NAIS People of Color Conference 2014
Sarah Peterson and I will be presenting this session on Thursday, December 4 at 10:00am in Room 204. We look forward to seeing you there.
How much does educational research affect teacher practice? Not much, according to Jack Schneider, Holy Cross assistant professor and author of the new book From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Schneider, an educational historian who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, picks up the torch carried by Larry Cuban and David Tyack for years. As institutions, schools are extremely resistant to change, and reliable pathways for translating research conclusions into practice are largely absent. So, when education practice does change as a result of education research, the reasons are worth close examination!
In the book, Schneider describes a model for the transmission of research-based ideas into practice, based on his study of four innovations that made the leap: Bloom’s taxonomy, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the project method, and direct instruction. Schneider is clear to explain that these four ideas represent the exception, not the norm. Also, the components of Schneider’s model for success hardly comprise a recipe. They are necessary, but not always sufficient, qualities for successful adoption. As Schneider expresses, luck plays a role.
Schneider’s conditions for successful transmission include: the perceived significance of the idea to educators; philosophical compatibility of the idea with current philosophy; occupational realism—the compatibility of the idea with practical constraints of teaching; and transportability, whether the idea can be simply explained and passed on. The four case studies share these qualities. Additionally, Schneider cleverly analyzes four other, research-based ideas that failed to gain adoption but bear striking similarities to the four that did. This provides strong support for the idea that the four identified characteristics are necessary conditions for adoption.Note that the scholarly merit of the idea does not make the list of success factors! With a positive reaction from educators, and a little luck, some research-based ideas tend to find adoption.
While a wonderful historical analysis, the book does not purport to predict the success of current educational innovations or provide a playbook for the design of future innovations. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how the model applies to other, common educational practices, particularly those that we emphasize at U Prep. How does Schneider’s model apply to formative assessment, for example? Do we find such educational practices attractive because they meet Schneider’s criteria for successful transmission from research to practice?
We define formative assessment as actionable feedback on student work that does not count for a student’s term grade. Graded or ungraded, it provides students with insight into their mastery of the content, as well as a sense of direction for what to study more (or better) before the summative assessment. Not counting formative assessment in the term grade allows students to focus on the process of learning and deemphasizes the idea that students have fixed ability.
Perceived significance: Moderate. Teachers I have met almost universally agree that providing feedback on student work is one of their core responsibilities. However, teachers often balk at the idea that grades for ongoing work would not count in a student’s term grade.
Philosophical compatibility: The core idea of formative assessment is relatively compatible with common teacher opinions about student work. It’s hard to argue against feedback, and it makes sense that a student’s first assessment should provide signposts for subsequent work instead of affecting their term grade, which should reflect mastery achieved.
Occupational realism: The simple version of formative assessment is highly compatible with existing teacher practice. Just don’t count the first assessment of a body of knowledge or set of skills, then count the second or subsequent ones. The fuller concept, however, requires more significant change. The ideas that formative assessment should be specific and actionable represent a more significant departure from traditional teacher practice.
Transportability: The basic concept of formative assessment can be easily distilled to a few simple ideas and shared with teachers. Departures from the strategy are easy to spot in syllabi and examples of assessed student work. Authors and organizations have created a substantial body of conceptual and practical guides to formative assessments for the consumption of educators.
It might provide insight to apply this model to other educational practices, such as differentiated instruction, 1:1 student device programs, and individual teacher improvement. While these four criteria do not reflect any law of nature, they provide a helpful dose of realism when leading school change, underscoring the strong effects of professional culture.
Recent articles by Jack Schneider
‘If only American teachers were smarter…’ Washington Post
Closing the gap … between the university and schoolhouse Phi Delta Kappan
Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.
We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:
How often do we grant students’ top course requests?
Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?
Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?
Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?
What elective courses should we offer next year?
Do electronic textbooks save families money?
Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.
Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.
35 years of standardized test and GPA means
Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses
Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA
Longitudinal subscore analysis
Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student
Academic Technology Director Jeff Tillinghast and I have co-authored an article for Curriculum In Context, the journal of the Washington State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an ASCD affiliate. We wrote a practitioner’s view of how our teachers use contemporary computing technologies to provide specific, rapid, and varied feedback to students and then accordingly adjust individual student instruction. Read the article (PDF) or access the full issue. Many thanks to Seattle Pacific University professor David Denton for inviting us to contribute to the journal.
