Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, took the stage at the Tobin Center on September 10 to speak with supporters of the DoSeum, San Antonio’s children’s museum, at the annual Outside the Lunchbox event. I highly encourage you to read Ripley’s book for yourself: it has lively storytelling backed up with compelling data. In the meantime, here are my observations about her presentation and her remarks during the Q&A with Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, CEO of the DoSeum, and Julian Treviño of UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development.
At the Q&A, a student from Young Women’s Leadership Academy asked Ripley why she started writing about education. Ripley had resisted writing about education because she thought it was “hopeless,” but her editor asked her to cover Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools—”a great story.” Also, Ripley is a parent now, so she has “skin in the game.”
On the main stage, Ripley declared that it’s important for Americans to acknowledge that we have an education problem. On a standard writing test (PIAAC), senior citizens in the United States rank well compared to senior citizens in other countries; however, our millennials are falling in rank. American schools are not doing as good a job of teaching critical thinking skills. Even the richest kids in America—who are some of the very richest kids in the world—are falling behind their peers in other countries. Many kids have been told they are ready for college, but then they go to college and find out they’re really not ready; by then, it’s almost too late to get back on track.
In spite of this, Ripley said she brings a message of “hope.” We can look around the world to see what works, and apply it here. “This is possible,” she said.
What makes the Smartest Kids book so interesting is the way Ripley looks at data and talks to real kids. We can look at data from the PISA test, see which countries are doing the best, and study what they do. The factors are complex, but we can still learn from education superpowers like Finland, South Korea, and Poland.
To find out what’s really going on, Ripley spent a lot of time with three American foreign exchange students who went to those countries. Because they had grown up in American schools, they could make meaningful comparisons during their year in foreign schools. Ripley also did surveys: what do international kids say about American schools?
- American schools place a higher value on sports than academics.
- American schools have more technology.
- American schools have easy classes.
Comparing the education superpowers with the United States also helps us figure out what makes a difference and what doesn’t. Ripley said, “Most of the things we fight about are not the things that make a difference.” Some examples of things that seem like they should help, but don’t: Spending more money. Buying more technology. Hiring more teachers’ aides. Nope.
One of the major differences between the United States and the education superpowers is the culture of learning; those countries having a reverence for the act of doing complex academic work. Can we cultivate that in America? Ripley suggested that our best schools could show people what great teaching looks like. Have public events where outstanding teachers go on stage teaching lessons to real students. First, let the teachers introduce what they are going to do, then teach a great lesson, and finally debrief to explain what they did. In Japan, this is called lesson study, and famous teachers can draw large audiences and influence national policy.
One of the surprises in the data: Parental involvement in typical PTA activities like bake sales does not improve educational outcomes. It may build community, but it does not make kids smarter. (At the Q&A session, a handful of working moms breathed a sigh of relief and let go of their guilt.)
What makes kids smarter is reading. Parents, you can improve your children’s chances in life simply by reading to them. As your kids get bigger, talk to them about what they read. Even when kids see their parents just reading for pleasure, it sends a message about what matters. The DoSeum has an exhibit, Imagine It!, that supports family reading.
Ripley’s kids’ school in DC sends text messages about fundraising. What if they sent text messages about reading tips, as in this Stanford study, instead? Parents have a limited amount of time, and they should spend their time where it makes the most differences.
Ripley offers Poland as an interesting example for the United States to study. Poland has had a turbulent history and has significant poverty and a decentralized education system. In spite of those challenges, recent changes have caused dramatic increases in PISA scores. What worked?
- A new, more challenging, core curriculum.
- Better standardized tests.
- Teacher autonomy.
- A delay in ability tracking.
Will the growth of charter schools improve education in the United States? In Smartest Kids, Ripley praised BASIS, which has two campuses in San Antonio. Steve Lewis, a Choose to Succeed board member, asked Ripley about why there is so much conflict between charter schools and traditional school districts. Ripley expressed concern about whether charter school growth could improve education in a community. She worries about the parents who are not well informed and don’t choose the best schools, and whether that will lead to a two-level system of haves and have nots. She expressed skepticism about whether competition and pressure from high-performing schools will actually help the other schools improve.
Ripley concluded with another message of hope. The way to make change happen, she argued, is to tell stories, especially kids’ stories. She believes that the cumulative effect of so many voices will cause a shift. So, let’s go out there and tell those stories.
I am grateful to the DoSeum for bringing Ripley to San Antonio. At the luncheon, DoSeum board chair Mike O’Donnell invited guests to support the DoSeum for All fundraising campaign to make the DoSeum accessible to everyone in the community by lowering admission costs and underwriting camp scholarships and school field trips. Your donations and membership fees also support the DoSeum’s mission.
Read more: “Amanda Ripley and the ‘Smartest Kids in the World’ Visit the Tobin”, Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, September 11, 2015.