, Ripley spends very little time talking about teacher pay. She spends a lot of time talking about preparation. In Finland, for example, teachers are always taken from the top third of their college classes; their preparation programs are rigorous and extremely challenging.

That’s all great, and I’d be inclined to agree that Education departments at Universities need some sort of reform. However, when it comes to the “getting the best and brightest,” teaching really has a major, structural problem. Amanda Ripley tries to address this in her blog, but I really don’t think she does so very effectively.

There are lots of points I could respond to in her post, which I may do at some point in the future. But I’m going to focus on this: for the most part, people who become teachers do so not to get paid a lot of money. But there comes a point in every young teacher’s career where a number of factors start to wear on them. And one of them is definitely money. Starting salaries for teachers and other educated professionals are divergent, yes, but not necessarily that divergent. The problem is that, if you become a teacher, you have to accept the fact that you’re probably never going to make much more than you did in your first year. In most public schools in Texas, that’s generally the case. And I know for at least one of my colleagues–a brilliant, talented, and committed educator–that was a major factor that drove him from the profession.

There are, of course, lots of other factors. Administrative interference; the constant hopping onto whatever is the next new trend in education; the difficulty of controlling classroom behavior (apparently, that ranks as the #1 reason why young teachers leave the profession); the difficulty of reaching kids who show no interest in being reached in the first place. But, I will maintain: if you want the best and the brightest to go into the teaching profession, you need to pay them at least as much as they could get elsewhere.

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3 thoughts on “Three Takeaways from The Smartest Kids in the World…

  1. I like the theme of Marshall-reviews-things-with-cocked-eyebrow. If you’re taking requests, I’ll take a reaction to the two freakonomics podcasts on education. I had to turn them off I got so upset.

  2. Apparently New York City Public School System has more kids than all of Finland. What’s surprising about Finland is as rigorous as their teacher prep programs are and as respected as the profession is, they actually don’t get much more than American teachers (42.8k vs 41.5k).

    I really liked her point on how American parents are more likely to be a ‘cheerleader’ of their child than a ‘coach’ of their child; that whole self-esteem culture.

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