American Green Engineering


Next time someone asks you to invest in an American “green tech” company, carefully review the Wikipedia page for the Norwottuck Rail Trail here in Massachusetts:

The trail has degraded over time. One aspect of the problem is that the original pavement was an attempt at being “green”, and incorporated crushed used glass bottles as part of its aggregate. This material has been slowly emerging over time, causing flat tires and other issues.

It will cost the taxpayers $4 million to fix…

Glastonbury Festival for Old People



I drafted a travel guide for those who don’t think that they are too old to rock and roll: “Glastonbury Festival for Old People”. Comments/corrections would be appreciated. Also note that the photos and a video that I took there are available only as hyperlinks (much easier to push everything to Google+ than to my own server, sadly).


Traveling with children to sites of historical significance in the iPad age


A friend posted the following question on Facebook: “Are you or do you know of a family who likes to travel with their 6-14 year-old children and likes to show them various landmarks and/or places of historical significance? I’d love to ask you a few questions about your experiences and challenges of traveling with kids.”

I thought that my answer might be useful to readers so I’m posting it here:

About 1.5 years ago I helped take a group of kids age 7-12 around Israel and Jordan. One mother would nag at her 11-year-old to pay attention. “This trip was expensive. You have to appreciate every minute.” She would get upset if a group of three kids would want to play an iPad game while on a 1.5-hour car ride through boring boringly-lit (mid-day sun) desert. I thought it was more reasonable to let the kids do whatever they wanted in transit and save their attention for the actual sights. I think it helps to have a larger group with more kids so that they can have fun with each other at night and in transit.

Income and Wealth Inequality in England


I’ve just returned from a trip to England and spent a little time looking at the society as Thomas Piketty might (see my review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

England’s economic performance has been mediocre during many of the post-World War II decades, leaving it with a per-capita GDP of $37,300 compared to $52,800 in the U.S. and $62,400 in England’s former trading post of Singapore (source: CIA Factbook, purchasing power adjusted). Mancur Olson used Britain as an example of how a rich stable society can stagnate due to politically powerful groups steadily skimming off wealth (see my March 2009 posting on Mancur Olson):

“Great Britain, the major nation with the longest immunity from dictatorship, invasion, and revolution, has had in this century a lower rate of growth than other large, developed democracies. … Britain has [a] powerful network of special-interest organizations.  The number and power of its trade unions need no description. [Olson wrote this book just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power.]  The venerability and power of its professional associations is also striking.  … Britain also has a strong farmer’s organization and a great many trade associations.”

“[Britain's interest groups] are narrow rather than encompassing.  For example, in a single factory there are often many different trade unions, each with a monopoly over a different craft or category of workers…”

Olson notes that slow growth can’t be due to something inherent in the British character, because the country was the world’s fastest growing from 1750 until 1850.

The United Kingdom’s Gini coefficient is lower than that of the U.S.’s, so in theory it should be closer to Piketty’s ideal society. How does it feel on the ground, though?

First of all, there are some advantages to living in the U.K. that people at all income levels share. One can be outside in the summer time without getting eaten alive by mosquitoes (but bring an umbrella!). Restrictions on architecture and building mean that a lot of towns are beautiful and/or charming. Consider the value of a stroll around Paris compared to a stroll around a typical U.S. city. Due to a more or less free market in air travel and short distances, flights to interesting locations in Europe are affordable to everyone.

On the other hand, the restrictions on architecture and building mean that a single-family house with windows on four sides and a little yard is out of reach for most Britons. In a lot of places, if you can’t afford to build a beautiful house out of stone then you can’t build a house. Slapping up a McMansion for $300,000 and luxuriating in 4000 square feet is certainly out of the question. The bottom half of the income distribution seems to live mostly in apartments or attached houses (townhouses; sharing walls with neighbors so that there might be windows only in the front and back). This is advantageous because the higher density means it is more likely that a person can walk or use public transport, also a good thing because non-rich Britons seem to have pretty basic automobiles or don’t own a car at all. The road network is absurdly brittle and clogged with traffic. A “highway” between two cities might have no shoulder and lanes that are just barely wide enough for two trucks to pass. If a car breaks down or any repairs are needed, the “yummy mummy” in her $100,000 Range Rover will be stuck in a one-hour traffic jam. Internet for the home and mobile voice and data services are cheaper than here in the U.S. However, mobile data rates are absurdly slow, coverage is poor, and 4G is a theoretical concept outside of London. It hurts me to admit this, but my friend Mark might right when he says “Verizon is like democracy: the worst cellular service, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” Hotels, restaurants, and shops try to compensate by offering free WiFi but upload speeds are too slow (e.g., 100 kbps) to make it practical to, for example, email a photo to someone.

London is like a separate country in terms of wealth but it is hard to know whether it is fair to roll that into British wealth/income inequality. England taxes foreign residents on their English income, not on their worldwide income, so a lot of high-income/high-wealth people, e.g., from Russia or the Arab world, establish residency in London for convenience and stability. This puts tremendous demand on London real estate but if the Four Seasons built a resort in your town and a lot of rich foreigners came there to stay would you then say that your town had become less equal?

Even if we exclude the foreign billionaires, the lifestyle gap between rich and poor in England seems pretty stark. The rich Briton will have a London flat, a beautiful country house in the Cotswolds (see these photos), a couple of fancy new cars, and maybe a vacation house in France, Spain, or Italy. The lower middle class Briton will live in a dark attached house or apartment, commute via bus or train (without air conditioning!), and go on packaged holidays.

How did the rich get their money? Did they get it the honest Piketty-approved way (i.e., by getting PhDs and then working at a university)? Via marriage as Piketty describes? Or via inheritance as Piketty decries?

