Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.

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  1. I’m not sure the word “decide” and “choose” are quite appropriate in the last paragraph,at least in the case of Europe. Placement in academic (i.e. college prep) tracks requires adequate test scores. In practice, this tends to be pretty closely tied to parents education and income.

    • I agree that “choosing” a vocational track often depends on grades and family wealth. Good grades are not the only guarantee of enrollment to college anymore. Doing well does not guarantee anything especially in Eastern Europe where the level of corruption is so high.

  2. This book is first rate. Ripley shows, through copious research that included actual students from the US studying abroad and students from abroad coming to the US, that it’s NOT the stress that’s placed on testing and achievement that count the most (neither she nor the students turn out to be very big fans of South Korea’s pressure cooker atmosphere), but rather the esteem with which teachers and education in general are held and the rigor which is applied to the process. The appendix on “how to spot a world-class education” is a nice distillation of what she learned.

    The book is not at all a recipe for fixing failing schools. Instead it is a world-wide survey of things that seem to work and things that don’t seem to work, both from a statistical perspective as well as from the perspective of teachers, students and parents.