Part of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way concerns American schools. Unfortunately it is mostly to contrast them with effective schools elsewhere.
Amanda Ripley identifies the following major problems with American schools:
- people who are poorly educated are hired as schoolteachers
- teachers have limited autonomy (partly as a result of their low level of knowledge and ability)
- schools have multiple missions, only one of which is education, which leads to a loss of focus
- teachers and administrators dwell on student and family backgrounds so as to build up a catalog of excuses for poor educational outcomes
- parents are complacent regarding the low expectations set for their children
Here are some excerpts from this interesting book:
Scott Farmer had just been appointed the town’s first new superintendent in twenty years. He had short brown hair and a boyish face. The state of Oklahoma had 530 superintendents like him, each with their own fiefdom. There were about as many superintendents in Oklahoma as there were members of Congress for the entire country.
This tradition of hyperlocal control, hard-wired for inefficiency, hinted at one reason that the United States spent so much more than other countries on education. Farmer made about $100,000 per year, which made him one of the top earners in Sallisaw. He had an assistant superintendent, too, along with eight director-level managers and a school board. It was quite an operation for a district that included just four schools. But it was hardly unusual. Compared to the rest of the state, in fact, Sallisaw was one of the more efficient school districts in Oklahoma.
That, too, was a common refrain among educators all over the United States. Whatever the problem, it was, it seemed, largely outside their control.
Sallisaw had plenty of good students, too. Other than the destitute and the dropouts, Sallisaw High School had its success stories, like every town. About half the kids who graduated from Sallisaw enrolled in public colleges and universities in Oklahoma. Others went to out-of-state colleges or looked for jobs. What happened to these success stories after they left? Their colleges tested their basic skills and found them wanting. More than half these students were promptly placed into remedial classes at Oklahoma public colleges. That meant that some of Sallisaw’s best students were paying good money for college, often in the form of student loans, but they weren’t getting college credit.
I asked Principal Martens about all the Sallisaw alumni who were retaking math or English. “That really doesn’t bother me,” he said, “because at least they are trying.” The main goal was to go to college. Whether his graduates succeeded there was out of his control, or so it seemed. The fact that those kids had spent four years in his school preparing to get to college—and that he’d given them a diploma that was supposed to mean they were ready—did not seem relevant.
American teachers taught with textbooks that were written to appease thousands of districts and many states all at once, as education researcher William Schmidt has documented in detail. That meant that American textbooks tended to be far too long—covering (and repeating) way too many topics in too little depth. Internationally, the average eighth grade math textbook was 225 pages long; in the United States, eighth grade math texts averaged 800 pages. That was about 300 pages longer than all thirteen volumes of Euclid’s Elements.
The end result was that American students ended up learning about, say, fractions every single year, from first to eighth grade, while their peers in smarter countries covered fractions in grades three through six.
By eighth grade, seven out of ten kids went to schools that did not even offer algebra courses with the kind of content that was standard in most other countries. It was only logical that American kids were behind their peers in the smart-kid countries; they were essentially taking remedial math, whether they needed it or not.
Aside from the high cash compensation, three months of summer vacation, and secure pension, what motivates Americans to work in an environment where failure is almost guaranteed?
… consider Kim’s math teacher back home, Scott Bethel. He’d decided to become a teacher mostly so that he could become a football coach. In America, this made sense. As a student at Sallisaw High School, he was an all-state quarterback in 1989. “My dad taught at a school about ten miles from here,” Bethel told me. “He was also a football coach, and I was always good at sports, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’d like to become a coach.’ ”
If you too wanted to be a high school sports coach/math teacher, what would you have to do?
Although Bethel hadn’t taken calculus in high school, he’d always been pretty good at math. So, he figured the best way to become a coach was to become a math teacher. Bethel was one of several coaches that Kim had as teachers over the years, a hybrid job that would be considered bizarre in Finland and many countries, where sports lay beyond the central mission of schools. In Oklahoma alone, Bethel could choose from nearly two dozen teacher-training programs—almost three times as many as in all of Finland, a much bigger place. Oklahoma, like most states, educated far more teachers than it needed. At most U.S. colleges, education was known as one of the easiest majors. Education departments usually welcomed almost anyone who claimed to like children. Once students got there, they were rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work. Instead of taking the more rigorous mathematics classes offered to other students, for example, education majors tended to take special math classes designed for students who did not like math. Bethel did his training at Northeastern State University, like the Sallisaw superintendent and many Oklahoma teachers, including Kim’s mom. The university prepares more teachers than any other institution in the state and has a good reputation. However, it also has a 75 percent acceptance rate, which means that it admits, on average, students with much weaker math, reading, and science skills than Finnish education schools.
During his sophomore year at Northeastern State University, Bethel had applied to the university’s education college. Here was another chance for the university to select its best and brightest to become teachers. But to be admitted, Bethel had to have a grade-point average of just 2.5 or higher (out of 4). He would have needed a higher GPA to become an optometrist at the same university today. To be a teacher, he also had to have at least a C grade in freshman English and a C in speech or a class called the fundamentals of oral communication. He also needed a score of 19 or higher on the ACT, a standardized test like the SAT. The national average for the ACT back then was 20.6. Let’s consider what this meant: It was acceptable to perform below average for the country on a test of what you had learned throughout your educational career if you aspired to dedicate your career to education.
