Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Sept 15 IDEA Revisions

As Congress continues redesigning the No Child Left Behind (NCLB), let us take a moment to explore how nations that had poor educational systems in the 1950s are now the world’s education superpowers and have surpassed the students in the United States. Can Congress incorporate some of their practices into our newly designed NCLB bill as solutions for our nation’s education problems?

In the 1950s and 60s, the United States had one of the world’s best education systems and top academically performing students. However, since that time the PISA scores of U.S. students have declined and now rank in the middle of the forty nations that participate in the PISA, and nations that have endured much greater hardship in the last century.

How did South Korea, where the vast majority of its population was illiterate in the 1950s and whose nation was devastated by the Korean War, produce students that are some of the brightest in the world? How did Poland, a country that was demolished in World War II, elevate its education system to the point where its students have higher test scores than U.S. students? What educational reforms did Finland, who did not declare its independence until 1917 and has been until fairly recently a largely illiterate farming and logging nation, initiate that enabled them to become a education superpower?

Amanda Ripley, in her excellent book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, examined the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the book, Ripley conducts an extensive and rigorous investigation of the PISA data of forty countries that participate in the PISA, and explains how nations have rebuilt their education systems into the top “education superpowers” of the world.

Economists have found a one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation’s long-term economic growth. If the U.S. had Finland’s PISA scores (Finland has consistently been in the top five PISA performing counties since the inception of the test), our GDP would be increasing at a rate of one to two trillion dollars per year. South Korea’s education change has resulted in South Korea’s GDP rising about 40,000% since 1962, making it the world’s 13th richest largest economy.

What did Ripley find that contributes to increased PIAS test scores?

Ripley continually notes that the one critical and fundamental factor that all education superpowers have in common is the superior quality of the teacher in the classroom, both the character or persona, and the whole process of becoming a teacher.

To this point, she writes that, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” Ripley notes and that “excellence depends on execution, the hardest thing to get correct.”

Her research found that the process of developing top quality teachers begins not only with the qualifications of the applicant applying, and acceptance to a teacher-training college, but extends to the rigorous college education curriculum they master, the extensive pedagogical expertise they attain prior to their first teaching assignment, and finally, the continuous teacher development and training that occurs throughout their careers.

To become a teacher in Finland, one must be accepted into one of only eight prestigious teacher-training universities, 100% of the teachers gradate high school in the top third of the class, and only 20% of the applicants are accepted. Getting into a teacher-training school is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the U.S. in Ripley’s opinion.

In contrast to Finland, Ripley notes that in the U.S. only 2 out of 10 teachers graduate in the top third of their class, the U.S. now has more than 1,000 teacher-training colleges, and produces nearly two and a half times the number of teachers needed each year with an extreme surplus of elementary school teachers.

A second factor that contributes to high PISA scores in the world’s leading education nations is the quality of their early childhood education programs. Ripley’s research reveals that early childhood programs lead to real and lasting benefits. Most importantly, the quality of the early childhood program mattered more than the quantity. On average, kids who attended a quality early childhood program for more than a year, by age 15 scored more than a year ahead in math as compared with other students who did not attend a similar school.

The third factor that greatly improves a child’s PISA scores is the type of parenting a child receives at home. Andreas Schleicher, PISA chief education scientist, opines that more than any other parental activity, a student’s home environment dramatically affected test scores. One parental activity for young children that yields improved results on the PISA is reading to them every day, and most importantly, not just reading to them, but also asking them questions about was read to them. In New Zealand and Germany, students who parents read to them were a year and half ahead of those who did not read to them. In South Korea, parents who read to their children daily or weekly when they were young scored 25 points higher (almost a full year of learning) on the PISA at age 15.

The final factor that figures into the equation of countries whose students perform the highest on the PISA is the mindset of the country towards education. Regarding this factor, Ripley opines that “the fundament difference” in high versus low achieving countries “is a psychological one, not spending or local control of the curriculum. Educational superpowers believe in rigor, and the purpose of school is to help students’ master complex academic material.”

To begin to solve American education problems and reestablish America as an education superpower, we do not need more of the same answers to the same problems; education needs to seek different solutions to our problems. We do not need more or improved curriculums, more student testing, more electronics in the classroom, increasing teacher salaries, smaller class size, or debate whether the socio-economic background of the student affects his learning.

The first step to return the United States to an education superpower is to reduce number of teacher-training colleges to less than 500 from the current 1,000 plus. Correspondingly, admissions standards to these colleges should become more demanding by accepting applicants who gradate high school in the top 30% of their class.

Next, early childhood education must be fully funded and implemented nationwide. In addition, all teachers of early childhood education must be highly trained and certified.

Finally, a national effort must be made to educate all expecting mothers of the value of reading to their children as early as possible. Our nation’s pediatricians must be mandated to repeatedly discuss with their patients the value of this practice given that a child’s mind is just as important as their body. An ongoing nationwide TV and media adverting effort should begin addressing the value of reading to our youngest.

I know what I am recommending is immense, controversial, and costly. However, all concerned with the future of our education system, and indirectly with the future of our great country, must put aside their concerns for their individual selfdoms

The time has come for our federal, state, local politicians, and higher education administrators to do what they were appointed to do, lead. For in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.