“If you want to see a country that systematically underestimates what kids can do, come to the U.S.”

So concludes journalist and bestselling author Amanda Ripley, whose most recent book, The Smartest Kids in the World, explores the international education landscape to learn how top-performing systems prepare all students to reason, communicate, and really think.

Slide1_0As Ripley noted in her September 24 lecture, no country in the world rewards more lavishly – or punishes more harshly – for critical thinking abilities than the U.S. in 2014.  Yet in equipping students with these crucial skills, the U.S. lags behind countries like Finland and Singapore, according to decades of results from the international PISA exam.

Rigor and challenge is a hallmark of top-performing systems.  From Polish high schools where perfect scores are nearly impossible to achieve, to Japanese playgrounds equipped with difficult-to-master stilts and unicycles, opportunities for students to learn from struggle and failure are ingrained in the curriculum and culture of these schools.  Students learn that failure is something one does – as part of learning and growing – rather than something one is.

By contrast, Ripley says, “We rank first in the world for kids who say they routinely get high grades in math – yet we’re below average in math for the developed world.”

“We’ve lost faith in our kids.  We have to believe they are capable of failure.”

Grounded in PISA data and a decade of experience writing about education, Ripley’s book offers a first-person perspective from students in these education powerhouses. Central to the story are three U.S. high school students studying abroad in Finland, Poland, and Korea; Ripley also surveyed hundreds of exchange students from the U.S. and abroad.  An overwhelming majority found school in the U.S. to be easier.

Slide2_0Ripley noted that the things American students and parents often look for in good schools – beautiful campuses, ample technology, winning sports teams – are largely missing from the world’s best public schools.  Now, when choosing schools for her own child, Ripley looks for students who are engaged in the work, teachers who have time to prepare and collaborate, and school administrators who prioritize helping teachers improve their craft.  Read More: How to Spot a World-Class School

Though U.S. schools’ middling performance has held steady for over a decade, Ripley noted, there has been progress in closing achievement gaps between low-income and upper-income students.  Furthermore, whole system reform is possible.  Australia, Canada and Poland offer examples of achievable, rapid improvement – if the U.S. has the political will to commit to strategies proven to improve student performance on a large scale.

“If there’s a reform that we know works – real gains for kids – then bring on the fight.  It’s a fight worth having.”

Amanda Ripley spoke at a free, public event on September 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of the Houston A+ Challenge speaker series on education, sponsored by Chevron. Keep Learning

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