At the education college, Bethel discovered that he didn’t have to major in math to become a high-school math teacher. So he didn’t. Nationwide, less than half of American high-school math teachers majored in math. Almost a third did not even minor in math.
Bethel liked math, but his primary goal was to become a coach, so he majored in physical education and minored in math. When he took the required test for high school math teachers in Oklahoma, he passed easily. Most of the material was at a tenth or eleventh grade level, and he didn’t find it difficult. However, if he had, he would have been allowed to retake the test until he passed.
When researchers tested thousands of aspiring teachers in sixteen countries, they found that future middle-school math teachers in the United States knew about as much math as their peers in Thailand and Oman. They had nowhere near the math competence of teachers-in-training in Taiwan, Singapore, or Poland.
Maybe American teachers get more practical training to compensate for their weak college experience?
In Oklahoma, Bethel’s student teaching experience helped him learn to plan lessons and manage a classroom. But it lasted just twelve weeks, compared to the year-long residency typical in Finland. Nationwide, U.S. teacher-training colleges only require an average of twelve to fifteen weeks of student teaching,
Has any state ever tried to “pull a Finland” and restrict teacher education and hiring to those who were reasonably good students?
Why hadn’t that evolution ever happened in the United States—or in most other countries? Had anyone even tried? The examples were few but revealing. As the new education commissioner in Rhode Island, one of Deborah Gist’s first acts was to raise the minimum test scores for teachers-to-be in 2009. At the time, Rhode Island allowed lower scores than almost any state in the nation. She had the power to change this unilaterally, and she did, taking one small step in the direction of Finland by requiring new teachers to score significantly higher on the SAT, ACT, and the Praxis, a teacher certification test. Immediately, critics called her elitist, lobbing the same accusations critics had used against reformers in Finland in the 1970s. Some argued that a teacher who struggled in school was actually a better teacher, because that teacher could relate to students who were failing.
Others worried that higher standards would lead to a teacher shortage. Yet Rhode Island’s teacher colleges already churned out 1,000 teachers a year, about 800 more than the school system needed to hire.
Because this was America, a diverse country with a long history of racism in colleges, public schools, and every other institution, Gist’s efforts were also attacked as discriminatory. Higher education leaders warned that the new standards would prevent minority students, who tended to score lower on tests, from becoming teachers.
It was interesting to note that higher standards were seen not as an investment in students; they were seen, first and foremost, as a threat to teachers. Rhode Island’s teacher-preparation programs produced five times more teachers than Rhode Island’s public schools actually hired each year. The only institution benefiting from this system seemed to be the colleges themselves, but college leaders still complained that they would lose too many students if the standards were higher. They voiced this concern to newspaper reporters, and reporters quoted them without irony.
Under the new, higher standards, about 85 percent of Rhode Island College’s education students would not make the cut, the dean threatened. Coming from the college that produced more Rhode Island teachers than any other, this was an astounding statistic, one that should have been a source of deep shame, but was not. Gist did not back down, however. “I have the utmost confidence that Rhode Island’s future teachers are capable of this kind of performance,” she said. She did agree to phase in the higher cut score gradually over two years and to allow colleges to ask for waivers for highly promising candidates who did not make the cut score. Three years later, she had not received any waiver requests. At Rhode Island College, the percentage of minority students studying to be teachers went from 8.8 percent to 9.24 percent, remaining essentially unchanged despite all predictions to the contrary.
What does a good American high school look like to a Finnish teenager?
Elina discovered one important difference about America. Back home, she’d been a good student. In Colon, she was exceptional. She took Algebra II, the most advanced math class offered at Colon High. On her first test, she got 105 percent. Until then, Elina had thought it was mathematically impossible to get 105 percent on anything. She thought she might have more trouble in U.S. history class, since she was not, after all, American. Luckily, her teacher gave the class a study guide that contained all the questions—and answers—to the exam.
Elina was unsurprised to see she’d gotten an A. She was amazed, however, to see that some of the other students had gotten Cs. One of them looked at her and laughed at the absurdity. “How is it possible you know this stuff ?” “How is it possible you don’t know this stuff ?” Elina answered.
I talked to Elina after she had left the United States and gone to college in Finland. She was planning to work in foreign affairs one day. Now that some time had gone by, I wondered if she had a theory about what she’d seen in her American school. Were the students too coddled? Or the opposite—too troubled? Too diverse? Maybe they were demoralized by all the standardized testing? Elina didn’t think so. In her experience, American kids didn’t study much because, well, they didn’t have to. “Not much is demanded of U.S. students,” she said. In Finland, her exams were usually essay tests, requiring her to write three or four pages in response. “You really have to study. You have to prove that you know it,” Elina told me about Finnish high school. In the United States, her tests were typically multiple choice. “It was like elementary school in Finland,” she said.
