Unraveling a Mystery in the Classroom

Students - testing in class at a Taiwanese school. 2006

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.

Student - at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math class

“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

  1. Wonderful post, Judy! I know of Ripley’s work, but I haven’t read her book. I didn’t know about Fresen’s ridiculous plan. I do agree that teachers programs should be more selective AND teachers should be more valued. Teachers have been used as scapegoats by many politicians, and I’ve heard many people say that teachers get summers off and have such an easy day. My husband just retired after 37 years as a high school math teacher, my younger daughter is a beginning English teacher, and I have many friends who are teachers. All of them work or have worked long beyond the school day–and many also work summers (my husband always did). Now they also have to deal with many hours of standardized testing and bureaucratic nonsense. Some of my friends retired simply because they didn’t want to deal with it anymore. That said, there are teachers who are totally unqualified to teach, either because they have not mastered the subject material or because they do not know how to teach it and relate to students.

    1. Merril … Thank you. I typically am not out of the school building until 6:30 p.m. even though school ends at 4:15. Plus, like many other teachers, I often am grading papers on the weekends. The overtesting is not working. I just got thru posting John Oliver’s bashing of standardized tests, No Child Left Behind and his displeasure with linking teachers salaries to student performance. It is funny and so on-target. http://blog.theliteracysite.com/john-oliver-standardized-testing/?utm_source=twc-twcfan&utm_medium=social-fb&utm_term=080115&utm_content=link&utm_campaign=john-oliver-standardized-testing&origin=

      1. I agree about the testing. I can’t believe how many days my daughter said they spent on testing–the students lose so much instructional time. And don’t get me started on book banning and textbooks! 😉

  2. It would be hard to do Judy because I imagine there are not enough resources for customized teaching geared toward the uniqueness of each student, but I think a child learns best when they are taught in the way they learn the best. I think classrooms are set up in a way that caters to the majority (linear thinkers).

    I wonder if some kids who are classified as ADD or ADHD actually just have different learning styles. In early human history, would these children have been visionary chiefs or medicine men or women?

    I know personally, I learn while doing; hands-on – I’m not really a book learner per se. Although if a how-to book is interesting to me, I will try to implement it through doing. The teachers that most greatly impacted me and my learning were the ones who sat down with me, engaged me in two way conversations and asked good questions; inspired me, made me think.

    I read somewhere once that classrooms were originally designed (rows of desks) to prepare students for factory work. What do students need to be prepared for the world we release them into these days? And how do we structure the classroom to address that?

    Diana xo

    1. Diana … From Amanda Ripley’s book, we need to focus more on rigor, on math and not do so many standardized tests.
      It sounds like you had some great teachers. Like you, I learn more thru doing. But, her book is a good read. I did enjoy it.

  3. Your well-researched post needs an audience beyond your blog where mostly sympathetic souls reside. I see this as an op-ed piece in a publication with a greater audience: your Melbourne newspaper? The New York Times?

    Having taught in secondary and post-secondary schools/college in Florida, I am an advocate for wise educational decisions including incentives to attract those with a high aptitude for teaching (not necessarily represented by numbers in test scores). My son and daughter-in-law, both in Florida education, would probably say “better parenting” in answer to your first question.

  4. I say we recognize and support those who want to do well, and train the others for service jobs.

    If you want to really motivate families, grade kids on whether they will need the (monetary) support of the parents for the rest of their lives, or if they will be financially independent.

    Parent-teachers meetings would be like: “Sorry, Mrs. and Mr. Smith; you can kiss early retirement goodbye, and you can forget about that dream trip to Hawaii. Oh, and if you become early grandparents, expect to work until you die. That is, if your kids don’t bump you off early to get whatever is left of their meager inheritance.”

  5. Some of these countries and others are what I call one race/one culture nations. Their foreign populations are relatively tiny and they have a sense of nationhood, a corporate identity and common history.The people of these nations have a sense of responsibility and duty to the group . Multicultural US presents so much more diversity and that is a big factor in lower performance. We have a uniformity demand in US based on test scores and a one size fits all approach. Obviously this does not work.

    1. Carl … The author looked at the diversity issue and did not think that was a factor. She did fault the system for not letting the kids fail when they actually did. She also thought there was too much focus on standardized tests. The nations she looked at had their big end-of-the-year test, not the many assessments that we do. She also advocated more of an emphasis on math and science – math, especially – because it’s a predictor of future earnings.

