Lessons from the World’s Best Schools

In this day and age, we are constantly reminded that the global economy is becoming more and more competitive. It is our duty, it is endlessly repeated, to equip our children with the education and skills to compete effectively in this increasingly cut-throat environment. In a recent book, entitled The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley has tried to address exactly what makes education systems successful, and what kinds of practices create ‘the smartest kids in the world’.

A journalist with extensive experience covering education topics, Ripley tries to answer why the United States fails to attain the top of the international education tables, despite spending more per capita on education than almost any other country. In order to do this, she looks into the education culture in three countries that have achieved impressive results: Finland, Poland and South Korea. Each of these countries provides a lesson about how education should be approached, and what reform can achieve.

In Finland, Ripley focuses on the quality of the teachers. Teaching in Finland is a highly respected and incredibly competitive profession. Entrance onto teaching degrees and training courses is tightly controlled, with only the most academically talented gaining entry. The relative scarcity of places on teacher- training courses, combined with the high level of subject specialism required of teachers in the upper years, leads to teachers commanding a great deal of respect due to the acknowledgement of how much dedication, work, intelligence, and commitment goes in to becoming a teacher in the first place. Highly qualified teachers are then trusted to approach the curriculum with minimal oversight, and in the way that they feel best meets the needs of their students.

In South Korea, the practices of parents and students are the focus. With an unbelievably competitive university entrance examination, students dedicate untold hours outside of school to study, and parents support their children’s educations with equal, if not greater, fervour. While Ripley points out that, in many ways, the South Korean educational experience is unproductive, the intensive involvement of parents in their children’s education, and the motivation exhibited by students are held up at things to be admired and encouraged.

Finally, Ripley points to Poland as an example of a nation that has addressed sub-standard educational attainment rapidly and effectively since 1990. By reforming the way in which students were streamed in secondary schools, as well as placing more accountability in the hands of teachers and schools, Poland was able to significantly improve its rankings. This improvement was achieved both incredibly quickly, and without spending the vast sums of money that the United States spends per pupil.

Ripley’s book raises some interesting issues and provides worthy food-for-thought. However, she approached her research with the United States in mind, which makes her conclusions only partially useful to those trying to understand the UK’s middling educational performance. However, a couple of her conclusions are worth considering.

First and foremost, spending is not always the answer. The most effective way of achieving higher educational attainment is accountability on all fronts. Allowing teachers and schools to take more control over how they approach material and, in some cases, what is taught, will allow those who know the students best to work in a way that best meets their needs and tailor resources to specific challenges. Making schools and teachers accountable helps education professionals feel empowered and invested, and rewards those whose techniques and practices provide the greatest gains. This approach also allows teachers in specialist subjects to use their expertise to approach their subjects in ways that make them engaging, relevant, and dynamic for students.

Accountability for teachers and schools goes hand-in-hand with having highly qualified instructors. Teachers in secondary schools in Finland, for example, are expected to be subject specialists. This intensive subject knowledge, combined with the completion of a lengthy, rigorous teacher-training course, creates teachers who are highly respected and who need less oversight in order to ensure they are doing what is right for their students.

Accountability extends to students as well. Children rise to the expectations set for them given the support of their teachers and carers. When education is made a priority in the home, positive attitudes are created that foster high achievement. Likewise, in school, students who are streamed later in the educational careers are more likely to perform well because they are not being sent the implicit message that they are less capable. This is not to say that streaming is completely negative; acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses is a key to any strong education system. However, clear sets of expectations and standards help students perform well, and the longer one set of standards applies to everyone, the better.

The second key lesson to be gleaned from Ripley’s research regards the involvement of parents. Students whose parents are actively involved in their education perform better than those whose are not. This extends beyond helping with homework. Actively engaging with the skills that children are learning in class and helping integrate them into everyday life reinforces those skills and helps develop critical thinking abilities. For instance, using baking to practice with fractions or reading and discussing books are great ways to help children use the skills they learn in the classroom.

Lastly, but particularly importantly where London is concerned, is the lessons Ripley learns about diversity. America, Ripley claims, often hides behind diversity as an excuse for poor educational attainment. Children who don’t come to school speaking English find it difficult to achieve at the same level as native English speakers, it is often claimed. However, Finnish experience seems to suggest that this is a red herring. Diversity within a student population certainly presents a different set of challenges, but this doesn’t have to be a barrier to achievement when teachers are well-trained and have the right resources at their disposal. In fact, this maxim seems to be borne out in London, where some of the best primary and secondary state schools in the country are located. Diversity amongst the students does not stand in the way of success because teachers have the skills necessary to meet the unique challenges of diversity head-on. Indeed, diversity can enrich a child’s educational experience by exposing them to different cultures, languages, and ways of thinking, as well as challenging them to evaluate their experiences and beliefs differently. This quality is something that is conspicuously lacking from the South Korean educational system, where almost every student is aiming for the same universities and the same jobs at the same handful of companies. The creativity and tolerance that diversity engenders is something to be admired about London’s schools.