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Searching for Lessons on Education at Schools Around the Globe

September 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What makes for educational success for kids around the world -- and how can we apply that in the U.S.? Jeffrey Brown speaks with Amanda Ripley, author of "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way," on her conclusions after studying the diverse academic environments of Poland, Finland and South Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: what works in the classroom, and what the U.S. can try doing differently. It’s part of our continuing look at ideas being discussed and debated in the world of education.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nineteen-year-old Eric, finishing high school in Minneapolis, decides to spend a year in school in a South Korea city where students study through much of the night, then fall asleep in class.

STUDENT: In Korean high school, home and school intersect constantly. If you’re at home, you’re either studying, eating or sleeping. If you’re at school, you’re studying, eating or sleeping.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kim, a 15-year-old in rural Oklahoma, jumps at the chance to study a year In Finland.

STUDENT: The students here care more. They understand that it’s important. They may not like a class, but they know, if they don’t pass it, then they don’t pass their tests and they don’t — it’s harder to get to university.

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JEFFREY BROWN: And Tom, 17, travels from Pennsylvania to Poland for his senior year of high school.

STUDENT: There’s a lot more respect for the teachers. The classrooms are much more sober environments. There’s no joking around between student and teacher like there is in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three students who help provide a lens or what makes for a successful education around the world and here at home.

It’s the subject of a new book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World.”

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley joins us now.

Welcome to you.

AMANDA RIPLEY, “The Smartest Kids in the World”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, explain the premise of the book. What were you after?

AMANDA RIPLEY: I wanted to know how these countries that we always hear about, how they got so smart, because they weren’t always so smart.

In the 1950s, Finland had a 10 percent high school graduation rate. So, what had happened in these places to get them to where they are, and what could we learn from their story?

JEFFREY BROWN: What could we learn, and, conversely, why are we not up there at the top?

AMANDA RIPLEY: Right, yes, despite — despite doubling how much we spend in education and all kinds of reforms and all kinds of good will.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you say smart, you’re using this measurement of a test called PISA, right, P-I-S-A?


JEFFREY BROWN: We should explain that because it — there are a lot of questions about how effective and what it really tells us, but you think it’s a good measure.


Well, I don’t think you ever want to just rely on one thing. Right? You want to hedge your bets and look at other things, like high school graduation rate and college complete rate and other things, other tests. But I really liked the PISA in particular because it was designed specifically to look at your ability not to memorize knowledge, but to take it to solve problems that you have never seen before, so to apply what you know, to communicate an argument, to reason, those kinds of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: How to think, huh?

AMANDA RIPLEY: Yes, those kind of things that are…

JEFFREY BROWN: As opposed to knowing the facts themselves.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Right, which we know. Now it’s easy to find information. Right? But the hard thing is to do something useful with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in that exam, that’s where the U.S. comes out rather poorly?


JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. students.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Well, we do better in reading, to be fair. And it’s a test to 15-year-olds given every three years. And we do better — we’re about 12th in reading.

We do much worse, below average, for the developed world in math and science. We’re 26th in math.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so you follow three American students who are spending a year at these three schools and you come up with three different models, I guess. Give me a brief description of what they experienced.

AMANDA RIPLEY: So, Finland is really the utopia model, the Holy Grail of education, where you’re getting 15-year-olds, virtually all of them, regardless of their background, reaching a really high level of critical thinking in math, reading and science.

And they’re doing that — this is the amazing thing — they’re doing that without working that many hours. They’re not studying all night long. They’re not going to after-school tutors. They’re probably doing less homework on average than American teenagers.

South Korea is a great example of the pressure cooker model of Asia, so it’s an extreme version of that model, where kids are working unbelievably hard day and night. Families are very, very focused on education. And they get to the same level as Finland, but the kids are working at — studying at least twice as many hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you do take us there to — you introduce us to the teacher who makes $4 million a year in the off-hours, not in school, right, but in these private — these private lessons.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Right. They have something called a shadow education system in many of these countries.

And it’s very sophisticated in Korea. And, basically, it’s a whole different school that you go to after school that repeats all the same classes. And this particular teacher became very well-known as an English teacher. And he sells his lectures online for $4 a pop, and he’s a millionaire.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s why, as we said in the introduction, the students, they come into the actual school. The actual school means less, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And they sleep for much of that because they are spending their whole night with teachers like — listening to teachers like that. Right?

AMANDA RIPLEY: It is not working smart, as anyone in Korea will tell you, that it is not — there are really fascinating things going on there, but the model as a whole is not a healthy, balanced way to get to greatness.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and then there’s Poland.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Poland, I really was excited to see, because Poland has radically improved over the past 10 years, despite having a really high child poverty rate, a rate that is comparable to our own.

So, this is a place, a big country, lot of complexity, lot of issues, still has not achieved of the level of Finland, but has dramatically improved, despite spending half as much per student as we spend.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. So, I was trying to figure out, what do these things have in common? I mean, I see schools and education taken seriously, for one thing, few gadgets, not an emphasize on electronics, which was a little surprising, and teachers, of course, held in high esteem.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Right. And I think those things are actually related.

So when all these countries were up against an economic, existential crisis at some point, and for various reasons, partly luck, partly intentional, they decided to really get serious about education. And they decided it needed to be rigorous for everyone, for the teachers, for the students, everybody involved.

So, that means, once you do that, it makes more sense to shut down your teacher training colleges and reopen them in the most elite universities in the land. And it makes more sense to give your children challenging, demanding work, the kind that most of our kids unfortunately don’t get, particularly in math and science.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that of course is the key question for our audience. What does it mean for the U.S.? Having looked at all this, what do you conclude that we’re not doing right or as well as we could?

AMANDA RIPLEY: I’m actually very hopeful. I came back here more hopeful than when I left.

And part of that is, we’re against an economic crisis as well. And I think people are starting to realize that, whereas you didn’t need rigor to succeed in America 20 years ago, you need it now. And our kids, in order to thrive in this economy, they need to be able to think, right, and to learn for their whole lives.

So, I think there’s a consensus building around that. I don’t know. We will see. It won’t be every state, but in some places, we’re seeing the Common Core standards adoption. We’re seeing some movement towards more serious education colleges.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but would you have to change — how much would you have to change the culture here, because for one thing, we fund our schools through local taxes, as opposed to in the countries — I think in all three of the countries you were talking about.

We put emphasis on the technology, the gizmo, at least in the schools that can afford them.


JEFFREY BROWN: We have sports, activities, all kinds of things that I noticed were not emphasized in the cultures that you were looking at.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Right. Right.

The kids actually noticed that a lot…


AMANDA RIPLEY: … that there’s a real pure focus on academics, that we’re very distracted for lots and lots of reasons.

But I do think that culture can change. This was the amazing thing about these places. In Korea, you had a ridiculous illiteracy rate not that many years ago. And cultures change. People change with the economic times. So I think the economy is really important here. But it also requires leadership and it requires some risk-taking on the part of parents to say, look, we’re going to dial back a little bit on the iPads for everyone and four hours of football practice a day, and remember what it is that our kids really need to thrive.


The new book is “The Smartest Kids in the World.”

Amanda Ripley, thanks so much.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Thanks for having me.