Day #35: The Smartest Kids in the World, the Hamster Wheel, and Academic Rigor

Midway through Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World is the statement on academics, “Wealth had made rigor unnecessary in America” (119).

Ripley’s international, first person research took her to three countries: Finland, Poland, and South Korea. In each country, she followed one highly motivated American student confronting that particular country’s educational system. That student acted as an “everyman” in order to allow Ripley to contrast on how well American students would do in that country’s educational system. She triangulated the individual student’s stories with data from the PISA tests and the educational policies of each nation.

In presenting her findings, and expanding on her observation of rigor, Ripley expressed her concerns the American educational system saying, “In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; then need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor”(119).

Ripley followed three separate students as they studied abroad in three “educational powerhouses” by international standards. In following Kim in Finland, Eric in South Korea, and Tom in Poland, Ripley noted striking differences on how other countries create “smarter kids.”

For all of their differences, Ripley noted that for Finland, Poland, and South Korea, there was a collective belief in rigor: “People in these countries agreed on the purpose of school: School existed to help students master complex academic material. Other things mattered, too, but nothing mattered as much” (153). In laying out her argument, Ripley noted how different the priorities are in American education with its school sponsored athletics, excessively dense textbooks, and technology in the form of SmartBoards available in every classroom. In her most damning passage, she stated,

“We had the schools we wanted, in a way. Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers. They did show up to complain about bad grades, however. And they came in droves, with video camera and lawn chairs and full hearts to watch their children play sports” (192).

That last line reverberated as an apt description of the idyllic setting of so many schools in Connecticut.

hamster wheelIn her final assessment, Ripley eventually rejects the “moon bounce” of the American education system in favor of the “hamster wheel”  because: “…students in hamster countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder, and do better” (192). What Ripley saw in the students of hamster wheel countries was the motivation of their students to pursue academic excellence.

Finally, Ripley suggests that students are leaving the American public school systems unprepared for meeting the expectations of an international 21st Century work force. She argues that failure, inevitable and regular failure, should be used as a factor for motivation in student achievement in schools rather than waiting for a rude revelation of unpreparedness in the American work force…hamster-wheel and all.

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