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September 25, 2013

What Other Countries Can Teach Us About Good Schools

Despite increases in education spending and a decade of school reform, students in the United States still lag behind their peers in many other countries when it comes to math, science and reading skills.

Journalist Amanda Ripley set out to find what these other countries were doing differently, and what lessons the U.S. education system might learn from them. She followed three American students who decided to spend a year of high school studying abroad in South Korea, Finland and Poland; three countries that have made great improvements in their education systems.

“I wanted to know how these countries that we always hear about, how they got so smart, because they weren’t always so smart,” she said. “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?”

While each of these countries approach education differently, Ripley found common threads in each system, including a school culture that takes education seriously and holds teachers in high esteem. None of the countries she studied relied on new technologies or gadgets to fix the problem, or focused as heavily on sports as schools in the U.S.

“I think those things are actually related,” said Ripley. “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.”

This, she says, is why she is hopeful about America’s educational future.

“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.”

Warm up questions
  1. What do you think about education in the United States? What are our strengths and our weaknesses?
  2. How do you think schools around the world are different from schools in the U.S.?
  3. If you were in charge how would you improve schools in the U.S.?
Discussion questions
  1. Journalist Amanda Ripley reports that schools in Finland and South Korea differ from ours in that they have a school culture that takes education seriously and teachers are held in high esteem. What didn’t make the list of important factors was school use of new technology or gadgets. As a student do you agree with her? Why or why not?
  2. How do you feel about being compared to other countries’ education system in a negative light? Who do you think is to blame for our low ranking test scores on the PISA? Is it students, teachers, politicians, parents?
  3. If you could change anything about our education system with the hope of making it better, what would you change? What do you think we do well now?
  4. In other countries extra-curricular activities like sports and music are lower on the list of priorities of the education system. Do you agree or disagree that extra-curricular activities are an important part of a quality education and why? Defend your answer.
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