British Airways was kind enough to give me a free copy of the June 30, 2014 Daily Mail newspaper. The 76 pages contain the following stories that are explicitly about how people got money:

  • one story about a woman who started life in public housing (“a council semi”) and after a series of divorces from wealthy men, now has at least $100 million in assets.
  • a story, “Benefit grabbing extremist who hates Britain”, about a 35-year-old man who lives in public housing and collects unemployment and disability.
  • a story about a mother who looted her son’s $85,000 trust fund to buy “luxury clothes” and to redecorate her home
  • a story about the salary to be earned by the incoming president of the European Union

Other stories hint at the value of inheritances, e.g., an article on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ripping out a new $85,000 kitchen to install one with a different design. But most of the stories concern people who have risen to prominence and/or wealth via hard work. Dolly Parton is on the front page for “dazzling” the Glastonbury Festival‘s crowd at age 68 (I was part of the crowd and would agree with the Daily Mail’s editors); as Parton is childless she will not be offending Piketty by creating a dynasty with her wealth. The interior pages are studded with pictures of tennis stars at Wimbledon and soccer stars in Brazil. It doesn’t seem as though these people were born wealthy, e.g., Andy Murray attended a government-run school, the Wikipedia page on James Rodriguez doesn’t say anything about his parents being rich.

Prior to going to Glastonbury I went on a four-day cycling trip around Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. The guides pointed out some fancy houses that were owned by people who had been successful in business or entertainment. Piketty’s theories about people resorting to what the Victorians called “fortune hunting” (a term that may have originated in the 17th century) were not directly confirmed by the guides, who did not talk about anyone having gotten rich by marrying and staying married (though they did point out some spectacular houses that had been won in litigation by divorce plaintiffs).

After the bike tour, I stayed in a luxury camp adjacent to the Glastonbury festival proper. A restaurant owner in his 50s explained how his ex-wife had made her fortune. “We were married for about 18 months. She insisted that I get her a new BMW, the most luxurious vacations possible, designer clothes. I did it to keep her happy, but then after she sued me my solicitor explained that this established a baseline lifestyle that I would have to keep her in for at least 10 years.” He chose to pay his plaintiff a lump sum rather than monthly alimony. What does a Briton stuffed full of enough cash never to work again do? “She moved to Spain and took our young daughter with her. So I bought a house in Spain to make it convenient to visit the child. Then she moved to France and I was left with this house. I tried using lawyers to stop her from moving about but wasn’t successful.” What about child support? “Roughly the first 100,000 pounds [$170,000] that I earn every year goes to pay my ex-wife and for my costs in traveling to see my daughter.” What’s the interaction with the now-15-year-old like? “She is busy with her friends and her life so sometimes when I visit there is only about 15 minutes per day of real interaction. If she wants me to buy her something, like a replacement mobile [phone], then she pays attention.”

[There was apparently an emotional toll to be paid by the defendant and child in addition to the wealth extracted by the plaintiff. "I probably have spent at least 30 percent of my energy being angry with the woman who sued me, about 25 percent of my energy working to pay all of her expenses, and another 20 percent of my energy traveling to visit my daughter. There isn't a lot left for giving to [his current partner]” How about forgiving and forgetting? “She is always pulling some new stunt to make it difficult for me to see our daughter, which makes me angry all over again, not to mention the monthly payments to someone with whom I was barely acquainted.” He was there with a long-term girlfriend, blessed with a kind disposition. Perhaps she would be a moderating influence? “We can never get married,” she explained, “because then [the daughter's mom] would be able to collect half of my income. Sod her.”]

What did we see on the ground about Piketty’s main point of irritation, i.e., the establishment of family dynasties? During the bike tour we visited Blenheim Palace, a spectacular example of wealth via inheritance, though the property taxes and inheritance taxes have made it tough to hang onto. We saw a lot of farms that were probably inherited. Death/inheritance taxes on these farms are probably pretty painful but on the other hand the farmers didn’t look as though they were hurting and they are presumably benefiting from EU agricultural subsidies. The folks in the luxury camp at Glastonbury all seemed to have earned their money rather than inheriting it, though among the musicians themselves (list with video links) there seemed to be a tremendous value in inheriting fame and connections from one’s parents. For example, Seun Kuti appeared on stage with his father’s old band, and Toumani and Sidiki, a father-son team from Mali, appeared on the main stage and announced that they were the 72nd continuous generation of father-son musicians in their family.

In some ways England should be a cautionary example for fans of Piketty’s proposed tax policies. In the 1960s and 70s, the country experimented with very high tax rates on its most successful citizens. Facing up to 98% tax rates, the Rolling Stones for example, effectively emigrated for business purposes (see this 2007 New York Times article on the Stones and U2 and also Life by Keith Richards). It seems as though the country has never truly recovered from this experiment and the resulting lost growth.

Piketty is a fan of bigger government and heaps scorn on the U.S. health care system (admittedly the dumbest conceivable way to run anything). But the National Health Service in Britain may be beginning to fray. People are waiting a long time for visits with primary care docs (of whom there are fewer per capita than in France, for example) and Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patientsgives examples of at least $1 billion per year in wasteful drug spending (e.g., on brand name drugs instead of generics). Complaints about the NHS occupy a lot of space in newspapers (though the people I talked to seemed reasonably satisfied with the care they were receiving).

