Amanda Ripley’s believe it or not

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 15, 2014

How other nations are improving education
The subject was compelling, the issue timely and the conversation was sometimes provocative at this year’s Emerging Issues Forum focusing on teachers and the great economic debate. Not unlike her famous namesake Robert, noted researcher and author Amanda Ripley presented an assessment of education some found difficult to believe or accept.
Speaking from her book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way,” Ripley kicked off the forum reporting that America’s students rank 13th alongside other countries of the world, even though we spend more than all but four countries. Even in states with largely homogenous populations, like Maine, we still don’t rank highly on the PISA assessment taken by millions of students in 43 countries. Not content with just test results, Ripley interviewed many exchange students, both those who went abroad and those who came to the U.S., to understand their experiences.

Many of today’s top countries had only mediocre outcomes until recent years, when educators, politicians and parents united behind coherent, clear and rigorous standards, much like today’s Common Core Curriculum.
Most school buildings in other countries are not impressive; some don’t have cafeterias, gyms or athletic facilities. Sports are an afterthought, with little attention or funding. Technology is not as prevalent, with few whiteboards, overhead projectors or Wi-Fi friendly classrooms.
Curriculums are more rigorous, even in better-developed and more prevalent vocational tracks. Students “buy-in” to the importance of education, recognizing their acceptance into top universities or for good jobs is dependent on working hard.
They have less homework but what they have is more challenging, requiring them to think. Teachers often read aloud all students’ scores on tests. Surprisingly, students aren’t upset, recognizing few achieve the top grades, that tests are difficult and graded strictly. In the U.S., where we’re more concerned with the student’s psyche, tests are frequently easier and grading more lenient, explaining why both students and parents are perplexed when more rigorous testing instruments reflect middle or below rankings.

Reforms often began with teachers. It is often more difficult to get into education college in these countries than to get into MIT. Only the top 10-20 percent are accepted, signaling that only the best and brightest can become teachers. Teachers are held accountable for outcomes, given more autonomy and not paid significantly higher than in the U.S. But they are respected as highly as doctors or other professionals.
The role of parents is vastly different. Instead of just volunteering, parents are active participants in student education at home. Ripley reports the more time parents volunteer, the worse students perform in reading and critical thinking. Parents know their most important task, aside from providing a good home environment, is to read to their children, ask questions about what they understood and spend dinnertime discussing what they learned in school and current events.
Believe it or not, money matters, but resources spent on fancy schools, the latest technology, sports complexes or even teacher pay isn’t what matters most. Common and clearly defined goals, a rigorous curriculum, excellent teachers, proper parental involvement and a commitment from students are among the reasons other countries outperform us. The good news is all these factors are within our capacity. We owe it to America’s future to join together in once again having the smartest kids in the world.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of state issues airing Sundays at 5:30 a.m. on WFMY-TV and Sundays at 9 a.m. on Time Warner Cable Channel 69 and Channel 65