What really makes students more competitive around the world? Credit: Eric James Sarmiento / Flickr Creative Commons
Education in America is kind of a patchwork quilt - you’ve got different states doing different things, and towns have different amounts of money to spend on schools. And practically every parent and every student have - often conflicting - ideas about how to create successful, competitive graduates: More computer science. Less homework. More reading. Less memorization. More engaging extracurriculars. Shorter summer vacations. Longer days.
Somehow, all those ideas aren't adding up to much – and there's increasing worry that US students are falling far behind other countries when it comes to their academic performance.
The American Problem
"We have a lot of strengths in this country. We have a very strong streak of optimism, of risk taking, of curiosity," argues Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World. "At the same time, we deal with a long standing anti-intellectualism, a distrust of the central government, and a sense that you can do anything as long as you try hard, regardless of what you've learned in school."
That belief isn't enough anymore, Ripley argues.
"I think the thing that concerns me most is the lag between what the economy depends and our perception — the stories we tell ourselves about what the economy demands."
Who's getting it right?
Ripley uses the example of Poland – a country that has skyrocketed up in global rankings in just about a decade.
"What Poland did was a mixture of things, all of which injected more rigorous work and higher expectations into their system for everyone involved," she says.
That meant raising standards for students — creating something similar to the Common Core State Standards we have here in the United States. They also kept all kids together until later, delaying tracking kids onto vocational or university classes for longer — which is a bit counterintuitive.
Experts in many fields seem to agree that the educational testing system is a bit of mess in America.
"Unfortunately many states have invested in a lot of not very smart tests over the past 10-15 years. The end results is that we've created this anti-testing backlash," argues Ripley.
"At the same time, all over the world, countries that have some kind of standardized testing tend to be more equitable, fair places with stronger education systems. The trick Is the quality of the test."
As to critics who say that tests have nothing to do with the real world, where you can look things up with the click of a finger, Ripley disagrees.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, modern workers are constantly being tested. We have more metrics gathered about our performance than we ever have before."
On parental involvement
In many places, American parents are more involved in their children's schools than ever. How does that stack up to school systems in parts of the world that are beating us out?
"One thing you don't see in these schools – you don't see parents. Even in elementary schools," says Ripley. "Parental involvement, it turns out, takes very different forms in different countries. And the American version of parental involvement is very spirited and big hearted. They show up to PTA meetings, they participate in fundraisers, they go to sports games. Unfortunately, they're not involved in ways that actually help their kids learn."
She points to one study that found that the more time parents spent volunteering in extracurricular activities and PTAs, the worse their kids did on a test of critical thinking and reading. Parents that took the time to read to their kids when they were little and then continue to engage with them — ask about their day, discuss the news — throughout their young life saw much higher scores.