I relived a little piece of the Stanford experience and met interesting people at the Stanford+Connects event this past Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. These alumni events travel the country, featuring talks by the university’s president, several distinguished professors, and two students. I don’t ever make it to reunion events, and while I attend similarly timely and stimulating University of Washington or independent school talks from time to time, I don’t ever attend my college reunion events. I also got to learn about topics that I typically only read about or listen to through TED talks and NPR pieces. Some highlights for me: President Hennessy spoke to the many building and program development projects at Stanford, a number of which have emerged from the a recent comprehensive study of the undergraduate program. Among these: ten new joint majors that combine computer science with subjects in the humanities.
The five mini-lectures were most welcome, because of course I wanted to hear all of the speakers. These included two students: Westin Gaylord on a project that he and his friends started to write creatively every day, and Derek Ouyang on an energy neutral, pre-fab house core design competition for which he led a team. Three professors also presented mini lectures, Carla Shatz on restarting synapse generation in old age, S.V. Mahadevan on bringing emergency medicine to developing nations, and Robert Sutton on improving organizations by eliminating the bad. Dan Klein (with a nod to Patricia Ryan Madson) added an improv demonstration and three activities that got us out of our seats and meeting neighbors!
With a nod to our grad school memories, my wife and I attended David Kennedy’s historical review of water management in the U.S. west. Many alums fondly remembered Kennedy’s lectures, though this was my first! Kennedy shared a wealth of historical facts that laid the groundwork for contemporary federal water management practices, including many challenges. Did you know that the federal government owns fully 45% of the last west of the 100th meridian? This is in contrast to the east, in which the federal government sold nearly all of its holdings in the past. He painted a rather bleak picture for the future of the combined effects of rising global temperature, drought, and consumption increases.
Margot Gerritsen presented a detailed view into “unconventional” oil and gas, including tar sands and fracking. Her perspective, backed up with copious data, is that unconventional energy has already arrived, and we would be best served minimizing its negative effects than trying to “prevent” it from “emerging.” Gerritsen also demystified newspaper headlines, looking at the data to suggest that injection of chemicals into deposits during fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, but water injection is in fact responsible for up to magnitude five earthquakes!
With a rare opportunity to learn outside of my field, I did not attend the one education session. However, I did take a moment to skim a paper by Candace Thille, who presented a session on big data and transformations in education. Thille is an expert on MOOCs and co-founded the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first at Carnegie Mellon and now at Stanford. She echoes the distinction that others have noted between the original cMOOCs that adopt a connectivist pedagogy and the newer xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX) that have fueled popular interest. Thille then makes a further distinction between xMOOCs that simply put the university lecture hall experience online and those that make student data analytics available to instructors to further instruction.
At the NWAIS Educators Conference two weeks ago, I facilitated a session to gather teachers and school leaders to discuss the current state of computer science instruction in our schools. The importance of learning coding, in particular, has received much national attention lately through initiatives such as Code.org, Hour of Code, and the Maker movement. Computer Science courses at major universities have exploded in popularity. Technology use has become ubiquitous in practically all aspects of life and work. K-12 schools are wondering how to modify their programs in response. Should all students learn to code?
At the same time, I wonder whether parallels exist with the programming instruction movement of the 1980’s. More accessible computing languages such as BASIC and Pascal led to similar calls for programming literacy. Many K-12 schools offered their first programming courses, and a number of colleges made basic coding a graduation requirement. However, personal computers also became more available during this time, and technology literacy surpassed programming as the required competency. Programming receded as a K-12 course of study, even disappearing entirely from some schools.
At the NWAIS session, we discussed a series of questions that I think are fundamental to the question of computer science at K-12.I deliberately avoided typical questions such as what programming languages we teach or what computing platforms we use. Participants offered responses to these questions and shared a wide range of new ideas that they are trying at their schools.
What are the pros and cons of “coding?”
I asked this question to explore the distinction between coding and computer science, which I think is fundamental to the longevity and educational value of computer science instruction in K-12 schools. Coding refers to the writing of code, also known as programming, a core concept in the field of software engineering. However, software engineering is just one specialty in the discipline of computer science, and it’s an applied field, not even in the core of the discipline. A 2005 report by the CSTA Curriculum Improvement Task Force noted:
… the view that computer science equals programming is especially strong in most of the curricula because introductory courses focus (sometimes exclusively) on programming and this focus limits the ability to reliably describe the intellectual substance of the discipline. (Denning, 2004)
The core ideas in computer science are theoretical and perhaps most accessible to K-12 education through the concept of “computational thinking.” Logical and sequential reasoning, algorithms, data structures, and systematic approaches to problem solving are some of the principal concepts in computer science. Students can explore and learn these ideas with programming and even without a computer! Scratch is a popular learning environment in elementary grades in part because it captures some fundamental CS concepts so well, although one might argue that is miseducates for other concepts (e.g., variables).
