This is normally where I plug my personal blog, but instead I feel like saying this: “WINTER BREAK! WOOOO!!! NO SCHOOL!!! LET’S READ ABOUT SCHOOL!!!!”
Fun fact for anyone who has tuned in to my writing without knowing my background: I’m a teacher, and proud. More than that, I have a masters degree in international education, and I’m proud of that. I suppose I love diverse worlds of education because I’m a glutton for punishment: not content with my standard 12 years of high school, plus 4 years of college and 2 years of graduate school, I want to be in school every day. Not content to be in one kind of massively complicated often ineffective bureaucratic system, I’ve chosen to study and explore dozens of them around the world.
Amanda Ripley took on the same challenge with a more direct purpose. Rather than questing after knowledge or jobs, like I do, she was hunting for the answer to a simple question: “how can American kids get a world class education?”. She and troop of exchange student journalists looked into the systems of successful schools in Korea, Poland and Finland and report back with anecdotes and analyses that peer into the multitude of factors that help them succeed while we struggle (comparatively).
The book comes back with a host of ideas and buzzwords including social structure, mathematics instruction, teacher training, drive, rigor, parental engagement, union adaptability, cultural value and standardized testing. Ultimately Ripley’s take away seems to be that everyone cares about education, but Americans care about other things beyond the learning in the classroom (self-esteem, athletic accomplishment, personal policy victories).
As someone who has studied international education and has a personal stake in how well American students do on tests, I’m impressed with how well Ripley and her collaborators have done given such a short time. Though I dispute that any test (even the almighty PISA used to frame this study) should be used as a global yardstick, I’m glad that someone has demanded that pundits and policy makers step back from their abstract arguments to consider that there is no one answer. To be sure the hug-happy American educator hasn’t served students as well as they could, but our fixes won’t come from Finland or Poland or even cram-session Korea. If readers approach this book less as a road map for success and more as a puzzle to solve, there’s plenty of hope for us left.