the smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way by Amanda Ripley

4. A Math Problem

  • Our third exchange student is Tom from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who ended up in Wroclaw, Poland. Like many American students, he is somewhat math phobic and had difficulty in the Polish system where students are use to failing and trying again. The focus here is on how American kids typically are a year or more behind students from other countries in terms of the math content they deal with. We also tend to deal with one math concept or subject at a time rather than integrating topics like geometry and calculus. American classes tend to cover the same content in sequential grades rather then expanding the concepts covered. In the US we also tend to wait until students start school to introduce the language of math. This seems to be a mistake since from birth, children’s brains are able to absorb other languages.

5. An American in Utopia

  • The first things Kim noticed in her Finnish school were the lack of high tech white boards and police in the hallway. Even though there were stoner kids, they were still model students. Something in the air seemed to make everyone more serious about learning. In Finland only 20% of applicants are accepted into teacher education programs. In the US, many teacher education programs have no admission standards at all, and the tests teachers have to pass are not challenging. Other students also know that education majors are generally not that smart, which impacts the public’s perception of teachers. In Finland, rigor for teachers is found in college. In the US it is now showing up via complex schemes to weed out low performers, which has a demoralizing impact on everyone else. Next door in Norway where they aren’t choosey about who gets to teach, PISA results are a lot lower.
  • As for the teacher education programs, Finnish universities require lots of twenty-page papers, literature analysis, and a masters degree. The masters requires original research unlike many masters programs in the US, and there is a full year of intense student teaching rather than the 12 weeks or so in the US. It wouldn’t be hard to raise the bar for acceptance into teacher education programs in the US as we currently produce about 2.5 times as many teachers as we need. Even when US colleges do get some top students, expose them to less than serious training. For example, less than half of our high-school math teachers majored in math and most elementary teachers are afraid of math.
  • Colleges of course will fight selecting only top students as it would reduce their income. Since Finland was produces higher quality teachers, it can afford to give them more autonomy. Collaboration is embedded in school cultures and the state only gives tests to samples of the student population to check on performance. The fact that their teachers are accomplished and were top students is apparent to the students. Since the students are more serious, they are treated more like adults with autonomy seldom seen in the US. A survey of Finnish exchange students reported that they though classes were much easier in the US. Finnish kids were also less likely to participate in sports as schools don’t run sports programs and teachers almost never coach. They are also less like to hold down other jobs. In the US, sports drains school resources even though only a minority of kids make a team in most schools. Kids who do make a team have their efforts diverted from academics.
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