By Judy Berman
What if something you did when you were a teenager came back to haunt you 20 or more years later?
That’s what is happening to many teachers in Florida. Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, created a program that will cost the state $44 million. In the state’s 2015-16 education budget, that money is set aside for a maximum of 4,402 teachers to get up to a $10,000 bonus.
But, for teachers to qualify for Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship, they have to be rated highly effective – the highest ranking – in their schools. Plus, they had to have ranked at or above the 80th percentile on their SAT or ACT scores.
You read right. That’s the tests teachers took when they were still in high school.
What was Fresen’s basis for this? He had read Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World.” What he took away from it was that there is a clear link among nations with top academic performance: well-paid teachers with high aptitudes.
The problem is, Fresen got the equation backward. Ripley looked at how three countries – Finland, Korea and Poland – revolutionized their classrooms. She noted that if America “wanted to get serious about education at long last, we needed to start at the beginning.”
“Following Finland’s example, education colleges should only be allowed to admit students with SAT scores in the top third of the national distribution, or lose government funding and accreditation. Since 1.6 million U.S. teachers were due to retire between 2011 and 2021, a revolution in recruitment and training could change the entire profession in a short period of time.” (p. 96-97)
One reform Ripley said is needed is all stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators, teaching colleges – need to embrace rigor.
“In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States. That rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career, with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else,” Ripley wrote (p. 85)
I read Ripley’s book to see what was behind this issue. She followed three American students who took one year of high school in Finland, Korea and Poland. Thru these students, their schools in those countries and back here in the states, Ripley analyzed data and made many observations. I will focus on only a few.
Teens in Finland, Korea and Poland scored higher on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) than those in the United States.
“None of the other international tests measured teenagers’ ability to think critically and solve new problems in math, reading and science. The promise of PISA was that it would reveal which countries were teaching kids to think for themselves.” (p. 15)
The United States had a middling performance. “U.S. teenagers did better in reading, but that was only mildly comforting, since math skills tended to predict future earnings.” (p. 17)
Ripley said that there was a consensus in those three countries “that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world.” (p. 191)
She felt that there is a lack of emphasis on math in schools in the U.S. and that needs to change because “it was critical to kids’ life chances” All decent jobs required some math and science fluency. (p. 77)
So how do you spot a world-class education? Ripley suggests you tune out the “jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects.” (p. 212)
Among her recommendations: Listen to the parents as they talk about the school. Ripley went on a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school where it cost about $30,000 a year. When a parent asked the parent tour guide what the school’s weakness was, she said: “The math program was weak.”
No reaction. But when the parent tour guide said she wished the football program was stronger, she suddenly had the other parents’ attention. Ripley was stunned.
Parental involvement is vital to a child’s education. But Ripley said that parents’ greatest impact is when they read daily to their children, talk with their children about their day, and discuss the news around the world.
“(Parents) are teachers, too, in other words, and they believe in rigor.”(p. 213)
Ripley admits that “no country has figured out how to help all children reach their full learning potential.” (p. 219)
While one child may thrive and excel in one school setting, another may fail. But the top scores were not about diversity, wealth or per student spending. “Excellence depended on execution, the hardest thing to get right.” (p. 18)
What changes do you think are needed to improve education in the U.S.? Do teaching colleges have to be more selective in students they accept?
Source: “The Smartest Kids in the World” (and how they got that way), by Amanda Ripley. Simon & Schuster paperbacks, Copyright 2013.
Photo: Junior high school students testing in Da Ji Junior High School in Chiayi County, Taiwan (Dec. 1, 2006) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/32/Students_Testing_Something_in_Class_at_a_Taiwanese_School_2006-12-1.jpg/640px-Students_Testing_Something_in_Class_at_a_Taiwanese_School_2006-12-1.jpg
Photo: Student at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) summer camp at Ryken High School, Leonardtown, Maryland. (July 27, 2010). A student examines her robot before releasing it for a test. The camp was hosted by the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center and Naval Air Warfare Center Patuxent River. More than 70 elementary and middle school students participated in activities such as building electronic alarm systems, solar-powered cars and water balloon cannons during the weeklong camp focused on encouraging K-12 students to pursue education and careers in the STEM fields. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/43/US_Navy_100727-N-4304M-001_A_student_at_a_science%2C_technology%2C_engineering_and_math_%28STEM%29_summer_camp_at_Ryken_High_School_in_Leonardtown%2C_Md.jpg/640px-US_Navy_100727-N-4304M-001_A_student_at_a_science%2C_technology%2C_engineering_and_math_%28STEM%29_summer_camp_at_Ryken_High_School_in_Leonardtown%2C_Md.jpg