Interestingly, the distinction between coding and computer science did not resonate with most of the participants in our conference session. While they expressed many positive reactions to the nationwide emphasis on coding, they did not share our concern about the potential conflation of coding with computer science. One school did support the idea that computer science is broad field with many applications. As an example, they offer two computer science electives, Software Development and Design & Technology, that underscore such distinctions.
Which department should house CS courses?
Similarly, the decision of where to house computer science courses has many implications. At different schools, the math, science, arts, and even languages departments house and provide credit for computer science courses. However, theorists agree that computer science is a distinct discipline, and universities typically have a college for computer science, sometimes joined with engineering. Some high schools affiliate with this idea by creating a computer science department even if it includes only one teacher. U Prep created a “general studies” course category (not an actual staff department) to house computer science, digital media, journalism, and global leadership courses.
At the elementary level, the question is a bit simpler, since the school day typically includes just two kinds of classes, homeroom and specials. “Computer class” can house many applications of technology, including computational thinking, what problems technology is good (and bad) at solving, simple physical computing, computer ethics, and basic software development. Or, computing can be integrated within homeroom.
How may we reach all students with CS? How may we attract and retain girls and traditionally underrepresented minorities?
Historically, computer science courses have appealed to a niche group of students, likely due to a self-reinforcing cycle of cultural stereotypes, curriculum, and teaching styles. How may we broaden the appeal of computer science so that all students at least consider that they might find an elective course in computer science interesting and fulfilling?
We are trying several approaches at U Prep. The school’s first full-time computer science teacher earned her major in gender studies, minor in theoretical computer science, and master’s degree in teaching. She therefore possesses the variety of life experiences needed to design our computer science program for content, teaching methods, and social dynamics. We can deconstruct how different students contextualize computer science within their cultural contexts and act in a manner that is responsive to their needs.
Another key idea in our program is the introduction of computational thinking to all students through the required courses in our early grade levels. Our computer science teacher also partners with our sixth and seventh grade science and math teachers to ensure that all students have a direct, positive experience with computer science before they have the opportunity to select subsequent elective courses.
How may we meet the needs of CS enthusiasts?
While it is critical to consider our “non-majors,” we also want to meet the needs of our computer science enthusiasts and provide welcoming spaces for geeks and non-geeks alike to explore and learn with different technologies. We aim to provide students who express high interest in computer science with a theoretical grounding through our CS courses, as well as an array of student-led, faculty-supported clubs, so that they may explore specialized fields such as mobile software development, physical computing, web programming, and security.
How can you attract and retain great CS teachers?
It is very difficult to attract and retain full-time computer science teachers at K-12. One may try to hire computer science specialists, but they tend to have little teaching experience and more lucrative job offers beyond education. Or one may hire candidates with solid teaching experience but little subject matter expertise. Neither case is ideal. At U Prep, we are trying a combination of both ideas, following the model we learned about at Menlo School. Our full-time computer science teacher plans to work with interested math teachers to first integrate computer science instruction within math courses and then recruit and train up interested math teachers to teach introductory computer science courses. While this may blur the lines between disciplines, it has a good chance of growing our pool of qualified teachers of computer science.
Where may you get support and ideas?
During a time of rapid change in the discipline, and its application to K-12 instruction, it is critical to have a solid network of CS education professionals to share ideas and approaches, and provide support for one’s work within schools. Here in Seattle, we are lucky to have the Puget Sound Computer Science Teachers Association and the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering K-12 Outreach Program. Both are invaluable in our development of computer science curricula. You probably have a CSTA chapter in your area.
Michael Horn recently delivered a webinar through NBOA, titled, “Disrupting Class: Five Years Later.” In the book Disrupting Class, Horn and Clay Christensen applied Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to education. They concluded that online learning possessed the qualities of innovations from other industries that had started small, found a niche, developed further, and then displaced traditional practice. They boldly forecasted that 50% of all high school courses in the U.S. would take place online by 2019.