The British are very proud of their victories on World War I and World War II and there are constant reminders of these eras throughout the country. The country has the will to spend insane amounts of money to make a military point, e.g., buying a fleet of Lockheed L-1011 aerial tankers so that fighter planes could be ferried to the Falkland Islands in the event of another war with Argentina  (recently replaced with shiny new Airbus A330 tankers). But a Glastonbury attendee pointed out “Given the decline of our manufacturing I don’t think we’d want to go up against the Germans right now. Fortunately they seem to have lost their passion for war.”

Perhaps Piketty is right that a world government, a global tax on wealth, and a dramatic increase in government efficiency could result in improved growth and human happiness. But my take-away from England is that it doesn’t work if a country tries to do this on its own. Maybe inequality by the numbers will fall a little bit, but the overall level of prosperity will slip compared to successful countries such that essentially everyone is worse off than they would have been under a system that is less antagonistic towards the economically successful.

China shuts the revolving door for government officials


One of the problems identified in Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patientsis the revolving door between drug regulators, such as the FDA and their European equivalent, and the pharma industry:

The EMA regulates the pharmaceutical industry throughout the whole of Europe, and has taken over the responsibilities of the regulators in individual member countries. In December 2010 Thomas Lonngren stepped down as its executive director. On the 28th of that month he sent a letter telling the EMA management board that he was going to start working as a private consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, starting in just four days’ time, on 1 January 2011.

In the USA, for example, you have to wait a year after leaving the Defense Department before you can work for a defence contractor. After ten days the chairman of the EMA wrote back to Lonngren saying that his plans were fine. He didn’t impose any further restrictions, and nor, remarkably, did he ask for any information on what kind of work Lonngren planned to do. Lonngren had said in his letter that there would be no conflict of interest, and that was enough for everyone concerned.

Coincidentally I had breakfast this morning with a Chinese-American entrepreneur. She explained that her father back in Mainland China was currently unemployed and coming for a long visit. He had worked for the government but, due to a new rule requiring a five-year waiting period, had to quit his industry job.

Book review for Bostonians: Trapped Under the Sea


If you live in Boston and/or are interested in commercial diving or big engineering projects, Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness is a great book.

Neil Swidey describes events from the late 1990s that were critical to completing the Boston Harbor clean-up project. Treated wastewater would travel from the Deer Island sewage plant through a 10-mile-long tunnel underneath the Massachusetts Bay and then rise up to be discharged at the seafloor, about 100 feet underwater. So that people building the tunnel wouldn’t be at risk of flooding, the riser tubes were plugged at the seafloor. These plugs could then be removed when the project was complete. What if a big ship dragged its anchor 10 miles out into the bay? The tubes were also plugged at the bottom, 10 miles into the tunnel. Kiewit, the contractor building the tunnel, wanted to pull the lower plugs while the tunnel was still lit and ventilated, then patrol the bay to keep ships clear while the lighting and ventilation were removed. They noted that it had been about 10 years since the top plugs were installed and no ship had dislodged one. The government authority managing the project disagreed, despite the fact that it would be a violation of OSHA regulations for workers to be in the tunnel without ventilation:

The irony is that each side claimed worker safety was its primary concern. Corkum, writing on behalf of Kaiser and the MWRA, said it would be unwise to endanger the lives of up to a hundred sandhogs by leaving the tunnel vulnerable to a possible flood during the long cleanup period. Kiewit, meanwhile, said it would be insane to put a small number of workers at extreme risk by sending them into a tunnel that had no air or light, all in the name of protecting a larger group of workers from an exceedingly small risk. By waiting until the end to pull the plugs, the Kiewit manager wrote, “the risk of catastrophe would be exponentially higher!” In frustration, Kiewit enlisted a former OSHA inspector named Fred Anderson as a consultant. In his report, Anderson stressed that the stakes were “enormous in terms of both money and political necessity.” By insisting on installing backup plugs without a clear understanding of how they would be removed, the parties involved in the project had painted themselves into a corner, he wrote. But the tunnel would not be viable if they couldn’t figure out a safe way to yank out the plugs. “They must come out!” After reading the contract closely, Anderson noted, it was clear that the people who wrote the specs intended for the plugs to be removed by a crew “dependent on self-contained breathing apparatus in an unknown and uncontrollable environment.” He stressed, “To me, this is a scary prospect.” He warned that the hazardous assignment could cost lives. And if workers died, regulatory agencies would likely shut down the tunnel, adding further delays. Anderson strongly advised Kiewit to stand firm and insist on pulling the plugs before removing the ventilation, lighting, and rail systems. Asking workers to venture nearly ten miles into a dark, unventilated tunnel hundreds of feet below the ocean, he said, would be sentencing them to “an operation somewhat akin to a spacewalk.

The technical explanations in the book are pretty good, e.g., why wouldn’t there be plenty of oxygen in a tunnel that was in fact open on one side?

Even though the ventilation line no longer extended past the four-mile mark, the divers found that oxygen levels were sufficient to sustain human life well beyond that point. But they knew that by the time the tunnel cleanup had been completed and the actual plug-removal mission had begun, those oxygen levels would be lower, for two reasons. First, the cleanup wouldn’t be considered complete until the entire bag line was yanked out. Second, the remaining oxygen at the end of the tunnel would essentially begin using itself up. In the dank, confined space of the tunnel, oxygen would be depleted by things like the growth of aerobic bacteria and the rusting of metals, such as bolts. There was also the very real possibility that oxygen would be displaced by highly toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide, which is produced when certain organisms decay.

The state government authority (MWRA) got its way and federal workers at OSHA blessed a plan to send commercial divers 10 miles into the tunnel with an experimental air supply based on mixing liquid gases. The government did not ask for any testing of the experimental air supply, but that doesn’t mean they waived other regulations:

The first day on the island was a blur of unloading and unpacking, after the divers went through the drug testing that the MWRA mandated of all workers on the job.

