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6 Ways We Can Make America Home to the ‘Smartest Kids in the World’

NationSwell talks with education expert Amanda Ripley about what we can learn from schools around the globe.

Author Amanda Ripley readily admits that as an investigative reporter for Time, The Atlantic and other publications, she avoided covering education for years, considering it too “soft.” Fast forward six years and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World has become a leading voice on the American education system, its problems — and ways to fix them.

While covering Michelle Rhee, the controversial superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C., Ripley started to feel the urgency many teachers expressed.

She soon embarked on a year-long investigation, following three American exchange students to Poland, Finland and South Korea from 2010 to 2011. Each country has a different approach to education — from the pressure-cooker model to the utopian one — and all three have made marked progress in their students’ overall performance. NationSwell spoke with Ripley recently after she headlined a panel at the fifth annual Women in the World conference in New York City. Here are six things we learned about recharging our education system.

Listen to the Kids

Ripley says one of the most important things we can do to improve our schools is to start talking to our students to find out what works and what doesn’t. “Countries that systematically get feedback from their students do better,” she says. “They add a nonpartisan and passionate voice to the conversation that can break through some of the noise.” Of course, the right questions have to be posed — otherwise there will be a disproportionate amount of time talking about cafeteria food.

Elevate Teachers

As the country debates education, teachers sometimes become an unfair target. They are often overworked and underpaid. “Being a great teacher is so much harder on the average day than a doctor, or a lawyer or a pilot,” Ripley says. She adds that teachers in the United States are not always given the autonomy, respect and prestige that make them remarkable. But we can learn from other countries: In the 1960s Finland revamped its teacher-training programs by shutting down some of the old schools and moving the training to more selective institutions. “They elevated the prestige of [being a teacher], which meant by the 1980s, they could raise the ceiling because they raised the floor,” says Ripley. Here in the U.S., as the old guard starts to age out, there is a unique opportunity to retrain teachers. Ripley suggests that programs like Match Teacher Residency and Relay Graduate School of Education are producing a new class of great rookies.

Take Money Out of the Equation

After the fall of communism, Poland’s economy was in shambles, and the country had to rebuild to ensure a successful future. One solution: Revamp education. The small European nation injected rigor into its education system through a core curriculum and added accountability through standardized testing. The change was dramatic. In 2000, Poland scored below average in international critical thinking tests, but by 2012, they had secured a place among top performers in the developing world. “If Poland can do that, why can’t Pennsylvania do that?” Ripley says. “[Countries like Poland are] able to educate all their children regardless of their socioeconomic background. More than anything else, these places offer hope.”

Study Like It’s a Sport

Nine out of 10 exchange students who came to the U.S. said their classes were easier than at home, while only seven out of 10 American exchange students said the same about their host countries. According to Ripley, education needs to be more rigorous on every level, but she also sees the need for a cultural shift. “The way some of our families push their children in sports is a good example of what we could do,” she says. “Not just to learn better skills, but also to learn to fail and recover and feel that real genuine sense of accomplishment that comes from working outside of your comfort zone in math or reading or science.”

Don’t Rely on Creativity Alone

While there’s no denying the American entrepreneurial spirit — we produced Google and Steve Jobs, after all — it can only compensate for a less-than-rigorous education system for so long. “It’s not always a stroke of brilliance in the middle of the night,” Ripley says. “Most people’s problem-solving is day to day and involves judgment and reasoning.”

To prove her point, she references the recent results of an international test by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used to measure creative problem-solving. While American students scored better in problem-solving than they did in subjects like math, they still did not perform as well as students in South Korea and Singapore, countries that are notorious for stifling creativity in favor of the rigorous “pressure-cooker” education model. “Our so-so results are neither depressing nor affirming. They suggest that we ‘do not make the most of student potential in core subjects,’ as the OECD analysis puts it, rather politely,” wrote Ripley in her analysis of the test results.

Have Hope — and Patience

Ultimately, Ripley’s conclusions are optimistic. She looks at education systems across the world in order to show that it’s not only possible to improve, but that it can happen within a generation. “Historically, Americans have not had to master rigorous academic skills in order to succeed compared to other countries. That’s relatively new for us,” she says. “It’s taking time to understand the urgency of learning…and that kids can do more than we think.”

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Roja Heydarpour is an editor for Al-Monitor. She has written and edited for The Daily Beast, The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.