Read This If. . .

You enjoy iconoclasts, craft beer, and independent businesses—Dick Cantwell’s Beer is Immortal (Allecia Vermillion).

You think we’ve ruined kindergarten. The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland (Tim Walker).

You wonder what makes dogs happy. Hint: The answer is in their tails. The secret lives of dogs: Emotional sensor helps owners understand their pup’s feelings (Michael Walsh).

What Amanda Ripley and Her Amazon Reviewers Get Wrong

Ripley has written a book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way“. Thanks to my brother (shout out to Ohio, not California), I recently read an article by Ripley based upon her book. Given my frustration level while reading the article, I’m not sure I could get through her book. Her Amazon reviewers loved it though.

What does Ripley and what do her reviewers get wrong? That you can improve schooling in the U.S. by arguing that Finnish teachers are far, far superior to American ones. I assume Ripley wants to help improve American schooling. She’s right that teacher education programs in the United States are not nearly as selective nor rigorous as Finnish ones. But in the excerpt at least, she doesn’t even bother exploring the reasons why, let alone propose solutions to the problem.

Dear Ms. Ripley, there are lots of reasons why teacher education programs in the U.S. aren’t as selective and rigorous as in Education’s Holy Land ( let’s create some ed jargon baby, EHL). Maybe the most vexing one is best illustrated through a question.

Whose recent performance is most impressive, Peyton Manning’s or Dexter Filkins’? To which most people in the U.S. would ask, who does Filkins play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Filkins is an outstanding writer, who, when he’s not writing books, plays for The New Yorker. And he just published an amazing story on Qassem Suleimani. Who does Qassem Suleimani play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Two teams really. Iran and Shiites worldwide.

You haven’t heard of him because American culture is anti-intellectual. How can anyone expect teaching to be a deeply respected profession when we reserve our highest pedestals for athletes, actors, and other entertainers?

Ripley also illustrates how dangerous a little knowledge can be. She’s critical of how short teacher candidates’ apprenticeships are in the U.S. I am too. Just the other day I was cringing in my office as colleagues next door weighed the merits of eight-week long professional apprenticeships.

But the problem is even worse than Ripley lets on. Not only are they far too short, increasingly candidates spend a lot of their time co-teaching because of growing standardized test score anxiety. Given the momentum for tying teachers’ evaluations and compensation to students’ test scores, an increasing percentage of principals and teachers are reluctant to “hand over” their classrooms to teacher credential candidates. Ripley doesn’t bother peeling that onion at all. Literally and figuratively shortchanging future teachers’ professional preparation is just one of other unintended negative consequences of standardized test score mania. We’ve lost our minds.

Absent from Ripley’s article, we obviously have to improve teacher compensation to have any hope of raising the profession’s profile and making teacher preparation programs markedly more selective. Related to that, we have to improve the work conditions—meaning fewer or smaller classes; more time to develop curriculum, prepare for classes, and assess student work; and fewer authors, elected officials, and businesspeople ripping teachers for not being more Finnish.

Postscript—peel more of the onion by reading Anu Partanen’s December 2011 essay in the Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“.

Finnish Students are Running Circles Around U.S. Students. . . Without Trying

Policy makers in the U.S. desperately want to know why Finnish students are consistently among the top ranked students in the world. Anu Partanen, in a provocative essay in the Atlantic, points to a few things—less homework, more creative play, and equalized public funding for all schools.

A leading Finnish educator explains another critical factor, “In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. . . . teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Another significant difference—there are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Damn socialists.

Partanen provides historical context. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

And no, they’re not teaching to the tests or changing students’ score sheets. Partanen explains that since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity. 

Despite many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. Partanen explains that when Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be economically competitive, they couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy. With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game a country has to prepare all of its population well for the new economy.

Since “No Child Left Behind”, we’ve talked similarly, but dramatic school funding differences and a litany of related educational inequalities prove we’re not committed to equity. We want the Finns’ results without their progressive tax system. We want to lose weight without eating less or exercising more.

Take a sample of ten representative high schoolers from the U.S. The top three can easily hang with average Finn, Singaporean, South Korean, and Chinese students. The middle four, not so much. They’re graduating high school and continuing their education even though they’re unprepared for college level work. They’re taking remedial classes and are a large part of the 45% of students who enter college seeking a bachelor’s degree and fail to graduate. The bottom three, someone tell W, have been left behind, and are apart of the 1.3 million students that leave high school every year without graduating. That’s 7,000 students a day. That’s a tragedy for them, their families, and our economic prospects.

There’s not just an achievement gap between the top three and bottom four students, there’s a dramatic family political influence gap. “Top three” parents focus mostly on making sure their sons and daughters have a competitive advantage in getting into the best colleges by agitating for tracked college prep classes. They may care about the educational or life prospectives of the other seven students, but not to the point of de-tracking classes or equalizing funding through higher property taxes.

Spare me the talk of replicating the Finnish educational model. We’re not cut out for it. Our worldview rests upon the exact opposite values—intense individualism, competitiveness, and selective excellence; not collectivism, cooperation, or equity. With rare exceptions, we haven’t been a “greater good” people for a long time. And the more other students from around the world lap us in the classroom, and the better their economies perform relative to us, the more “Top Three-ers” we’ll look out for themselves, the greater good be damned.