Predictably there were deaths, but few people cared.

[at a funeral] Hoss watched as Riggs stood to deliver a special reading. The reflection had actually been published as a letter to the editor in The Boston Globe two days after the accident. Written by a stranger named Parker Pettus, it contrasted the “lavish” wall-to-wall coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who had been granted a mariner’s funeral aboard a warship, with the “unadorned” news report about the deaths of Billy and Tim. These men were not rich or famous or privileged. Certainly they would have preferred not to have been in a dangerous tunnel hundreds of feet below the surface and miles from any help. They died while doing a hazardous, unheralded job, and their contribution to a clean, revived Boston Harbor will last for generations. They will not be immortalized in the media, they will not be buried at sea from the decks of a warship. These workers are the kind of heroes who are so often taken for granted. We would do well to think of Boston’s clear, blue, living harbor as a monument to the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary heroes who made it a reality.

More: Read the book

Next on my reading list: Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Smartest Kids in the World: What can a parent do?


Perhaps you aren’t able to emigrate to Finland but you still want your children to get a good education. You aren’t willing to assume that a country (the U.S.) that has been running a mediocre public school system for 100 years is suddenly going to snap out of its football-induced stupor. Does Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way offer any practical tips for what a conscientious parent might do? Yes.

How about joining the PTA?

PTA parents cared deeply about their children and went out of their way to participate in school functions. During the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed. Despite a lack of evidence, the self-esteem movement took hold in the United States in a way that it did not in most of the world. So, it was understandable that PTA parents focused their energies on the nonacademic side of their children’s school. They dutifully sold cupcakes at the bake sales and helped coach the soccer teams. They doled out praise and trophies at a rate unmatched in other countries. They were their kids’ boosters, their number-one fans. These were the parents that Kim’s principal in Oklahoma praised as highly involved. And PTA parents certainly contributed to the school’s culture, budget, and sense of community. However, there was not much evidence that PTA parents helped their children become critical thinkers. In most of the countries where parents took the PISA survey, parents who participated in a PTA had teenagers who performed worse in reading.

By 2009, Schleicher and his colleagues had managed to convince thirteen countries and regions to include parents in the PISA. Five thousand of the students who took the PISA test brought home a special survey for their parents. The survey asked how they had raised their children and participated in their education, starting from when they were very young. Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen very different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small.

Giving your children lots of encouragement and praise?

In one Columbia University study, 85 percent of American parents surveyed said that they thought they needed to praise their children’s intelligence in order to assure them they were smart. However, the actual research on praise suggested the opposite was true. Praise that was vague, insincere, or excessive tended to discourage kids from working hard and trying new things. It had a toxic effect, the opposite of what parents intended. To work, praise had to be specific, authentic, and rare.

Knocking yourself out like Tiger Mom?

Korean parenting, by contrast, were coaches. Coach parents cared deeply about their children, too. Yet they spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia—and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.

While American parents gave their kids placemats with numbers on them and called it a day, Asian parents taught their children to add before they could read. They did it systematically and directly, say, from six-thirty to seven each night, with a workbook—not organically, the way many American parents preferred their children to learn math. The coach parent did not necessarily have to earn a lot of money or be highly educated. Nor did a coach parent have to be Asian, needless to say. The research showed that European-American parents who acted more like coaches tended to raise smarter kids, too.

What if, due to a lifetime of living in America, you are too lazy to do that?

Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning. More affluent parents were more likely to read to their children almost everywhere, but even among families within the same socioeconomic group, parents who read to their children tended to raise kids who scored fourteen points higher on PISA. By contrast, parents who regularly played with alphabet toys with their young children saw no such benefit.

And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said.

By contrast, other parental efforts yielded big returns, the survey suggested. When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time there were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliché: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple? Yes, it could, which was not to say that it was uninteresting. After all, what did reading to your kids mean? Done well, it meant teaching them about the world—sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things. As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels.

What if you’re too busy watching TV and playing Xbox to read? Can you be savvy about choosing your child’s school? Ripley has an entire appendix on the subject.

If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Spending per student? Beyond a certain baseline level, money does not translate into quality in education anywhere. The smartest countries in the world spend less per pupil than the United States. Average class size? Not as important as most people think, except in the earliest years of schooling. In fact, the highest-performing countries typically have larger classes than the United States. The research shows that the quality of the teaching matters more than the size of the class. Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home? More and more U.S. school districts have this kind of information, but do not make it public. Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time—even just twenty minutes—visiting classrooms while school is in session. When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Parents tend to spend a lot of time staring at the bulletin boards in classrooms. Here is a better idea: Watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard. Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm. Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other.

There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.

I saw bored kids in every country. Boredom is the specter that haunts children from kindergarten to graduation on every continent. In American classrooms, I watched a girl draw a beautiful rose tattoo on her arm with a ballpoint pen; she did it slowly, meticulously, as though she were serving a life sentence.

In the best schools, though, boredom was the exception rather than the norm. You could walk into five classrooms and see just one or two students who had drifted away, mentally or physically, rather than eight or ten. That’s how you know that you are in a place of learning.

Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?”

The first thing I usually ask is straightforward: What are you doing right now? Why? You’d be amazed how many kids can answer the first question but not the second.


Smartest Kids in the World: American Private School


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.


Smartest Kids in the World: Finland


Finland is the model for Amanda Ripley. In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way she celebrates the high performance of Korean schools, but notes that it comes at a terrible cost to parents and teenagers. We can learn a lot from Poland, but they are relatively new to the high-performance education world.

Ripley follows Kim, a student from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to a small dark village in Finland.

