Two Takes: The Smartest Kids in the World

smartestkidsEarly next month, the education advocacy group Stand for Children Oklahoma is hosting a lunch with keynote speaker Amanda Ripley, a journalist and author of the recent non-fiction book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.” Ripley’s book looks at how the US education system compares to Finland, South Korea, and Poland — three countries where students excel on an international test of critical thinking skills. In this comparison, Oklahoma plays a prominent role.

Today on the blog, we present two takes on the book. The first essay, by Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Policy Director Gene Perry, discusses how Ripley’s findings show that Oklahoma may be getting the schools we really want. The second essay, by education writer and former teacher John Thompson, argues that Ripley’s book leaves out a deeper understanding of school reform in Oklahoma.

Take 1

Oklahoma may be getting the schools we really want

Gene Perry is Policy Director of Oklahoma Policy Institute

Getting an accurate picture of a nation’s education system from the outside is no easy task. In her new book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”, Amanda Ripley describes the challenge: “A stranger who parachutes into a faraway country ends up, as the Koreans would say, ‘licking the outside of a watermelon,’ unable to get beneath the surface into what matters.” To get a deeper perspective on these foreign systems Ripley conducted numerous interviews of educators, parents, officials, and others connected to the school system. But her primary entry point was through the experiences of three American exchange students, who got to experience firsthand the differences in education.

From Oklahoma to Finland

Sallisaw native Kim Pate, whose year as an exchange student in Finland was chronicled in the book
Kim, a Sallisaw native whose year as an exchange student in Finland was chronicled in the book

One of those students was Kim, who traveled from Sallisaw, Oklahoma at age 15 to spend the 2010-2011 school year in Finland. Kim had long felt out of place in Sallisaw. She was a curious and intelligent girl who didn’t share most of her classmates’ and teachers’ enthusiasm for football. Her urge to experience something else was so strong that she funded her trip to Finland in part by selling beef jerky and Rice Krispies Treats door-to-door.

Finland is not exactly what she expects. Despite its reputation as being the best school system in the world, she finds simple no-frills classrooms. There were no high-tech whiteboards or other gadgets that have become common in American schools. Students also have plenty of free time and independence. There were no regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences. A teacher would just meet with a student to resolve problems rather than bringing in the parents. And the students behave like normal teenagers in Oklahoma, with one big difference. They all, without very few exceptions, took school seriously.

 Teachers in Finland were also given more independence and respect. They were paid better, had strong union protections, and they didn’t face the strict curriculum standards or test-based accountability that have swept through American schools in recent years. They also faced a much higher bar to become teachers. Teacher colleges in Finland are highly selective, and teachers must complete a lengthy research project and a year-long residency as a student-teacher before fully entering the profession. Ripley writes:

The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis. It made sense to reward, train, and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality.

Unfortunately, making it harder to become a teacher may be easier said than done, when Oklahoma already faces significant teacher shortages under the training system we have now. This creates a chicken-and-egg problem. As long as teaching is a low-paid, poorly-respected job, we won’t find enough students to commit to a difficult training program to become teachers. As the same time, it’s hard to develop the political will to increase pay and independence for teachers, when requirements to enter the profession don’t inspire public confidence.

A transition in Poland

In Poland, Ripley found a place that’s begun to find success untying that knot. The country had undergone a tumultuous economic transition following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Nearly 1 in 6 Polish children live in poverty (that’s high, though not as high as the 1 in 4 Oklahoma children who live in poverty). Beginning in 1998, the nation’s leaders launched an ambitious new plan to improve education. In the transition phase to the hoped-for improvements, the nation instituted a more rigorous core curriculum for all students, conducted standardized tests to see where and how students were falling behind, delayed tracking so that all students remained longer in the more challenging classrooms, and increased the standards for teacher-training colleges. These higher accountability measures were accompanied by more local autonomy — teachers were given more freedom to teach, principals more freedom to hire, and local administrators more freedom to budget as they saw fit.

Following these reforms, Poland saw a dramatic improvement in test scores on the international PISA test. Delaying the separation of students into academic and vocational tracks was found to have an especially powerful effect. When the country set higher academic expectations for all students, the children rose to meet them.

