What I’ve Been Reading About Education

Over the past year or so I’ve found time to read some thoughtful, provocative books about education amidst the daily flood of news and real-time journalism. Several of these influenced my thinking about Louisville’s public schools, and I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in improving education here or elsewhere in the United States.  In addition, two shorter pieces plus one podcast stand out as vital in thinking about Louisville schools’ situation. And more thought-provoking books and stories are being published all the time, so perhaps I’ll update this if useful.

In the coming weeks I’ll be publishing these reviews here on my blog. Feel free to leave comments with your own recommendations of books, articles, podcasts, or anything else that may help inform our dialogue around education in Louisville. You can leave your comments here on my blog or join the conversation on my Facebook and Twitter pages.

Let’s get started.

What I Learned from The Smartest Kids in the World

This week in my What I’ve Been Reading About Education series I review The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

Ripley, who now writes for Time Magazine and The Atlantic, says she’d never intended to write about education but got captivated by its “real mystery.” She describes this mystery as intensely frustrating: “Why [are] some kids learning so much—and others so very little?” She then takes the reader on a world tour that gives a powerful answer.

Ripley focused her research on three countries that have achieved extraordinary results over the past several decades from their public schools systems, but are otherwise very different: Finland, South Korea and Poland. Her descriptions of these countries’ journeys are inspiring, and persuade the reader, in a way that raw test data cannot, that U.S. public education has indeed fallen behind.

She adds life to policy descriptions and data by reporting on the experiences of American exchange students in each country, and the U.S. high schools each came from. This makes for interesting reading, sometimes funny and sometimes sad as her “field agents” – the American kids – encounter new ways of doing things and sometimes deep loneliness.

Ultimately, she finds that educators in top-performing countries face challenges quite similar to those in the American context: “politics, bureaucracy, antiquated union contracts and parental blind spots—the surprisingly universal plagues of all education systems everywhere.” What sets apart the nations that have done best in education over the past decades, she finds, is at once softer and harder: citizen commitment to rigor in education.

All major shifts . . . require a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done. . . . All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true.

Her hopeful conclusion is that as more data “spills out” from places where students are achieving, and “students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they could do,” American students will receive the respect of a rigorous education. As Kentucky’s legislature takes up our new Governor’s call to modify education standards that only recently were finally raised to respect our students’ ability to learn at the level of those in the world’s top ranks, Ripley’s finding is much on my mind.

(Longer reviews appeared here in the Washington Post and New York Times.)

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