During her three months in Finland, Kim had collected a small catalogue of differences between school here and in Oklahoma. The most obvious were the things that were missing. There were no high-tech, interactive white boards in her classroom. There was no police officer in the hallway. Over time, though, she had begun to notice more important distinctions—the kind that a visiting adult would not see. Take the stoner kid, as Kim had nicknamed him in her head. He’d walked into class that day looking hung over, with glassy eyes, as usual. He had short blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and a nose that was always a shade redder than the rest of his skin. He didn’t talk much in class, but when he was with his friends, smoking cigarettes outside, he was louder. Kim had seen plenty of kids like him in Sallisaw. Somehow, she hadn’t expected to see stoner kids in Finland. But there he was. Every country had its stoner kids, as it turned out. That was lesson one. There was only one major difference, as far as she could tell, and this was lesson two. The Finnish stoner kid was a model student. He showed up to class, and he was attentive. He took notes. When Stara assigned essays, which was often, he wrote them, just like everybody else. In Oklahoma, the stoner kids didn’t do much schoolwork, in Kim’s experience. They didn’t care. Here, all kids complained about school, too, and they had teachers they liked and disliked. Yet most of them seemed to have bought into the idea of education on some level.

After class, Kim had a free period—a full seventy minutes with nothing scheduled. This was the other big difference she’d noticed about Finland: the inexplicable stretches of luxurious freedom. She kept finding herself released into the ether, trusted to find her way through long stretches of time. She could even walk out of the school in the middle of the day and go to a coffee shop in the village until her next class began.

Parents in general seemed to trust their kids more. Kim routinely saw eight-year-olds walking to school alone, wearing reflective vests to keep them visible in the dark. At the high school, she rarely saw parents for any reason. Teenagers were treated more like adults. There were no regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences. None. If teachers had a problem with the student, they usually just met with the student.

When Kim’s school day in Finland ended at three forty-five, it was already dark. Her classmates all headed off in different directions. A few boys in a garage band went off to practice; some of the girls went shopping. No one Kim knew went to afterschool tutoring academies. Finnish kids had more free time than American kids, and not just because they did less homework. They were also less likely to play sports or hold down jobs.

As one U.S. exchange student to Finland explained in the survey conducted for this book: “My Finnish school fostered a great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students. This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure in their journeys to becoming educators. The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were.”

How does one get to be a teacher in Finland?

Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States. That helped explain why the first phase of reforms in Finland were painful, top-down, accountability-based measures. Finland, it turns out, had its own No Child Left Behind moment, one that today will sound familiar to teachers in the United States and many other countries. In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour. National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum. Central authorities approved textbooks. Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions. During the same time period, the Finnish government did something else, too—something that has never happened in the United States or most other countries. The Finns rebooted their teacher-training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous. As part of a broader reform of higher education, the government shuttered the smaller schools and moved teacher preparation into the more respected universities. It was a bold reform, and not without controversy. Opponents argued that the new system was elitist and would, as one editorial warned, “block the road to our rural youth when their inner calling beckons them to a [teaching] career.” Some university leaders objected, too, fearing that the inclusion of such preprofessional, practical training might dilute academic standards for the rest of the departments and lower their institutions’ prestige. Interestingly, these same arguments were also made in the United States whenever anyone tried to make teacher training more selective.

When Kim was starting kindergarten in 2000, ten out of ten new Finnish teachers had graduated in the top third of their high school classes; only two out of ten American teachers had done so. Incredibly, at some U.S. colleges, students had to meet higher academic standards to play football than to become teachers.

Like Kim’s math teacher back in Oklahoma, Stara was a veteran teacher, approaching two decades in the profession. Both teachers had jobs that were protected by powerful unions, and neither could easily be dismissed. This pattern held true in most developed countries around the world: Teachers’ unions held a lot of power, and teachers rarely got fired anywhere. The similarities ended there. From the moment she had decided to study education in college, Stara had entered a profession completely different from that of Kim’s Oklahoma teacher. To become a teacher in Finland, Stara had had to first get accepted into one of only eight prestigious teacher-training universities. She had high test scores and good grades, but she knew the odds were still against her. She’d wanted to teach Finnish, so she’d applied to the Finnish department at the University of Jyväskylä. In addition to sending them her graduation-exam scores, she’d had to read four books selected by the university, then sit for a special Finnish literature exam. Then she’d waited: Only 20 percent of applicants were accepted.

At that time, all of Finland’s teacher-training colleges had similarly high standards, making them about as selective as Georgetown or the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT. It was hard to overstate the implications that cascaded from this one fact. Just one out of every twenty education schools was located at a highly selective institution in the United States. Far more than that had no admission standards at all. In other words, to educate our children, we invited anyone—no matter how poorly educated they were—to give it a try. The irony was revealing, a bit like recruiting flight instructors who had never successfully landed a plane, then wondering why so many planes were crashing. [emphasis added]

In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States. The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else.

Is there something magic about Scandinavia? Apparently not.

Norway, for example, shares a border with Finland and spends more on education. But Norway is not choosy about who gets to become a teacher, and the quality of preparation varies wildly, just as it does in the United States. Norwegians have fretted about the quality of their teacher-training colleges for decades, and the government routinely interferes in the training to try to make it better. As in many countries, teachers are made to attain ever more amounts of training and education, without much regard for quality. Partly as a result, Norwegian fifteen-year-olds perform at about the same middling levels as teenagers in the United States on PISA, and even the most privileged among them perform poorly in math, compared to advantaged teenagers worldwide.

After you stock the schools with teachers who were good at school, do you need brilliant management techniques?

