I recently wrote about an education-policy book by Diane Ravitch. In Reign of Error, Ravitch argues against the currently proposed reforms – testing, accountability, and choice – and suggests that America’s public schools are performing relatively well, considering the diminished quality of the children the schools are forced to work with. The ultimate solution, according to Ravitch, is to reduce the percentage of youth who are growing up in poverty.
In The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley doesn’t disagree with many of Ravitch’s underlying facts or conclusions, but she comes to a significantly different overarching conclusion. Instead of shifting the discussion toward youth poverty, Ripley shows how the quality of teachers does make a major difference in whether a school turns out educated kids.
Ripley’s principal means of analysis is an international test – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – that is given every three years to 15-year olds in 70 countries. It measures reading, science, and math skills. Because PISA is designed to test critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) in a way that translates fairly from one country to the next, the results are highly relevant not only to showing progress over a time period, but also to showing success relative to other countries.
The PISA results, as do many other test results, show American students to be mediocre in science and math and fairly strong in reading. But the PISA rankings are dominated by Finland, South Korea, and fast rising Poland. Ripley focused on these countries, primarily by working closely with American kids who traveled to these locations as foreign-exchange students.
Based on the information obtained from these kids, as well as the information Ripley gleaned from exhaustive research, she discerned that the teachers in these countries were professionals – i.e., really smart people who cared deeply about their craft. By contrast, the teaching profession in America was staffed by mediocre students who could coast into and through their teacher training without learning or applying any rigor. So Ripley’s prescription is less about the reformers’ accountability (testing and teacher dismissal) and more about preventing mediocrity from being admitted to the profession.
I agree with Ripley. As a practical matter, teacher dismissal is always going to be an inefficient and slow method to clean up the profession. It is much easier to enhance the profession on the front end by establishing high standards for admission.