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.

Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage “ from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
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When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

It’s a smart world after all

Journalist Amanda Ripley’s “riveting” new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, shows why U.S. students don’t perform as well as many European and Asian students, writes Dana Goldstein in The Daily Beast. It’s the culture, stupid.

According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

Ripley follows three American teenagers studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. They discover “high schools that are deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism,” writes Goldstein.

In the U.S., most teachers earned about average grades and test scores when they were in high school and college. But in Finland, it is as competitive to become a public school teacher as it is to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university. There are no shortcuts into the classroom—prospective teachers must earn a master’s degree, write a research-driven thesis, and spend a full year in a teaching residency, observing master educators at work and practicing lessons and classroom management.

While few of us would want to subject our children to South Korea’s insane levels of testing stress, that nation at least shows kids that academic achievement is valued. On the morning of the national college entrance exam, the stock market opens an hour late, to clear the roads for 600,000 nervous students. Younger kids line up outside schools to cheer as their peers enter to take the nine-hour test. The scene, Ripley observes, is “like boxers entering a ring for a fight.”

In all three nations, schools don’t sponsor sports teams, Ripley writes. Kids who want to play a sport organize their own games, join a community program or hire a coach. Schools are for academics.

Children who can’t meet high expectations are allowed to fail.

Ripley believes that compared with their counterparts abroad, too many American educators rely on poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. . . .

A  Finnish teacher tells Ripley that he doesn’t feel empathy for his immigrant students, “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.”

Compassion is “what really matters in education,” writes Carol Lach, who just retired from the Massachusetts Department of Education, in Ed Week.  She quotes a junior high student she taught 40 years ago:  “Why should I care about your math if you don’t care about me?”

The $4 million teacher

South Korea’s “rock-star teacher” earns $4 million a year, writes Amanda Ripley in the Wall Street Journal.  Kim Ki-Hoon teaches in a private, after-school tutoring academy or hagwon.

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

“The harder I work, the more I make,” he says matter of factly. “I like that.”

Some 150,000 students watch Mr. Kim’s lectures online each year, hoping to raise their college admissions scores. He employs 30 people and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

Hagwons compete to hire top teachers and pay them based on the number of students they attract, students’ progress and student evaluations.

In a survey, teenagers gave their hagwon teachers better scores than their regular teachers.

Hagwon teachers were better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions, the teenagers said. Interestingly, the hagwon teachers rated best of all when it came to treating all students fairly, regardless of the students’ academic performance.

Private tutors are also more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional forms of teaching.

Nearly three of every four South Korean kids use hagwons, writes Ripley. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on tutoring.

South Korean students rank at the top on international tests.

Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way follows Americans going to school in South Korea, Finland and Poland, The book will come out Aug. 13.

The Polish orphans of Pahiatua

Children from Eastern Poland who’d been deported by the Soviets, starved and orphaned were sent to a New Zealand refugee camp called Pahiatua in 1944, writes Anne Applebaum in Slate. Despite their childhood suffering and the loss of their families, the children of Pahiatua made good lives in their new country.

On Oct. 31, 1944, their ship pulled into Wellington harbor. More than 750 orphans, from toddlers to young teenagers, and 100 adult caretakers, teachers, and doctors disembarked. . . .  they stayed together, studied together, organized Polish scouting troops, and waited for the war to end so they could go home.

When the war was over, few had anyone to return to. Their former home, Eastern Poland, had been annexed by the Soviet Union. They made new homes in New Zealand. They started new families.

. . .  they had witnessed the deaths of parents and siblings, experienced terrible deprivation, and lost years of education before finding themselves in an alien country on the far side of the world. And yet they learned the language, they assimilated, they became doctors, lawyers, farmers, factory workers, teachers, and businessmen.

We believe children need “excellent schools, carefully organized leisure and . . .  high-concentration, high-focus parenting,” writes Applebaum. The Pahiatua orphans made do with a lot less.

Class time isn’t shorter in U.S.

U.S. schoolchildren spend as much time in school as kids in high-scoring countries, concludes a report by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a longer school day and year, notes the Washington Times.

“Right now, children in India … they’re going to school 30, 35 days more than our students,” he said at an education forum in September, explaining one reason he thinks the American education system is falling behind those of global competitors.

“Anybody who thinks we need less time, not more, is part of the problem,” Mr. Duncan said.

Students in India spend more days in school, but fewer hours in class, totaling 800 “instructional hours” at the elementary level. Forty-two states require more class hours, the report found. Texas requres 1,260 hours a year for elementary students.

High-scoring South Korea requires 703 hours for elementary students, though many parents pay for after-school lessons. Hungarian students score at nearly the U.S. level despite requiring only 601 hours.

U.S. high school students average 1,000 hours in class each year.

In Poland, high school students need 595 hours in the classroom, the lowest of all the countries in the study, yet they top U.S. students on the math and science portions of the PISA exams, the most widely used measuring sticks for international comparisons.

Finland, Norway, Australia and other nations also show higher levels of student achievement while requiring less instruction.

Of course, it’s not just the time spent at school, but how it’s used.