Are you a rich American? Maybe you can buy your children a Finnish-style education by sending them to private school. Amanda Ripley explores this possibility in The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.
In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. Sunlight streamed through the skylights. As I walked down the hall, the sound of kids learning in different languages filtered out into the hallway. There were muffins in the principal’s office. It felt like a learning spa—a parent’s dream.
When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded;
Then a parent with three children at this school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question: “Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?” I lifted my head, straining to hear what our tour guide would say. “You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”
What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted? That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange? But no one said anything.
Then the tour guide parent added one more thing: “Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.” Suddenly, the parents perked up. “Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”
Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.
Fortunately not every American private school has been ruined by football-crazed American parents:
At the Success Academy charter schools in New York City, students spend an hour and a half reading and discussing books each day. Then they spend another hour and a half writing. Kids start learning science every day in kindergarten. That’s what rigor looks like. In most New York City public schools, kids don’t learn science daily until middle school. That’s not all. Success Academy students also take music, art, and dance; they learn to play chess. They almost never skip recess, even in bad weather—a policy they share with Finland. They call their strategy “joyful rigor.” Does this work? All fourth graders at Success Academy schools are proficient in science, according to New York City’s test, and 95 percent perform at advanced levels. Success Academy Harlem I, where the mostly low-income students are randomly admitted by lottery, performs at the same level as gifted-and-talented schools across New York City.
At these schools, kindergarten teachers are forbidden from speaking to children in a singsong voice. It’s hard to respect children when you are talking down to them.
“It’s an insult to the scholars’ intelligence,” writes founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz and her co-author Arin Lavinia in their 2012 book, Mission Impossible. “What the teacher is saying should be so interesting that the kids are sitting on the edge of their seat, hanging on every word. It’s intellectual spark that holds and keeps their attention, not baby talk.” Parental involvement means something different at Success Academies; parents are not asked to bake cookies or sell gift wrap. Instead, they are asked to read to their kids six nights a week.