The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously. So, that’s what they did. It was a radically obvious strategy that few countries have attempted. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, something magnificent happened. Finland evolved to an entirely new state, unrealized in almost any country in the world. It happened slowly, and partly by accident, but it explained more about Finland’s success than almost anything else. With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind-style mandates became unnecessary. More than that, they were a burden, preventing teachers and schools from reaching a higher level of excellence. So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture.

The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated.

By the time Kim got to Finland, teachers, principals, union leaders, and politicians routinely worked together to continually improve the education system. They sometimes disagreed, but collaboration was normal, and trust was high. The government conducted standardized testing of targeted samples of students—to make sure schools were performing. But there was no need to test all students, year after year.

Do you need cultural and economic homogeneity to achieve good results? (repeat of some of the same quotes from earlier posting on U.S. schools)

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.

Does it cost a lot more to have teachers who are well-educated? Not as much as you’d think, because well-educated teachers are given larger classes and require less administration, according to Ripley.

As I listened to teachers like Stara and Bethel, I started to suspect that all these differences interacted, in chronological order. Because teacher colleges selected only the top applicants in Finland and other education superpowers, those schools could spend less time doing catch-up instruction and more time on rigorous, hands-on training; because teachers entered the classroom with rigorous training and a solid education, they were less likely than American teachers to quit in frustration. This model of preparation and stability made it possible to give teachers larger class sizes and pay them decently, since the turnover costs were much lower than in other countries. And, since they had all this training and support, they had the tools to help kids learn, year after year, and to finally pass a truly demanding graduation test at the end of high school.

What is this “demanding graduation test”?

It happened to be the week that the seniors got the results of the big matriculation exam they’d taken earlier that year—the one that determined where they would likely go to college. Kim’s Finnish teacher, Tiina Stara, was worried about her students. “They are feeling a lot of pressure. It’s not like in Japan or Korea, but still.” The test had been around for more than 160 years and was deeply embedded in the system. The countries with the best education outcomes all had these tests at the end of high school. It was one of the most obvious differences between them and the United States—which had a surplus of tests, few of which had meaningful effects on kids’ lives. Matriculation exams like Finland’s helped inject drive into education systems—creating a bright finish line for kids and schools to work toward. Teenagers from countries with these kinds of tests performed over sixteen points higher on PISA than those in countries without them.

Finland’s exam stretched out over three grueling weeks and lasted about fifty hours. Teachers followed students to the bathroom to make sure they didn’t cheat. The Finnish section took two days. On the first day, students read several texts and wrote short essays analyzing each one, over the course of six hours. On the second day, students chose one topic out of fourteen options and wrote a single, very long essay, over the course of another six hours. One recent topic was, “Why is it difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East?” Another was, “I blog, therefore I am.”

Ripley expresses amazement that Americans (1) are repeating the top-down command-and-control approaches to improving public schools that were tried without success in the 1970s in Finland and (2) don’t copy the Finnish approach to teacher education and selection.

The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis. It made sense to reward, train, and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality. What if the main problem was not motivation? Was it possible to hammer 3.6 million American teachers into becoming master educators if their SAT scores were below average?

For all the time and energy that American educators had spent praising Finland, it was remarkable that they did not insist upon this most obvious first step. It was almost as if we wanted the prestige of Finland’s teachers—but didn’t really believe that our teachers needed to be highly educated and unusually accomplished in order to merit that prestige.

Smartest Kids in the World: Poland


Part of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley concerns big changes to the Polish schools.

And there he was, in Poland at last. Everything was more or less going according to his plan. The thing is: When Tom walked to the front of that classroom in Poland that day, he was carrying an American burden no one could see. Despite his Yo La Tengo T-shirt and his winter of Chekhov, Tom was in at least one way a prototypical American teenager. Tom was not good at math. He’d started to lose his way in middle school, as so many American kids did. It had happened gradually; first he hadn’t understood one lesson, and then another and another. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. He hadn’t wanted to admit that he wasn’t as smart as other kids. Then he’d gotten a zero on a pre-algebra quiz in eighth grade. In other classes, a bad grade could be overcome. But, in math, each lesson built on what happened before. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to catch up. It felt like he was getting dumber, and it was humiliating. The next year, he got an F in math.

Note that this reminds me of the frustration expressed by a friend who quit a wonderfully well-paid job as a public school teacher to become a flight instructor and then commercial pilot of a $5 million aircraft (total compensation about half of a senior schoolteacher’s). He said that classes should be organized like a Latin American Spanish-language school for gringos in which people took a placement test every month and might move ahead or behind so as to ensure that they were always in an appropriate level.

Is this guy Tom from the lavishly funded Gettysburg, Pennsylvania high school an exception?

America’s math handicap afflicted even its most privileged kids, who were more privileged than the most advantaged kids in most other countries, including Poland. Our richest kids attended some of the most well-funded, high-tech schools in the world. Yet these kids, including the ones who went to private school, still ranked eighteenth in math compared to the richest kids in other countries. They scored lower than affluent kids in Slovenia and Hungary and tied with the most privileged kids in Portugal.

Our poorest kids did even worse, relatively speaking, coming in twenty-seventh compared to the poorest kids in other developed countries, far below the most disadvantaged kids in Estonia, Finland, Korea, Canada, and Poland, among many other nations.

How does math class work in Poland?

Back in America, Tom and all his classmates had used calculators. In his Polish math class, calculators were not allowed.

In Poland, the lowest grade was always one, and the highest was five. After each test, he waited to see if anyone would get a five; no one ever did. No one seemed surprised or shattered, either. They shouldered their book bags and moved on to the next class.  Kids in Poland were used to failing, it seemed. The logic made sense. If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn. “Success,” as Winston Churchill once said, “is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

There were no sports at Tom’s school in Poland. Sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pick-up soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for—or what mattered to kids’ life chances.

