Compared to Finland, Poland and South Korea

Earlier this week I started reading The Smartest Kids in the World, a book that examines why students in Finland, Poland and South Korea perform so much better on the PISA tests than do their peers in the United States.[1] The author uses three American exchange students’ experience in the these countries to contrast the students’ respective U.S. schools with their host schools. Ripley’s findings are stark and at times unsettling. The three countries’ education systems although somewhat dissimilar, each share multiple differences with the U.S. system including cultural differences such as high schools not fielding sports teams. The most striking commonality among the three however, is the intensity with which the foreign students approach their studies. In each country, the U.S. exchange students were surprised by their host country’s students’ discipline to study and to persevere to meet higher standards. The author also uses the experience of exchange students from the three countries in the U.S. to illustrate these differences. One exchange student from Finland laughed at her Michigan high school social studies assignment that asked her to complete a poster; in Finland she would have had to write a four-page essay. My reading of course has me wondering how our schools and students on the Kenai match up with the schools and students in these three countries.

Without good comparative data, I cannot fully answer this question. I can however, speculate that many of our students would struggle with the expected level of rigor found in the mentioned countries. While the pressure placed on students in South Korea to do well on a university entrance exam is over the top, my take is that most of our students do not spend anywhere near the same amount of time studying as do their peers in these three countries. This discipline to study is one that must be fostered at school and at home. Homework assignments need to be meaningful and assessments must challenge students to share their thinking and not be a regurgitation of what is on a study guide. The good news is that we are moving in the right direction to help our students take more ownership of their studies and for teachers to be more critical of how they are teaching. There is some pushback on our measuring the number of 8th graders who successfully take algebra. We need to not push back, but rather work to increase this number. In the three countries, this conversation does not happen.

[1] Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world. New York: Simon & Schuster

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  1. RTC
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s also worth noting that the foundations of this rigor start at the elementary school level. These middle/high schoolers in Korea don’t just find themselves ready to accept the challenges when they enter middle school.
    I think there is a general disdain among elementary school educators when this idea is broached as if we are sacrificing one thing for another. However, a challenging math program and a very enriching arts program are not mutually exclusive. I think those can go hand in hand without one sacrificing the other.

  2. Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Comparing students in these countries to the students in the United State is like comparing apples and oranges. Does the book address how poverty affects education or how countries with higher poverty levels can reach the level of education seen in Poland, Finland, and South Korea? The percent of children living below the poverty line in these three countries is drastically lower than what we see in the United States, especially here in Kenai. In Finland, about 5% of students live in poverty where in Kenai the rate is closer to 50% ! How can we even begin to compete with these other countries education systems until we address the issue of Poverty and how it affects education.

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