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Teaching, Not Tests

The Smartest Kids in the World... And How They Got That Way

by Amanda Ripley

Simon and Schuster 2013

How rigor and smart teachers help kids in Finland, Poland, and Korea

Unless one has a massive trust fund for each child in the house, so massive that your child’s report cards don’t matter, every parent with both a brain and a heart pays attention to the news about schools. Today’s story is that a well-intended set of reforms called Common Core is having a rockier roll-out than Obamacare—not because anybody really objects to the idea of elevating the level of rigor in the classroom, but because neither moms nor dads nor teachers think it’s sane to make kindergardeners sit for standardized tests.

Testing smacks of blaming; wherever there’s obsessive focus on standardized tests, there’s pushback. And teachers, the last fully unionized sector of the American workforce, are organizing to push back against the neoliberal impulse to task teachers alone with addressing every single chld-nurture issue without allowing teachers the autonomy, authority, and flexibility to do their jobs.

The emotional tone doesn’t help, either. Carl Paladino doesn’t put up billboards protesting the loss of high-wage work, or criticizing New York State for funding new medical-school buildings rather than endowing new medical-research fellowships. Instead, he slams public schools, and would shunt taxpayer dollars into charter schools to “rescue” the 27,000 Buffalo kids currently enrolled in city schools.

But as Amanda Ripley’s new book shows, like Diane Ravitch’s work before her, neither charter schools nor private schools have any better success than public schools in helping American kids perform better at reading, math, or critical thinking. We’re rich enough to do it right—far richer than faraway little countries like Finland, Poland, and South Korea—yet not only are our children getting stressed out by all the meaningless tests they have to sit through, they’re not getting either the psychological support or intellectual guidance that will make them employable in the brave new globalized economy.

The culture, the culture

Ripley tagged along with three American high-school students who did foreign-exchange programs. One went to Finland, where poor kids and rich kids and immigrants somehow all manage to learn self-reliance, critical-thinking skills, four languages (seriously!), and respect for learning in an environment that prepares them for a rigorous end-of-high-school test but that doesn’t require much, if any, homework. Another went to Poland, where peer-group pressure to compete in math seems to be an element in having transformed the system from mediocrity to excellence—and where becoming a teacher became a whole lot harder, and thus a whole lot more prestigious, than it is here. And one American kid Ripley followed went to the insane, soul-crushing educational nighmare of South Korea, where obsessive kids and obsessive parents invest vast private sums in after-school hagwons, or tutoring sessions, so that the kids can take the all-important national exam that determines who goes to what university, which determines who gets a big job and who gets to be a minion forever. Former Washington, DC superintendent Michelle Rhee breathes that air, and tries, in her current role as a testing advocate in the US, to inject a little of that South Korean competitive vibe into what we do here.

The common elements of the national education systems that deliver better equipped students seem to be these: smarter teachers, a culture of respect for getting an education, very little in the way of scholastic sports, and a universal understanding that everybody is in the same boat—not only because nobody will get left behind, but also because everybody faces the same make-or-break exam at the end of high school.

It’s the culture. “This consensus about the importance of a rigourous education led to all kinds of natural consequences,” writes Ripley. “[N]ot just a more sophisticated and focused curriculum but more serious teacher-training colleges, more challenging tests, even more rigorous conversations at home around the dining room table.”

And perhaps most important: Both students and teachers had more autonomy because there are serious consequences for everybody. Especially in Finland and Poland, kids learned to handle failure—and learned to recover. “When they didn’t work hard, they got worse grades.” Shocking! “The consequences were clear…they didn’t take a lot of standardized tests…”

But the most important difference with American schools that these exchange students came from and the foreign schools they attended was the pro-rigor, pro-performance “feedback loop” that started in kindergarten and grew more intense every year and that the kids themselves reinforced. Kids in Finland, Poland, even Korea—and in Canada, New Zealand, and the other high-performing countries—get “generous grants of autonomy” even as they face more challenging work. More responsibility, fewer hall monitors.

Creating virtuous cycles

We’re so rich, and in New York State anyway we spend vast sums on primary and secondary education, but parents continually hear that our kids are getting a bad deal, and that their performance—especially in math—lags so badly that a revolution is required. Suburban parents justify their deadening commutes mainly because, they think, long car rides are the price they have to pay for better schools. Poor city kids are continually told—by gesture, by their most alienated peers, and by the culture at large—that they are already lost.

So what needs to change?

Losing the culture of blame, and quieting all the whining, would be a helpful start. Recognizing that poverty per se does not predeterimine academic achievement—though poverty is highly correlated with lack of academic achievement—would be helpful. Shedding our American fad for self-esteem, shedding our American obsession with sports, and embracing rather than fearing visible, consequential academic competition…all sounds very unlikely.

What happened first in these little countries was a fundamental change in teacher education. Becoming a teacher suddenly became much harder. Getting a teaching certificate in Finland is as hard as passing the bar exam lawyers have to take. Ditto Poland and South Korea. Teachers have hard-earned autonomy there, and in Canada and in the other high-performing systems—and they have strong unions, good pay, and good benefits, too.

One wonders what a teacher-led injection of rigor could do in our reputation-challenged community. Should we do as Finland and Poland did, and raise the teacher education admissions standards in all our degree-granting institutions here? Should we abruptly require SAT scores above 2000 (out of a possible 2400), thus radically increasing the competitiveness of entry into the profession that Carl Paladino and his friends bash, blame, and whine about?

Sure, of course. We should study harder. But changing the culture here means more than setting goals and performance standards. Getting buy-in means leading, positively, with rewards for success, and with confidence in the integrity of the outcomes. The most critical ingredient Amanda Ripley found in her survey of successful education systems wasn’t math or reading skills, not conformity with some outside norm. It was something unquantifiable: diligence. Conscientiousness, “a tendency to be responsible, hardworking, and organized.”

Ripley saw greatest evidence of this trait in the country with a worse child-poverty rate than ours: She saw it in Poland.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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