      I agree the one size fits all approach is not working. 😉

      1. Many speaking Caribbean English have trouble. If the answer requires the word wrench they don’t know what is is because in the islands they call the wrench a spinner. Also they have only subjective case for pronouns and no objective case or possessive case for pronouns.

      2. This school year – my last before I retire in May – I will teach 4 ESOL classes and 2 Advanced English Language Arts (ELA) classes. The ESOL students used to be mainstreamed in the ELA classes. Now, they are taught separately and I think that is more beneficial for their learning overall. While I had some experience working with ESOL students, I will have a more intensified exposure to that this year. I’m looking forward to it even though I expect it will be very challenging. 😉

  6. This post could easily apply to education here in the UK. Our teachers are now on performance related pay, having to deliver a national curriculum devised by those in government who are not educators – therein lies the fundamental problem. Encouraging or educating parents to engage and help educate their offspring would be a start to providing a more rounded learning. Teaching kids to pass tests without any embedded learning will have its knock on effect eventually, I fear, when the world is full of analysts with nothing left to analyse because there has been no nurturing of creativity. Can you tell I’m a disciple of Sir Ken Robinson? 😀

    1. Jenny … It’s sad to see education go this way. You’re right. Lawmakers, who are not educators, are making decisions that affect teachers, students, etc. In our English classes, we were told to include more non-fiction. It would seem that students get plenty of non-fiction in history and science classes. They also really need to be exposed to literature. I also favor nurturing creativity. I don’t know who Sir Ken Robinson is, but I will certainly be looking him up. (sorry!)

      1. Thank you, Jenny. I just got thru watching the TED talk and another one about ‘changing education paradigms.’ Yes, very interesting. I was one of those kids, who was not permitted to take art in high school. Someone felt, because my academic performance then was not stellar, that I could not handle an additional class. I can’t tell you how often I’ve wish that I had been permitted to take it. I love art and draw for my own amazement.

        When I got to grad school, my GPA was a 3.96 out of 4.0. Not too shabby, hey? But some wanted to write me off when I was in high school. I asked my English teacher for a recommendation to college and she said she’d give me one. After 3 schools of nursing rejected my application, my mother called to find out why. She was told the teacher wrote that I did not have the “stick-to-itiveness to make it thru college.” In the long run, that teacher did me a favor. I don’t think I was cut out for nursing and, when I did go to a community college several years later, I wound up majoring in Radio-TV. When I transferred to Syracuse University, I majored in Journalism and was very happy in that program. BUT, some would have become so discouraged that they wouldn’t have tried to get into college. I’m just more stubborn than that. 😉

  7. florida has a completely backwards approach in my opinion. yes, we do need to ensure a high caliber of those who teach our children, and in the same vein they should be valued as such. i believe in a well-rounded approach, with real world experiences, a child can connect with, as well as a classroom experience that challenges and supports them at the same time, along with parental involvement in their child’s education outside of the classroom. (exposure to things, modeling behavior, volunteering, interactions with all kinds of people, and lots and lots of book experiences. not tiger-mom style)

    1. Unfortunately, Florida is not alone in this approach. I don’t think that teachers’ salaries should be linked to student performance and I definitely am quite cynical about the $44-million “bonus” that is being set aside. This money can also go toward new teachers, who have not had a performance rating, but have achieved the desired SAT or ACT scores. I’m in favor of raising standards, but that seems most unfair.

      You’re right, Beth, a well-rounded education is vital. It will prepare a child for the future – wherever that education might lead to. Hopefully they will be exposed to the arts, the literature, music, as well as the academic skills.

  8. Because I was so behind with a lot subjects especially maths I’m of the opinion that everyone learns at a different pace, and that’s perfectly okay. So, maybe they weren’t so good when they did those crucial tests at a younger age, but in a few years time they might be an entirely different person. I feel a teacher is good if they are showing ‘now’ they are good, the past is relevant to some degree, but not nearly as much as the now. 🙂

    1. Suzy … My Dad was a math whiz, an electronics engineer. Me? Horrible at math. I’d be delighted if they’d cut back significantly on all the tests they give. One end-of-year test, plus the ones the teacher gives in class. That should do it.

      I agree that people mature. Sometimes, the late-bloomer might be the best one to teach. The terrific test taker might find that teaching is a challenge. I’d like it if they stop tying teachers’ pay to student performance. Crazy!

