New Book Blames U.S. Education Problems on Us All

South Korean high school girls cheer on older classmates heading off to take college entrance exams. Students who excel at the extremely rigorous standardized tests can attend the country’s top universities.

Teachers and students know that officials have tried to improve US public education by all kinds of strategies—more standardized testing, block schedules, ninth-grade centers, banning soft drink machines, and on and on. But still, in general, American students lag behind many of their peers in other industrialized countries. In fact, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, American kids rank 17th in reading and 31st in math.

Is there a basic problem with American education that has gone unaddressed? Amanda Ripley, in her book The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, proposes that the problem is anti-intellectualism in American society. The book follows three American exchange students who venture to Finland, Poland, and South Korea. In those countries, the American kids are amazed by many revelations—how hard their fellow students work, how important education seemed to be to people from all walks of life, the high classroom expectations, their teachers’ content expertise, among other surprises. Notably missing from these Finnish, Polish, and Korean schools were organized sports and high-tech gadgets. The latter was particularly surprising in South Korea, a country that is a leader in electronic industries and usage.

One especially important difference between the foreign education systems and ours is the higher status given to teachers. They deserve it. For example, in Finland, only the most selective universities offer teacher training programs, and all teachers must earn master’s degrees. Teachers are given the same respect that we might give to doctors or corporate CEOs.

Critics of the book note that Finland, Poland, and South Korea are relatively homogeneous societies without large immigrant populations or wide income disparity. Defenders reply that all of the profiled countries emerged from severe crises in their recent histories, so they have had their own problems to overcome.

Image credit: © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Related Links

  • Why the World Is Smarter Than Us
    A concise analysis of the problems and possible solutions.
    (Source: The Daily Beast, August 9, 2013)
  • Best and Brightest
    This review of Amanda Ripley’s book includes a video interview with the author.
    (Source: The Economist, August 17, 2013)
  • Programme for International Student Assessment
    Learn more about the PISA test, which is used to compare student achievement around the world. Scroll down to the External links to find an interactive map and graph of PISA results by country and a video on measuring student success around the globe.
    (Source: Wikipedia; accessed August 31, 2013)
  • Two Guys on Your Head: School and Boredom
    Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Robert Duke express their views on how modern education has “sucked the life out of learning.”
    (Source: Storyboard Austin, KUT-FM, August 23, 2013)

One Comment

  1. savanah says:

    i need to cite this for school and i need the author’s first and last name for this aricle