The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way: An Exploration of the Schools in PISAs top Achieving Countries

1307-toch-white_bk_article  My (Yiola) summer has been filled with reading, writing, and a lot of play with my two young children.  From Curious George to Jane Yolan, we covered a lot of ground… and then there was some time for me. One of the texts I read this summer was an interesting report by journalist Amanda Ripley. In her book, The smartest kids in the world and how they got that way Ripley tracks three American high school students who went on exchange to three of the top performing PISA countries: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  What I like about the text is that the three countries Ripley selects could not be more different in culture, and systems.

While there is much controversy about the PISA test and its effects, the details outlined in the book are interesting and insightful. I found the following key points interesting:

The countries that score high on PISA value academic and take academic learning seriously:

“The question then was not what other countries were doing, but why. Why did these countries have this consensus around rigor? In the education superpowers, every child knew the importance of an education. These countries had experienced national failure in recent memory; they knew what an existential crisis felt like. In many U.S. schools, however, the priorities were muddled beyond recognition. Sports were central to American students’ lives and school cultures in a way in which they were not in most education superpowers. Exchange students agreed almost universally on this point. Nine out of ten international students I surveyed said that U.S. kids placed a higher priority on sports, and six out of ten American exchange students agreed with them. Even in middle school, other researchers had found, American students spent double the amount of time playing sports as Koreans.”

Countries whose students who did well on the PISA value early childhood education:

“In most countries, attending some kind of early childhood program (i.e., preschool or prekindergarten) led to real and lasting benefits. On average, kids who did so for more than a year scored much higher in math by age fifteen (more than a year ahead of other students).”

Parental involvement IS important:

“Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning. More affluent parents were more likely to read to their children almost everywhere, but even among families within the same socioeconomic group, parents who read to their children tended to raise kids who scored fourteen points higher on PISA. By contrast, parents who regularly played with alphabet toys with their young children saw no such benefit.”

What I appreciated the most when reading the book was the message that teachers in the high scoring countries are deeply valued members of society. From university admissions through to classroom practice, teachers are carefully selected, very well educated, and they maintain high standards in their practice.

I like the contrasts it provides between nations that have high test scores. As I read I kept comparing Canada, and more specifically the Ontario context to the countries (mainly Finland) and was feeling rather optimistic about the direction we are going.

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