  9. Hi Judy, I have argued with my daughter about education for years going back to her 4th and 5th grade teachers .. 30 Years ago. It was wrong then and now she is a doctorate but finally she sees some of it but not enough of it yet! My nephew (s) had problems with math and asked for help from the teacher. He said he gets done at 2:45 and if my nephew couldn’t get it in that time to tell his parents to get a tutor! I’ve got hundreds and hundreds more! And yes now everyone needs to be the same yes so no one gets left behind .. so many buzz words and phrases. You’ve done a wonderful .. no excellent job on this post and I would pray it goes viral! Too many don’t know!

    Thanks for inviting me over … I’ll try to bring refreshments next time! =) Rick =)

    1. Refreshments are appreciated, Rick. Just don’t drink any of the Kool-Aid that the buzz words and phrases folks dish out. In New York, when I was a reporter, the buzz word from a top state Regents’ official was ‘we’re going to offer a world class education.” Well, no one I know would expect any less .

      I do know teachers who, like me, give up their planning periods to work with students who are struggling to learn the material. Or, they offer their time before or after school. One former student told me that her math grade went from (maybe) a D or an F to a B because her math teacher did offer lots of extra help. 😉

  10. Oh, don’t get me started, Judy. Our state went through a period of awarding bonuses to teachers whose students scored highest and improved most on standardized tests. It was divisive and disheartening for students, teachers, and schools. The saddest damage was when teachers tried to leave low socioeconomic and overall struggling schools to avoid being penalized, and when teachers who had for years performed amazingly well with borderline learning disabled students were listed as “poor performing” educators because their students’ test score improvement were low.
    It still gets me worked up just thinking about the damage done during those years.

    1. Marylin … I agree the bonus system is disheartening for all. I just learned that the Florida legislature is not calling it a “bonus.” They’re calling it a scholarship program – even though no further education is required – to avoid having to go thru the collective bargaining process with the unions.

  11. I have a love of learning now that I never had as a student in high school. I’m thankful I can be successful leading my children through their education as the lead learner. I would have made a horrible teacher when I was in high school, but feel with the right motivation and maturity anyone can improve at something, and therefore should not be judged based on their performances in the past.

    On the other side of the coin, if we had to be judged for how we did in the past, I should have received straight A’s in High School like I did in Elementary School. That would’ve been great, but definitely unfair because they are completely unrelated.

    The answer for me is the classical model of education. It’s amazing to see children learn the way they were designed to learn, have incredible rigor in their education, and learn life skills to learn anything as they become an adult.Thanks for sharing this information.

    1. Thank you, Danielle. Wait a minute! You didn’t get straight A’s in high school? But she did graduate from h.s. with 15 college credits. 😉

      (Full disclosure: Danielle is my oldest daughter.) I’m very proud of how she has blossomed and grown as a teacher. Danielle home schools her children and any teacher would be proud to have them in class because they caught the love of learning from their Mom. She has taught them how to develop their critical thinking skills thru activities such as a court case before a judge.

    1. Thanks, Mark. It’s happening in many other states as well. I try to focus on my main mission: do the best I can to help my students learn and grow. But, the outside negativity is certainly hurtful to all.

  12. It is hard to determine the best path for our country’s education program. There may be a solution or formula. I am not convinced being good in subjects can be measured by tests. I am great at them, don’t get me wrong. It was nice to know I “beat” younger Master’s candidates in testing and then, interviewing with a portfolio at OSU.
    Unfortunately, I was kicked out of an area I excelled at: Integrated Special Needs preschool for 9 years. This was due to requiring Master’s in the area you were teaching. Meanwhile, Judy, I had a professional license in El Ed 1-8. I had done a “favor” for a Superintendent by switching since their program needed bolstering.
    What year did I change to PS? 1999.
    What year was my goal of making my Master’s? 2008, when NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act took effect.) I had only 3 years to reach this goal. The last 3 courses were not held at night nor summer time.
    The educational system doesn’t measure quality teachers nor does it concentrate on Math and Science correctly. I do believe we need to incorporate the areas which some countries cut out. The Humaniites, Arts, Music and Gymnastics create well rounded students and human beings. It is a complex subject but am relieved to being paid a fair wage and not have to worry about going to a gym or Jazzercize to work out.:)

    1. Robin … I think it’s a mistake to assume a one-size fits all. Some who did not score well on tests have an amazing relationship with their students and motivate them to do really well. Some who scored high on tests might find a classroom challenging as not all students value an education and choose to be disruptive.

      I do favor bringing back courses that prepared students for a job – a good paying job that did not require a college degree. I believe schools should keep art, music, gymnastics, drama and other areas that help a student receive a well-rounded education. 😉

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