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Books, Blogs, and Ideas: Amanda Ripley

Amanda Ripley goes around the world in 365 days to plumb the secrets of three education powerhouses.

In some ways, she's the anti-Diane Ravitch. Amanda Ripley does think our schoolkids are falling into mediocrity and that you don't have to fix poverty before you raise standards. After all, Korea, Finland, and Poland—all of which had high rates of poverty and illiteracy a few decades ago—did it. In The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley documents the journey of a trio of students in these education superpowers and concludes that America can have a similar education turnaround, if we can muster the will to do so.

Q | Most U.S. education programs have a very high acceptance rate, which feeds into the view that anyone can go into teaching. What are the implications of this?
A | By setting the bar high for teachers, you inject a level of credibility into the system that pays incalculable dividends. If we really had a consensus about rigor, would we let teachers take "math for dummies" in college?

The kids I followed found that students in these countries buy in to education in a way U.S. kids don't. Buy-in is powerful, because kids are connecting what they're doing in school with how interesting their lives and work will be. This helps to explain why these countries have such low dropout rates.

Q | To give kids the kind of education they deserve, you say, we have to agree that rigor matters. Is that something we don't seem to agree on in the United States?
A |
In theory, most of us agree it's important for our kids to be challenged. But sometimes we're more scared of a perceived federal intrusion or of kids failing than we are of them doing rigorous work. There's an assumption in countries like Poland or Korea that kids are pretty resilient, that they can deal with some level of failure and recovery. But here there's a disconnect between what we're telling kids and what they find when they go to college or try to get a decent job.

Q | Do the new Common Core standards go far enough?
A | I spent time in Kentucky, and the teachers who had gotten over the initial hump were totally fired up.

I hadn't realized how little clarity teachers had before. They now have a clear, higher bar for where they're going—and they get to decide how to get there. I can't think of an education superpower that has gotten to where it is without agreeing on a list of fewer, higher targets. It's a prerequisite for improving things. Yet if you still have middle school math teachers who are not really skilled at math, all the standards in the world are not going to save the day.

Q | Do you have to eradicate poverty before you can truly improve education?
A | That's clearly a false choice. If you look at countries like Finland and Korea—where most people were illiterate not that long ago and there was a lot of rural poverty—as those countries grew economically and invested in education, they saw huge gains in what kids could do.

Q | What about technology?
A |
The kids I followed noticed that there was a lot less tech in the countries they visited. There's not enough evidence that these devices lead to learning to justify the money we spend on them. If the teacher is well prepared and passionate about using technology in a way that adds value, it works.

Q | Critics say countries like Finland and Korea don't have the challenges of diversity that we have.
A |
I think that's true. It's more useful to compare individual states. You start to see some interesting things. We have some very homogenous small states. Maine is 96 percent white, and 15-year-olds in Maine are not performing anywhere close to the level of 15-year-olds in Finland in math. It's not to say our diversity and poverty are not a challenge, but there's something else going on.

Q | What are the most important lessons we can take from your book?
A |
The easiest way to get kids to take education more seriously is to make it more serious. That means we need to be much more selective about who gets to go to teacher training colleges and be much more rigorous and hands-on in our training of teachers. But it also means demanding more of kids, especially in math, and helping parents prioritize to help their kids become critical thinkers.

Review: The Smartest Kids in the World

Over and over in her engaging, well-researched new book that looks at school systems in three top-scoring countries, Amanda Ripley makes the point that to give our kids the education they deserve, we first have to agree that rigor matters. Her assertion that we need to begin by making it a lot harder to become a teacher rings true—why would we settle for less than the brightest to teach our kids?

In The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley follows three American students as they attend school in Finland, Korea, and Poland. She sees the pros of each system and the cons (especially Korea's pressure-cooker model) but concludes that all three countries have gotten to where they are by demanding the highest standards from both teachers and kids. "The stories of Finland, Korea, and Poland are complicated and unfinished," says Ripley. "But they reveal what is possible."

 ****

Dog-Eared Book: What's on your bedside table?

"There are so many books that I reference in various ways. One that I use often is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.  'PowerPointlessness' is a chronic issue in all industries, and I've tried to adopt many of the strategies Garr suggests to improve my work when I present. We also do professional development based on Presentation Zen."
—Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology, Forsyth (GA) County Schools.

"Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges is a practical guide to managing changes and a theoretical look at the real impact of transitions."-Joshua Starr, superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, MD

"I have awesome school principals and I'm always looking for great ways to coach them up to the next level of leadership. One of the biggest challenges that my principals face is that there is never enough time to get it all done. Short on Time: How Do I Make Time to Lead and Learn as a Principal? by William Sterrett is a practical guide that offers advice and stories about how principals balance district expectations, instructional goals, and community priorities. School leaders will learn about timely and innovative ways to communicate with stakeholders to cultivate and maximize the best teaching and learning environment for their school."
-Thomas W. Taylor, superintendent, Middlesex County (VA) Public Schools

Late Fall 2013

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