Grappling With the Question: Why Isn't America Number 1?

Do you feel as if you are drowning in bad news? Welcome to the club.

And not just generic bad news but the kind of bad news that makes you question whether we, as a nation, have the smarts, the wherewithal, the old-fashioned grit to solve our problems.

One of the most alarming items on a long list of woes is that while the rest of the world's kids seem to be getting smarter, our kids don't. Right now, in fact, it looks as if we are on track to be one of the only developed countries to have smaller percentages of young people graduate from high school and college than their parents' generation.

This just piles on to all the other bad stuff that we hear about schools and education, which I am not going to repeat. You've heard it already -- our top kids can kind of pant along behind the rest of the world but the rest of our kids are woefully behind.

But why?

Journalist Amanda Ripley wanted to understand that question and has written an engaging book that invites us to join her on the journey she followed to get answers: The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way (Simon and Schuster).

She began by asking the experts -- kids.

The problem with talking with kids, though, is that their limited life experience means they can't always make assessments about how different schools could be.

So Ripley did something rather clever. She sought out kids with experiences that allowed them to have a point of comparison -- exchange students. She surveyed large numbers of American high school students who went abroad and foreign students who studied here, then closely followed the experiences of three students -- a Pennsylvanian who went to Poland, an Oklahoman who went to Finland and a Minnesotan who went to South Korea.

She chose those countries because Finland and South Korea show up as top of the world and Poland has dramatically improved in a relatively short time despite a high rate of child poverty. She chose students who are clearly bright, curious and interested in the world.

So what did they see?

They saw places where everyone understands that education is important, and organizes schools around that fact in ways that are palpable every day.

For example Kim, the Oklahoman who went to Finland, saw that students respected teachers for their knowledge and expertise and matched them in seriousness and focus. Students there know that every one of their teachers has had to sweat out being accepted to highly selective teaching programs the way American students have to sweat out being accepted to MIT. Prospective teachers then have to go through intensive training and student teaching. Back in Oklahoma, Kim's algebra teacher had majored in physical education at a university that accepts pretty much all-comers. All the kids knew his main job was coaching football; teaching math was what he had to do in order to coach.

Tom, the Pennsylvanian who went to Poland, saw teachers read test grades out loud to the class and never saw anyone get the equivalent of an A. Back in Pennsylvania he would have been stunned not to get As for much lower-level work than he saw being done in Poland. And teachers would never have revealed grades publicly -- in the United States grades are considered private; low grades shameful. In Poland, struggle and failure seemed to be acknowledged as a normal part of learning.

I'm not going to talk about South Korea -- there's such a thing as taking a good thing way too far, and South Korea seems to have done it. If you ever start thinking that American kids are under too much pressure because they take a couple of standardized tests a year, you might want to read about the strain South Korean kids are under. But one thing -- Eric found the math classes much less boring than math classes back in Minnesota.

All these observations simply raise more questions, and Ripley allows us to follow her as she goes to experts in South Korea, Poland, Finland and the United States to get answers about teacher preparation, national standards and assessment that raise yet more questions about what the purpose of education is, what national policies are most effective and what obligations schools have to kids and kids have to schools. The intellectual journey that we travel with Ripley has profound implications for Americans as we consider what to do to improve education.

This isn't the book to read if you want your pet policies or proposals to be bolstered. But if you are curious why the richest nation in the history of the world can't seem to get its educational act together, this is a very readable way to enter into the subject.

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