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

6. Drive

  • American exchange students and Korean students alike agree that Korean high school is objectively terrible. It’s common for Korean kids to have high expectations of themselves and low opinions of their performance. Korean parents see themselves as coaches while American parents act more like cheerleaders. This resulted from the self-esteem movement that took hold in the 1980s and 1990s when dolling out praise and giving every kid a trophy became fashionable. Praise tends to be vague, insincere, or excessive and tends to discourage kids from working hard or trying new things. Praise should be specific, authentic, and rare.
  • There are four general types of parents. The first three are all negative. They are authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful. The forth type, authoritarian occupies the sweet spot between authoritarian and permissive. They are warm, responsive, and close to their kids. As children get older, they give them more freedom to explore and fail and to make their own choices. They also have clear, bright limits, and rules they don’t negotiate. It’s the right combination of being warm and strict. Studies show that such parents produce higher academic achievement levels. It should be no surprise then to find out that Asian-American parents are most consistently authoritative, while Hispanic and African-American parents trend toward the authoritarian type.
  • Parents who participate in extra curricular activities have kids who generally do poorer in school. Parents who read to their kids more and discuss movies, books, and current affairs have kids who perform higher. In short, it matters more what parents do at home rather than what they do helping out at school or attending sporting events. Many Asian parents also teach their kids to add before they could read. Seeing parents read shows kids what their parents value.

7. The Metamorphosis

  • Due to its location, Poland had a tough time during and after World War II. It wasn’t until 1998 that the government had the ability and the vision to reform an education system that only seemed to produce people who were known for doing jobs that people elsewhere in Europe didn’t want to do. The reforms featured four efforts. First was a new rigorous core curriculum. It laid out fundamental goals and left the details to the schools. Next they stated nation-wide testing to see how the schools were doing. This helped identify which students and teachers needed more help. The third reform was to raise expectations. This involved adding one full year being added to middle school and it delayed tracking until the age of 16. Finally, teachers were given more autonomy to choose text books and their own specific curriculum. They also were given bonuses for professional development they did.
  • Poland joined the PISA effort in 2000 just as their reforms were getting started. As a result, the first set of scores left them near the bottom. By 2003 their scores were comparable to the US in the middle of the pack. By 2012, Poland’s scores were near the top. At the age of 16 some students went off to vocational schools. When they did their scores dropped. This supports the notion that tracking is negative. You should also note that in the US, some level of tracking starts in most elementary schools. Finland also waits until age 16 to start tracking. These countries push more money to schools where students are poor and perform poorly. In the US, more money is spent on wealthy kids who tend to perform higher. Polish schools have no sports and teachers don’t coach. You are also not likely to find cafeterias, white boards, or laptops. When asked what is most important, the architect of Poland’s reforms stated “everything is based on the teacher – well-prepared, well chosen.”
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