Going into this webinar, one might have expected Horn to backtrack or modify this prediction. We are now halfway to 2019, and online learning still appears to be a niche activity. In 2009, 1.0% of grades 9-12 enrollments took place online [Horn and Christensen]. In 2013, an estimated 5% of high school students took at least one online course (“Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning”), as compared with 13% of postsecondary students (“Changing Course:
Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States“).
In the webinar, Horn defended the 2009 prediction, stating that the U.S. was still on track to reach 50% of course enrollments online by 2019. He provided one important qualification, that the prediction now refers to online and blended learning. In this way, Horn has significantly shifted tracks from the 2009 argument. Horn also did not substantiate the claim with recent numbers, instead suggesting that hard numbers were hard to find.
The argument for disruptive innovation rests on several specific assumptions. One is that disruptive innovation follows an exponential S-curve, with slow growth at the start of adoption, then very rapid growth during majority adoption, and then slowing growth with the last adopters. Is online learning still growing exponentially, even in its early days? Even if so, early exponential growth does not by itself lead to full adoption, or else all schools might be Waldorf. Early enthusiasm for an idea can evaporate later.
The theory also requires several conditions, as identified in Disrupting Class. The innovation is much simpler and basic than the current products and services that it might displace. It meets the needs of nonconsumers, customers who would like to access education but cannot. The company or product is significantly separated from the main provider in that space, so that it can develop without being co-opted. The product or service meets an underlying consumer need better than the existing products or services.
Horn believes that online education, or more specifically blended learning, still meets these conditions. Online education continues to stand as an alternate model, in contrast to face-to-face education. Blended learning is currently less sophisticated than established, traditional schools. It is, according Horn’s examples, lower cost, due to facilities and staff savings. Horn also referred to his 2013 study of different forms of blended learning, demonstrating that a number of different models exist, though most still represent alternative forms of school.
Horn spent a considerable portion of the presentation describing the advantages of blended learning, such as personalization, individualized learning pathways, and student ownership of the learning process. In this way, blended learning might meet core student needs better than traditional schooling. Horn also believes that considerable nonconsumer populations have adopted online learning, which has helped the innovation get its start. According to disruptive innovation theory, this may provide the conditions needed for online learning to mature and compete with traditional schools.
Disruptive innovation theory has come under substantial fire for being neither scientific nor accurate, for example in a widely shared June 2014 New Yorker article. In the article, Jill Lepore excoriated Christensen for handpicking case studies, making circular arguments, and feeding off panic.
Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.
In the webinar, Horn summarily dismissed these criticisms, and not even by name. He simply remarked that “a lot of people don’t understand” disruption theory and then proceeded into his prepared talk.
Private school leaders may have read Disrupting Class and rushed to plan their own online schools. Horn cited Global Online Academy and Online School for Girls, and I would add the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium to the list of prime examples. However, one might be surprised to hear that Horn does not believe that disruptive innovation theory applies to elite private schools, nor does he think that online and blended learning will displace them. Private schools are defined by a selective admissions process and a high-end product, which is likely to stay ahead of online education in perceived quality. In addition, elite private schools have the resources to co-opt online learning if they choose to do so, and as perhaps GOA, OSG, and BlendEd already have.
Horn’s new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools is due for publication in November. Presented as a practical guide, the book suggests that “blended learning is one of the hottest trends in education right now, and educators are clamoring for ‘how-to’ guidance.” Given this description, I am not confident that Horn will further explore the theoretical and empirical basis for his arguments. However, as secondary schools have relied more on practical experiences and community sentiment (as expressed by enrollment) to craft program, perhaps this book will further inform private school leaders’ strategies for online and blended learning. If you cannot wait until November, you may want to read two of Horn’s prior articles on the topic, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” and “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids.”
On reviewing last winter’s issue of Independent School Magazine, I was struck by stories of schools conducting rigorous studies of their own practice, particularly quantitative studies. Granted, the issue theme was “Assessing What We Value,” but turning the lens of assessment inward onto school practice represented a significant additional step in my mind.
In the article, “The Role of Noncognitive Assessment in Admissions,” the author described several schools that are collecting new information about students, traits that might help predict school success. One school (Choate Rosemary Hall) found statistically significant correlations between self-efficacy, locus of control, and intrinsic motivation (as reported by students) and GPA.
2013 E. E. Ford grant award winners included Castilleja School, to support the development of “meaningful and valid assessments of experiential learning, to apply these tools to improve the effectiveness of innovative experiential programs, and to share these best practices with other educators.” $1 million, three-quarters of this raised by the school, supports this effort.