In my own survey of 202 foreign-exchange students, an overwhelming majority said their U.S. classes were easier than their classes abroad. (Of the international students who came to America, nine out of ten said classes were easier in the United States; of the American teenagers who went abroad, seven out of ten agreed.)
Don’t American schools do something well? Or at least intensively?
Sports were central to American students’ lives and school cultures in a way in which they were not in most education superpowers. Exchange students agreed almost universally on this point. Nine out of ten international students I surveyed said that U.S. kids placed a higher priority on sports, and six out of ten American exchange students agreed with them. Even in middle school, other researchers had found, American students spent double the amount of time playing sports as Koreans. Without a doubt, sports brought many benefits, including lessons in leadership and persistence, not to mention exercise. In most U.S. high schools, however, only a minority of students actually played sports. So they weren’t getting the exercise, and the U.S. obesity rates reflected as much. In many U.S. schools, sports instilled leadership and persistence in one group of kids, while draining focus and resources from academics for everyone.
In countries like Finland, sports teams existed, of course. They were run by parents or outside clubs. As teenagers got older, most of them shifted their focus from playing sports to academics or vocational skills—the opposite of the typical U.S. pattern. About 10 percent of Kim’s classmates played sports in Finland, and they did so in community centers separate from school. Many of them quit senior year so that they would have time to study for their graduation exam. When I asked Kim’s Finnish teacher if she knew any teachers who also worked as coaches, she could only think of one. “Teachers do a lot of work at school,” she said, “and that’s enough I guess.”
Where can teachers and students bond over the impossibility and lack of rationale for learning math? The U.S.!
There was much to be said for American teachers, who, in many schools, worked hard to entertain and engage their students with interactive classrooms. In my survey of 202 exchange students, I was struck by how many of them brought up their affection for their U.S. teachers. One German exchange student surveyed described the difference this way: “The teachers in the U.S. are way more friendly. They are like your friends. . . . In Germany, we know nothing about our teachers. They are just teachers. We would never talk to them about personal problems.”
What about learning about students’ home lives?
To find out how diversity changed the culture of rigor, I went to the Tiistilä school, just outside Helsinki, where a third of the kids were immigrants, many of them refugees. The school enrolled children aged six to thirteen. It was surrounded by concrete block apartment buildings that looked more communist than Nordic. In a second-floor classroom, Heikki Vuorinen stood before his sixth graders. Four were African; two wore headscarves. An Albanian boy from Kosovo sat near a Chinese boy. There was a smattering of white kids born in Finland. Vuorinen gave the class an assignment and stepped out to talk to me. Wearing a purple T-shirt, jeans, and small, rectangular glasses, Vuorinen proudly reported that he had kids from nine different countries that year, including China, Somalia, Russia, and Kosovo. Most had single parents. Beyond that, he was reluctant to speculate. “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much,” he said,
When pressed, he told me about one of his students in particular. She had six brothers and sisters; her father was a janitor and her mother took care of other people’s children. Money was very tight. But she was, he said, the top student in his class. Vuorinen was visibly uncomfortable labeling his students. “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them,” he explained, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.” He seemed acutely aware of the effect that expectations could have on his teaching. Empathy for kids’ home lives could strip the rigor from his classroom. “I want to think about them as all the same.”
[At Vuorinen’s school, all fifth graders had been tested in math two years earlier. Compared to the rest of Finland, the Tiistilä kids performed above average.]
I’d never heard a U.S. teacher talk that way. To the contrary, state and federal laws required that teachers and principals think about their kids as different; they had to monitor their students’ race and income and report that data to the government. Schools were judged by the test scores of kids in each category. Most principals knew their ratios of low-income and minority kids by heart, like baseball players knew batting averages.
Diane Ravitch, one of the most popular education commentators in the United States, had insisted for years that Americans should think about our students’ backgrounds more, not less. “Our problem is poverty, not schools,” she told a roaring crowd of thousands of teachers at a D.C. rally in 2011. Kids were not all the same, in other words, and their differences preceded them. In Finland, Vuorinen said the opposite of what Ravitch was saying in America. “Wealth doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “It’s your brain that counts. These kids know that from very young. We are all the same.” The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States—the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods—was as toxic as funding inequities.
It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset. Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)
As I watched Vuorinen talk with his students, I thought back to a Washington, D.C., public school at which I’d spent time a few years before. The school was in a poor part of the city, and many of the families were struggling. One veteran teacher I met had a warm manner and a bright, tidy classroom. She’d paid for classroom supplies with her own money. However, when she’d talked about her fourth grade students’ backgrounds, she’d stressed their disadvantages above all else. She’d talked about her kids’ families as if they were a lost cause: “Our parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children,” she’d said. “They’re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.” She’d felt genuinely sorry for her students, but what good had come from her sympathy? After a year in her class, her students were farther below grade level in reading than they’d been when they’d first met her. They’d performed worse than other low-income kids who’d started the year at the same level in the very same city. Yet she’d seemed oddly sanguine about those results. The diversity narrative explained everything, even when it didn’t.