Fix Our Schools? Ask the Kids!

By Shlomo Maital

                  Genius 1

  It is widely understood that schools (primary and secondary) in the U.S., and in Israel, are broken.  They persist in teaching, and measuring, mainly memory skills, when the Third Industrial Revolution needs creative thinking.  It is a miracle that somehow, a handful of creative kids survive the system with their creative juices more or less intact. But how many do not? 

    Amanda Ripley, an American scholar, has written a new book that sheds new light on the subject.*  She chose the clever method of asking the ‘horse’s mouth’ – the kids.  She enlisted field agents, three American high school students studying abroad (in Finland, Poland and South Korea).  Here are the ‘secrets’ she discovered.

     Finland: “Rather than try to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations andvalue-added data analysis (!), they allow only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs [tougher to get in to them than to get in to engineering], more demanding than those in America. Better-prepared better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.”

    South Korea:  Notes Ripley: “In an automated global economy, kids need to be driven; they need a culture of rigor.”    And “Rigor on steroids is  what [one] finds in South Korea.   Her field agent Eric is shocked to find students dozing in class in Busan, only to realize why – they spend all night studying at hagwons, cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.   True, the Korean “hamster wheel” creates as many problems as it solves.  Ripley says “it is relentless, excessive – but it felt more honest”.

     Poland:  Poland scaled the heights of international test score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: “well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors.”  Field agent Tom notes that in his hometown, in Pennsylvania, sports were the core culture.  In Wroclaw, Poland, there was no confusion about what school was for —    or what mattered to kids’ life chances. 

    Reviewing this book, Annie Murphy Paul asks whether America [and, I add, Israel] “can generate the will to make changes.”   The answer is, no.  In both nations, entrenched mediocre educational bureaucracies perpetuate mediocrity.  This is a doom loop.  Bad teachers fear good ones.  So bad teachers lead to even worse ones. 

     Good teachers love better ones, because they help them get better.  So good teachers generate even better ones.

     Which loop does your country enjoy?  Which would you prefer?  And how in the world do you change a doom loop into a genius loop?   And, what future do your kids have if they go to schools driven by the doom loop? 


* Amanda Ripley.  The Smartest Kids in the World.  And How They Got That Way.  Simon & Schuster, 2013.   Reviewed in the Global New York Times, Aug. 24-25, 2013, p. 19, by Anne Murphy Paul.