Oklahoma makes an appearance in Poland as well. Ripley spoke to Paula Marshall, the CEO of Bama Companies, which was based in Oklahoma but chose to open a new factory in Poland. Ripley wrote:

The Bama Companies had trouble finding enough maintenance techs in Oklahoma. Some years, they even had trouble filling their lowest-skilled line jobs, because even those workers had to be able to think and communicate. Marshall was willing to pay for employees’ technical training, but she’d discovered that many people came to her unable to read or do basic math. She found that she couldn’t trust a high-school diploma; graduates from different high schools within the same Oklahoma school district knew wildly different things.

 At this point, we should be cautious. Anecdotal claims aside, many economists are skeptical that this sort of “skills gap” is behind stagnating wages and high rates of long-term unemployment in the United States. It’s understandable that Ripley does not engage with this debate. Her focus is education policy, not the role of education in broader economic trends. However, it’s important to remember that worker qualifications are only one side of the job equation. When the overall economy is replacing good jobs with bad ones, and when low-wage workers have far more education but make less money than in 1968, it’s clear that education is not enough to ensure a living wage.

 The dark side of success

Photo by Flickr user knittymarie.
Photo by Flickr user knittymarie.

The third country that plays a prominent role in Ripley’s book is South Korea. Like Finland, South Korean students score among the best in the world. However, their education systems could not be more different.

In South Korea, a standardized test taken at the end of high school can determine the entire life prospect of a child. The single test determines what college they enter, what jobs they can get, and what they will be paid. The importance of this test flows trough the entire culture — on test day, the stock market opens an hour later to reduce traffic for students heading to the test. Flights are delayed to reduce noise. Ripley writes, “It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults.”

To prepare for the big test, students can stay in school from 8am to as late as 9pm. Then they head to one of the country’s many private tutoring academies for more hours of study. Korean officials have even resorted to sending a special “study-police” unit to raid private tutors open after an 11 pm curfew.

The private tutors, called hagwons, are big business in South Korea. One of the most in-demand teachers earns $4 million a year, a fact that inspired Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs President Michael Carnuccio to pitch South Korea as a model for Oklahoma. But Ripley spoke to this teacher, and even he doesn’t believe the country should be a model. Because the best teachers end up costing more than an average family can afford, he said, “I don’t think this is the ideal way. This leads to a vicious cycle of poor families passing on poverty to their children.”

We get the schools we really want

What Korea has undeniably been successful at is impressing on all its people that academic achievement is a top cultural value.  If there’s one lesson that comes from all the stories in Ripley’s book, it’s this — the expectations and the values of our culture are the biggest influence on education. They matter more than money (though money can be a strong symbol for what we value). They matter more than the most well-designed curriculum or standardized test. If children don’t perceive that academic learning matters to the adults around them, they aren’t likely to value it themselves.

Of course, academic achievement is not the only thing we should value. There are certainly benefits of health, discipline, and physical courage from our culture’s strong emphasis on sports. There are benefits to a well-rounded childhood that is not spent studying 14 hours per day. But if we want more academic achievement, we need to think hard about how to show that it matters.

Take 2

Does Amanda Ripley deny that Oklahoma produces the smartest kids in the world?

John Thompson is a former Oklahoma historian and inner city teacher who is now an education writer focusing on inner city schools.

When I heard Amanda Ripley would be coming to Oklahoma City, I vowed to read her The Smartest Kids in the World with an open mind. Ripley’s discussion of Oklahoma education reform includes some of the best parts of her narrative. However, I find it disappointing that the author, after traveling the planet in order to research The Smartest Kids in the World, did not feel compelled to come back and become an expert on Oklahoma political culture. Her opinions on school reform could have been based on a deeper understanding of school reform at home.

Oklahoma’s long-lasting “brain drain”

Ripley tells the story of Kim, an Oklahoma student whose math teacher was a football coach. Her teacher had no background in math and only taught the subject in order to coach sports. This illustrates a problem with the lack of qualified math teachers which is even worse in elementary schools. As a math department chair says about Oklahoma schools, “A large majority of elementary education majors are afraid of math … This fear is passed on to their students.”

Photo by Stephen Pierzchala.
Photo by Stephen Pierzchala.

