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“.

Why We’re So Susceptible to Decision-Making Paralysis

The short answer. Because we succumb to self-induced pressure as a result of thinking about big decisions in zero-sum, make or break, right and wrong terms. Is this the absolute best college to attend? The perfect person to commit to? The ideal number of children? The best job? The best possible residence? The right investment?

The longer explanation. Thanks Bill Pollian, former Indiana Colts General Manager, for a very helpful alternative perspective on big-time, life decision-making. Asked why Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos and not the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco Forty-Niners, or any of the other NFL teams he recently talked to, he said, “The decision to play for Denver wasn’t the important decision. What’s most important is all the decisions he makes from this point forward.” Beautiful. My interpretation. If he continues to do the things that have made him so successful throughout his career, outworking everyone else, he’ll continue to win no matter what color uni he’s wearing.

Some high school grads think there’s one best college for them. Pollian would argue it doesn’t matter if you get into your preferred college. What matters more is whether you apply yourself at whatever college you attend. Do you take full advantage of the opportunities? Do you do the reading, take challenging courses, develop self understanding and practical skills, pursue internships, figure out what work might be meaningful, build social capital?

Some people think there’s one “soulmate” for them. Pollian would argue it’s less important that you feel a mystical “love at first sight” connection to your partner than how determined you are to make the relationship work. Based on Pollian-logic, there’s not one right person, just proven processes. Mutual physical attraction is a wonderful thing, but the physical elements of love lessen over time. Long-term committed relationships are less about flashy wedding ceremonies and more about day-to-day decision-making, mutual respect, shared values, interpersonal skills, kindness, and resilience.

A final example. Building wealth is less about picking the absolute best stock or creating the perfect asset allocation and more about distinguishing between “wants” and “needs”, day-to-day discipline, and regularly saving more than you make.

The next time you have an especially important decision to make take some pressure off by remembering that a positive outcome hinges mostly on the long-term, cumulative effect of the numerous daily decisions that follow.

SuperBowl Edition

Secular holiday Sunday. I’m down with it, but for the love of all things non-material, please kill the Pro Bowl and return to the original one week between conference finals and kickoff.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a Peyton Manning essay by Stefan Fatsis on Slate.com Friday. I’ve enjoyed listening to Fatsis, a sports business analyst/writer on National Public Radio over the last few years. He also writes for the Wall Street Journal. Smart, fast-talker, good insights. He lets his hair down a little in the Manning piece.

Fatsis’ piece brought to mind lots of things including what a curse perfectionism is for those encumbered by it. Perfectionists can’t help but project their unusually high and often unrealistic expectations onto others which subjects them to perpetual frustration. Others can’t measure up.

When I finished writing my lengthy self-assessment for promotion recently, I felt a real sense of accomplishment, but not in the way you might expect. Here’s the truth of the matter. I could be a better teacher, scholar, and university citizen (the shorthand term for service). And I could be a better husband, father, son, brother, and friend. And I could be a better triathlete and blogger. And I could read more fiction, keep the gutters cleaner, and manage my time better.

My sense of accomplishment comes from fulfilling a wide range of roles as well as possible. I’m never going to win an MVP (most valuable professor) award or the Hawaii Ironman and I don’t anticipate, fourteen, seventeen, and forty-nine (yikes, did I just out the gal pal as not young, more evidence I fall short as a husband) ever teaming up on a sculpture in honor of me (my birthday is fast approaching though).

I choose to live a more balanced life than Manning, that doesn’t make me better, just different. Would I like to play in the Super Bowl*, of course, but I would not have traded the breadth of life experience I’ve enjoyed for that type of single-minded success.

At times, I wonder if I use the “balance” argument as an excuse for not pursuing excellence in a particular area for a particular time. Do I opt for success out of fear of Success? I wonder, maybe I should dedicate myself to excellence in one role, whether to write a book, race an Ironman well, or become the man my dog thinks I am—for a period of time. It’s very hard for me to accept doing some things poorly in order to do one thing especially well.

I expect the Colts to win, but I’ll be pulling for the Saints. And if the Saints pull the upset, I’ll be watching for Peyton to blow.

* I realized my football career was pointless in eighth grade when I was a bad-ass (a legend in my own mind) cornerback for the Lexington Lions. Screen pass to the other team’s stud who looked like it was his third go-round in eighth grade. Someone missed their assignment and I was unblocked. Closed the eyes, wrapped, wrapped, uh, wiffed. Started playing more golf at that point!