Did Poland have a deep tradition of pedagogical excellence? A Danish-style harmonious society with low poverty?

The defenders of America’s mediocre education system, the ones who blamed poverty and dysfunction for our problems, talked as if America had a monopoly on trouble. Perhaps they had never been to Poland. It is difficult to summarize the tumult that occurred in Poland in the space of a half century. After the fall of communism in 1989, hyperinflation took hold; grocery store shelves were empty, and mothers could not find milk for their children. The country seemed on the verge of chaos, if not civil war. Yet Poland tumbled through yet another transformation, throwing open its institutions to emerge as a free-market democracy. The citizens of Wrocław renamed their streets for a third time.

By 2010, when Tom arrived from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Poland had joined the European Union. The country still struggled with deprivation, crime, and pathology of all kinds, however. While Tom was there, the local soccer teams started playing in empty stadiums, silent but for the sounds of their feet kicking the ball. There’d been so much violence among the fans that they’d been banned from their own teams’ games. Nearly one in six Polish children lived in poverty, a rate approaching that of the United States, where one in five kids are poor. It is hard to compare relative levels of sadness, but the data suggested that poor children in Poland led jagged lives. In a United Nations comparison of children’s material well-being, Poland ranked dead last in the developed world. Like the United States, Poland was a big country where people distrusted the centralized government. Yet something remarkable had happened in Poland. It had managed to do what other countries could not. From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish fifteen-year-olds shot up twenty-nine points on the PISA exam. It was as if Polish kids had somehow packed almost three-quarters of a school year of extra learning into their brains. In less than a decade, they had gone from below average for the developed world to above. Over the same period, U.S. scores had remained flat.

Poland still had not joined the top tier of education superpowers. But, unlike the United States, it had dramatically improved its results in just a few years—despite crime, poverty, and a thousand good reasons for why it should fail.

Just a few weeks before, a friend of Tom’s had been mugged at knifepoint there, in broad daylight, as he’d walked home from the school.  The Triangle kids did not have easy lives. Some had fathers in prison; others had mothers who drank too much vodka. On some days, kids came to school tired and hungry. To an outsider, it didn’t look all that different from an American ghetto.

So how have they done so well?

In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery. Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

In the spring of 1998, he and his boss, the new prime minister, Jerzy Buzek (another chemistry professor), announced a series of reforms the likes of which they might never have contemplated if they’d had more experience with the political sensitivities of education. “We have to move the entire system—push it out of its equilibrium so that it will achieve a new equilibrium,” Handke said. He was still teaching chemistry, this time to thirty-eight million people. To get to the new equilibrium, the country would enter what scientists called a transition phase. This phase would, as Handke put it, “give students a chance.” It had four main parts, laid out in a 225-page orange book that was distributed to schools all over the country. First, the reforms would inject rigor into the system. A new core curriculum would replace the old, dumbed-down mandates that had forced teachers to cover too many topics too briefly. The new program would lay out fundamental goals, but leave the details to the schools. At the same time, the government would require a quarter of teachers to go back to school to improve their own education.

Along with rigor came accountability. To make sure students were learning, they would start taking standardized tests at regular intervals throughout their schooling—not as often as American kids, but at the end of elementary, junior high, and high school.

For younger kids, the tests would help identify which students—and teachers and schools—needed more help. For older students, the tests would also have consequences, determining which high schools and then universities they could attend.

The Poles couldn’t know it yet, but this kind of targeted standardized testing would prove to be critical in any country with significant poverty, according to a PISA analysis that would come out years later. Around the world, school systems that used regular standardized tests tended to be fairer places, with smaller gaps between what rich and poor kids knew. Even in the United States, where tests have historically lacked rigor and purpose, African-American and Hispanic students’ reading and math scores have gone up during the era of widespread standardized testing.

autonomy was the fourth reform. Teachers would be free to choose their own textbooks and their own specific curriculum from over one hundred approved options, along with their own professional development. They would start earning bonuses based in part on how much professional development they did. In a booming country where people were judged by how much money they made, the cash infusion would telegraph to everyone that teachers were no longer menial laborers. The principal, meanwhile, would have full responsibility for hiring teachers.

the new system would demand more accountability for results, while granting more autonomy for methods. That dynamic could be found in all countries that had dramatically improved their results, including Finland and, for that matter, in every high-performing organization, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Apple Inc. All this change would happen, Handke declared, in one year.

Did the people who’d been getting paychecks from the old system welcome the change?

the Union of Polish Teachers came out against the reforms, accusing Handke of trying to change too much too quickly with too little funding. In another article in the same newspaper, one principal prophesied disaster: “We can look forward to a deterioration in the standard of education for most young people, a deepening of illiteracy and a widespread reluctance to pursue further education.”

And the results?

in 2000, Polish fifteen-year-olds took the PISA. No one realized it then, but the timing was perfect. PISA captured, entirely by coincidence, a snapshot of Poland before and after the reforms. The Polish kids who took the first PISA in 2000 had grown up under the old system. Half had already been tracked to vocational schools, half to academic schools. They were the control group, so to speak. No one in Poland had expected to lead the world, but the results were disheartening all the same. Polish fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math, below the United States and below average for the developed world. Once again, Poland had found itself on the outside looking in. If the vocational students were evaluated separately, the inequities were startling. Over two-thirds scored in the rock-bottom lowest literacy level.

