Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lessons from The Smartest Kids in the World

This is the first in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.

Quick tip: If you don’t want to read my summary, I highly recommend checking out the appendix in Ripley’s book called “How to Spot a World-Class Education.” It’s a series of questions for parents to use in evaluating schools that best fit their child. As she points out on page 207, “An outstanding school for one child would be hell on earth for another.”

Amanda Ripley is a very successful writer and mom who got tired of hearing policymakers argue about school structures and strategies. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way started with Ripley digging around on her own to figure out what was and should be happening in our country’s schools. She discovered that the U.S. as a whole has been scoring lower than many smaller, less wealthy nations on an international test of critical thinking called PISA for many years, particularly in math and science. Even our wealthiest children (educated in either private or public schools -- didn’t matter) were scoring behind their economic peers around the world. In fact, they were even scoring below the average kid in Canada. PISA is not a test of rote memorization; it is a test designed to test critical thinking skills in math, science and reading.

So Ripley decided to study three of the countries doing extremely well on PISA: Finland, South Korea and Poland. She relied on the experiences of three average American teenagers who spent a year as exchange students in these countries. Their stories are worth reading in full, but I’ll skip ahead to the lessons learned. First, Ripley was reassured that these countries all struggle with many of the same difficult problems the U.S. faces: tensions with teachers unions, parent suspicion and fear, concerns about testing, etc. But Finland, South Korea and Poland also shared four things in common that set their education systems apart:

  • Clarity of purpose.
  • High expectations for all kids (across the full school and home community), and a rigorous curriculum and testing system that mattered to match.
  • Excellent teachers who continue to constantly improve.
  • More independence for the students, in the school and in the world, which “made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient high school graduates.” (p. 191)

I’m going to talk more about teacher quality in a future post when I cover Building a Better Teacher. For now I’m going to focus on the first two qualities.

1. Clarity of Purpose: What is the first priority at this school?
Ripley points out that U.S. schools have confused messages about the purpose of our schools. Schools in successful countries are very clear that the single and overriding purpose of each school is academic education, not sports or clubs, etc.

I see her point about the lack of focus at our schools. I’ve been on so many tours where the parent and administration leaders mostly just talk about how much they value the community of the school, and are deeply uncomfortable with talking about the curriculum, test scores and goals and teacher training programs. On those tours, we’ve spent inordinate amounts of time looking at gardens and computer labs, and almost never get to talk to teachers. Though I largely like this school a lot, Rosa Parks was probably one of the schools I toured that seemed most uncomfortable talking about anything but community. And it barely seemed on the radar of the West Portal principal. In contrast, CIS DeAvila and AltSchool were pretty crystal clear in discussing their academic missions. Sunset Elementary was more about the community message. And strangely, for a school that is known for its focus on academics, the Alice Fong Yu tour was also fuzzy on the topic, though may have been because it was led by just one parent.

In the book, Ripley talks about American school obsession with facilities and screens as distractions to real learning. She points out that these highest performing school systems have bare bones schools with chalkboards and chalk. No screens, no fancy sports fields, etc. Clarendon’s decision not to invest much of its parent fundraising money into core facilities raises eyebrows on their tour, but is very much in line with this international best practice. My eldest child goes to a relatively poor public school right now, and my husband and I frequently talk about what it would take to bring the school to the next level academically. Having spent a lot of time at the school now, we feel quite strongly that it has nothing to do with improving the facilities, and everything to do with teaching excellence and a culture of increased expectations and rigor. Again, it is a school that focuses heavily on its community mission, and not academics.

I am concerned that so many San Francisco schools seem uncomfortable discussing their academic mission and systems. Shouldn’t that be the primary topic? Yes, by all means tell us about the other stuff, too; it has value. But start and focus on academics. How do these other elements of the school tie in to the core mission of developing the minds of our students? I liked that CIS DeAvila proactively shows you homework samples for different grade levels at the beginning of the tour.

I suspect that many parents and principals are, understandably, worried about promoting the rat race to top colleges, and dampening the anxiety about the race for gem elementary schools. They’re likely genuinely interested in making sure that their kids are full, happy people -- certainly deeply important. But isn’t there a way to do that, as in Finland and Poland, without having to avoid a full discussion of the core academic mission? I also suspect that many parents are primarily interested in finding a school community to belong, which is completely reasonable, but if you’re not, like us, you should be wary of schools whose culture is dominated by community-focused parents.

2. Rigor: How deep is the learning?
My child is in an SFUSD TK. He often brings home depressingly inane worksheets, and the time we’ve spent in the classroom has made it clear that he’s being asked to do similarly unchallenging work at school. So I’ve kept a close eye on the kinds of worksheets kids were working on as I’ve toured schools. I’ve been disappointed to see students working on similarly one-dimensional worksheets on most of the tours I’ve done, including the schools so many of us think of as gems. My kid is not even allowed to cut out and assemble most of the “student work” that gets put on the bulletin boards and hung around the room at his school. I have noticed that this is also the case for most schools I’ve toured, judging by the uniformity of the cutting.

I’d love to have been able to talk more with principals and teachers about the context for these worksheets, unwillingness to let kids cut out their own darn pumpkins, and generally whether there’s more substance hiding behind a corner somewhere that we’re just not picking up on the tours. I loved that Clarendon lets us speak directly to teachers about what’s happening in the classroom we’re touring.And lest you think that my critique is coming from a desire to get my children on the rat race to a top college at all costs, I actually very much agree with the points made in William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite about the very real limitations of that kind of thinking. I just want my kids to be challenged to develop their mind to their full potential.

3. Parental Involvement: Not what we think.
I also was intrigued by a section of Ripley’s book that looked at what sorts of parental involvement at schools actually improved academic outcomes. We talk so much on this blog and beyond about how important parental involvement is to make a school work. And when I visit a school I certainly like seeing parent volunteers busy at work, and am impressed by fundraising levels. But it turns out that volunteering at school and fundraising actually have no impact on improving academic outcomes for your own kids. And in fact volunteering as part of an extracurricular activity, like a sports team, actually decreases academic performance for your kid. Ripley reports that the only things that really make a difference are reading to your child at home every day and, when they’re older, engaging them in discussions about topics of the world or a book.

I recently attended an event by The New School of San Francisco. I was intrigued but confused by their claim that they would not be expecting or emphasizing fundraising or in-school volunteerism. After reading Ripley’s book, I think I understand why they are taking that approach. It’s pretty refreshing, though it definitely is a major rethink for me.

4. My Key Take Aways
I ended this book thinking more critically about what messages the schools I toured were sending about their core missions, and whether we had the same mission for our kids. I also continued to leave pretty much every school we’ve toured with questions about whether teachers were finding and embracing more rigor in the Common Core curriculum or if it was the same old, same old in new packaging. Ripley’s book (and our TK experience thus far) is a reminder that humans crave meaningful challenges, and tune out to low expectations. I have many an unhappy memory of teachers at schools I went to growing up who pretty much just babysat us for a whole year rather than believing in us as capable deep learners. And I’m guessing most of us have seen the drag of low expectations at play in our professional lives.

So for our family, we are on a hunt for a school that has a truly rigorous academic and socio-emotional curriculum for T-shaped life-long joyous learners of all economic backgrounds. Whew! That’s a mouthful! (And an easy commute and compatible start time!) But that’s just us.

What mission do you want for your child’s school? If your child is already in a school, does the school have a clear mission?

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