I am following a similar path here at U Prep. Whether the question is the predictive power of standardized assessments or the meeting agendas of our instructional leadership team, I find myself quantifying behavioral data, seeking patterns, and sharing the information with people. Is this just coincidence?
While I have not rigorously studied and confirmed the possible existence of a trend toward quantitative program analysis (irony intended), it seems to me that several contributing factors might exist. Quantitative data is more easily collected, processed and shared than before. The setup of a Google Form is trivial, compared to the “old days” (actually just 10 years ago) when we used to write online forms in Perl on our school web server. Data visualization has grown as a field, to the point where major news corporations prominently feature beautiful, illustrative graphic representations of data, and programming libraries make the process easier. Publication and presentation tools easily incorporate such graphics. Use of data to support conclusions has remained a respectable practice, notwithstanding occasional misuse.
In years past, schools would rarely conduct quantitative study of their own work without substantial external help or an internal reassignment. This lent a measure of respectability to the work, as one would expect valid work from a consultant or internal member of the faculty or staff. Now, with people like me studying school practice within the scope of our full-time jobs, the risk exists that we will reach conclusions that are not well supported by the data or not well compared against results from other institutions. We have to be careful, as well as thorough.
In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides a highly accessible, comprehensive summary of curriculum design principles that encourage thinking, engagement, and mastery. Perkins frames the discussion within a sports metaphor, comparing the way that young people play a “junior version” of professional sports to how students might master the fundamental concepts and skills of an academic discipline such as English or science. The concepts themselves are commonly expressed in the technical language of education theorists — zone of proximal development, experiential learning, and so on. Perkins wraps these ideas within an overarching framework of accessible, common language that is friendly and approachable. It helps if you have heard these terms before, but Perkins helpfully summarizes each concept in case you have not.
Perkins addresses one of the most significant but not well-publicized core problems with education in the United States today: the epidemic of student disengagement with school learning. American schooling has become a chore that the great majority of students suffer through. Content is dry, disconnected from real life, and overly procedural. Although many students learn to play the game of school and find success, most leave so much engagement and learning potential on the table, and an alarming number fail outright. Some find their passion for learning outside of the core school program, either in co-curricular activities or through personal hobbies. Schools, not students, are the problem. Perkins would like to see teachers “make the game worth playing.”
Unlike some education books, Perkins does not limit the text to one education concept. Each of the seven principles of “making learning whole” includes within it several curriculum design principles gleaned from education research. For example, “work on the hard parts” encompasses practice activities, formative assessment, peer- and self-assessment, isolation/reintegration, six forms of knowledge, and instructive exercises. This makes the text a rich resource for learning the practice of curriculum design, whether one is relatively new to the field or a seasoned educator.
Perkins takes the sensible route between competing ideologies. While firmly constructivist, Perkins acknowledges the importance of basic skills acquisition and other hallmarks of traditional education. He thus avoids the pitfalls of binary education debates and emphasizes a holistic view of education. For example, when exploring “playing the whole game,” Perkins includes “project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, community action initiatives, role-playing scenarios, formal debate, and studio learning.” Each of these learning forms has its books and proponents. Perkins skillfully emphasizes principles shared among these while acknowledging differences, an approach friendly to education practitioners.
The chapter on “the hidden game” is particularly powerful, as it treats fundamental flaws in thinking processes that pervade student (and teacher) work. Deficits in self-management, causal thinking, depth of explanation, and complexification affect not only learning but full participation in society. Perkins badly wants students to become logical, critical thinkers who achieve a depth of understanding that prepares them to more fully understand big, sometimes contentious ideas of our time: evolution, climate change, global conflict.
In contrast to some education experts, Perkins believes that quality curriculum is more important than quality pedagogy. Noting that students forget most of what they learn in school, one might think that the process of learning wad more important. Perkins is unwilling to throw in the towel on content, rather suggesting that reorganized content has a chance to stick.
The education profession badly needs more books like Making Learning Whole, which presents a wide range of teaching practices within a highly accessible, overarching frame. All too often, problems in education are reduced to simple forms that writers purport to solve with simple solutions. Perkins embraces complexity but also provides an opening for the everyday teacher, parent, or student to understand it. Perkins’ contribution may help the general public understand that education is a complex profession in which well-trained professionals should be supported and empowered to deepen their practice and give all kids the quality education that they deserve.
Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.
Some authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.
Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.
Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.
Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.
Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.
Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.
With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.
While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.
U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.
With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.