I draw two lessons from Kim’s experience. First, although school reform has been a spectacular failure in improving reading comprehension or improving student performance in subjects that require reading, it has increased math scores, especially in elementary schools. But, secondly, much of those gains must have resulted from increased resources devoted to professional development. Win-win policies might have been just as beneficial as the win-lose approach of test, sort, and punish school of reform.

Kim is an illustration of the “brain drain” that has been a dominant feature of Oklahoma history. She comes from Sallisaw, home to “The Grapes of Wrath’s” Tom Joad. The exodus of state talent dates back to 1910. After returning from Finland, Kim found no better local alternative than the Oklahoma Virtual High School. When she began her online coursework under the auspices of Advanced Academics, she only “had 149 days left to fall behind.” After The Smartest Kids in the World went to press, the story became more discouraging. By 2013, more than 5,000 Oklahoma students were enrolled in two online charter schools. One, Epic Charter, would soon be investigated by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for illegitimately claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars tuition.

A complicated story of high-stakes testing

Ripley pulls her case together by recounting Oklahoma’s long, halting effort to hold students accountable for passing four End of Instruction (EOI) graduation examinations. As Oklahoma debated these high stakes tests in the 1990s, I remained silent. I mostly opposed the effort, but most of my colleagues believed that they could better do their jobs if students knew that they at least needed to pass four of seven minimum competency skills tests. At the time, teachers were quietly told, the 9th and 10th grade EOIs were correlated with 8th grade skills.

Ripley notes that 90 percent of Oklahoma students were expected to pass their EOI graduation exams. The stakes for students were gradually phased in, accommodations were provided for special education students, and students who failed had an option of completing a project. When finally implemented, 5 percent of Oklahomans failed, compared to 6 percent in Finland.

The story was more complicated than Ripley realizes. In urban districts, the pass rate was inflated by students earning credit through Workkeys basic skills tests, and that option would be phased out. Besides, it sent a terribly mixed message to high-challenge schools. At a time when school systems were supposed to be transitioning to Common Core college-readiness standards, high-poverty schools had no alternative but to concentrate on basic skills remediation for old-fashioned tests.

Moreover, stakes were imposed as the federal government ordered Oklahoma to stop providing accommodations for most students on IEPs, and as high-stakes 3rd grade reading exams were implemented. Moreover, schools would need permission to offer the special projects option to students who failed the graduation exams, and that would be difficult to gain as reformers were doubling down on imposing their vision of rigor on schools.

Then came Common Core. Ripley was openly contemptuous of Oklahomans who opposed Common Core and its testing. She noted the Great Recession and the continuing decline of blue collar jobs. This prompted her claim, “People had to believe in rigor; they had to decide, maybe under duress, that it was time to get serious.” She notes how much Oklahoma had increased education spending over recent decades, without significantly increasing student performance. I believe she dramatically underestimates what it takes to compensate for decades of severe underfunding in a state which had been repeatedly rocked by some of the greatest economic disasters in American history.

Finally, since The Smartest Kids in the Class went to press, end-of-instruction test pass rates have continued to fall, as the dropout rate in Oklahoma City doubled. (This is consistent with the Carnegie Corporation’s projection that Common Core would double the national dropout rate if extensive and expensive supports for students were not implemented first.) Preliminary Oklahoma data on Algebra I and English II show a one-year drop of 6 points, down to 74 percent and 80 percent respectively. The declines undoubtedly will be much greater in the 90 percent low-income Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Are reform opponents stuck in ‘a different century’?

Ripley editorializes that Oklahomans who believe the way I do about public schools have a “perverse sort of compassion designed for a different century.” But, in the first place, we already had more than enough on our plates due to other policies that had been imposed, under duress. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top process gave educators an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Teachers unions and Democrats had no choice but to support “reforms” that we knew were profoundly dangerous, especially value-added evaluations and Common Core-type standards. Oklahoma did not gain Race to the Top funding, but we still had to fulfill its promises – despite education budget cuts.

Ripley is correct that the process by which high-stakes 3rd grade and high school tests were implemented was difficult. She should think of how more difficult – or impossible – it would have been to enact those laws if voters had known that a top down mandate would transform the 3rd grade reading test into a Common Core test. It is inconceivable that the state would have required students to pass college readiness tests in order to earn a high school diploma. But, all of a sudden, the will of the people had been overridden by corporate reform, aided by the coercive power of the federal government.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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