Three years later, in 2003, a new group of Polish fifteen-year-olds took PISA. They had spent their elementary years in the old system but were by then attending the new gymnasia schools. Unlike their predecessors, they had not yet been tracked. They were the experimental group. The results were shocking—again. Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects. In the space of three years, Poland had caught up with the developed world. How could this be? Typically, it takes many years for reforms to have any impact, and most never do. But the results held. By 2009, Poland was outperforming the United States in math and science, despite spending less than half as much money per student. In reading and math, Poland’s poorest kids outscored the poorest kids in the United States. That was a remarkable feat, given that they were worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids. The results suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world: perhaps poor kids could learn more than they were learning. Perhaps all was not lost. Most impressively, 85 percent of Polish students graduated from high school that year, compared to 76 percent in the United States.

What had made the difference in Poland? Of all the changes, one reform had mattered most, according to research done by Wiśniewski and his colleagues: the delay in tracking. Kids who would have otherwise been transferred to vocational schools scored about 100 points higher than their counterparts in 2000, those who had already been tracked at that point. The expectations had gone up, and these kids had met them. The four thousand newly inclusive schools had, it appeared, jump-started the education system in ways no one had expected. The principals who had volunteered to run the new schools tended to be the more ambitious school leaders, and they were allowed to handpick the teachers who came with them. Quite by accident, the new system self-selected for talent, and the new schools had built-in prestige. To the rest of the education establishment, the new schools sent a message that these reforms were real, not just another political spasm that could be ignored.

Is there a Hollywood ending to this story? Not for all Polish students, unfortunately.

Expectations could fall as quickly as they rose. In 2006 and 2009, Poland gave the PISA test to a sample of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, to see what happened once they went off to vocational schools. Incredibly, the gains disappeared: The achievement gap from the first PISA returned, one year later. By age sixteen, vocational students were performing dramatically worse than academic students. The reforms had postponed the gap, not eliminated it.

Wiśniewski was mystified. How could the improvements vanish so fast? “It might be motivation,” he said. “It needs more research. But the peer effects are somehow very influential.” Something happened to kids once they got into the vocational schools with all the other vocational students and teachers. They seemed to lose their abilities, or maybe their drive, almost overnight.

tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect: Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.

How about the U.S.? Do we track the academically disinclined?

When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations.

Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material. Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.

The word gifted alone implied an innate talent that no amount of hard work could change. In a sense, it was the opposite of Confucianism, which holds that the only path to true understanding comes from long, careful study.

And how about the Finns, the heroes of the book?

By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived. Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world). Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student. It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity—a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking—was a telltale sign of rigor.

How do the physical facilities compare in Poland versus the U.S.?

Number thirteen was a bilingual German school, considered one of the better high schools in the city. It had hardwood floors, high ceilings, and wooden desks, but it was not in the same league as the facility in Gettysburg. There was no cafeteria, for example. Kids brought sandwiches from home or bought food from a small snack counter inside the school. There were no high-tech white boards or laptops, either. Back at Gettysburg, half the classrooms had laptops for all students, and the other half used one of five computer labs as needed.

Are the bureaucrats as jazzed up about the high academic performance as Ripley?

I asked Tom to introduce me to his principal, Urszula Spałka. Spałka gave succinct answers to my questions, betraying little emotion. When I asked her about the reforms, the ones that had made the country a role model for the rest of the world, her expression soured. “We’re not too excited about the reforms,” she said drily. “Schools don’t like radical changes. And these were radical changes.” Despite Poland’s higher PISA scores, many Poles still thought it had been a mistake to keep all kids together during the volatile teenage years. Or they were focused on other problems: Many thought the graduation exam had gotten too easy, and the country’s teachers were feuding with the government over a move to increase their hours. Everywhere I went, in every country, people complained about their education system.

Is there any cash value to running a decent school system?

As Tom left Poland, another American was arriving. Paula Marshall came from Oklahoma, not far from where Kim lived. She didn’t come to study or sightsee, however; she came to open a factory. Marshall ran the Bama Companies, an Oklahoma institution. Her grandmother had started selling homemade pies to local restaurants in the 1920s. Then, Paula’s father had pitched a brilliant idea to McDonald’s: Portable pies customers could eat in their cars. It was a profoundly American success story: a young man who turned deep-fried apples into gold. Decades later, Paula had taken over, opening new factories in Oklahoma and China. The company had grown exponentially, supplying breadsticks to Pizza Hut and biscuits to McDonald’s. Most of its one thousand employees still worked in Oklahoma. But now, she’d come to Poland to open her next plant. There were lots of reasons, one of which was that modern factory jobs required skilled workers who knew how to think critically. The locals had assured her that she wouldn’t have trouble filling jobs in Poland. “We hear that educated people are plentiful,” she said. When I met Marshall for coffee, she spoke in very practical terms about the challenge of filling jobs in the United States. Take maintenance jobs, she said. Those jobs paid twenty-five to thirty dollars per hour, but they required more skill than the title implied. Today, maintenance techs had to be able to understand technical blueprints; communicate in writing what had happened on their shifts; test possible solutions to complex, dynamic problems; and, of course, troubleshoot and repair major mechanical systems. The Bama Companies had trouble finding enough maintenance techs in Oklahoma. Some years, they even had trouble filling their lowest-skilled line jobs, because even those workers had to be able to think and communicate. Marshall was willing to pay for employees’ technical training, but she’d discovered that many people came to her unable to read or do basic math. She found that she couldn’t trust a high-school diploma; graduates from different high schools within the same Oklahoma school district knew wildly different things. (The military had found the same thing, interestingly. A quarter of Oklahoma high-school graduates who tried to enlist could not pass the military’s own academic aptitude test.)

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