Families & the Community Opinion

Worth a Disruption: Prioritizing Education from South Korea to New Jersey

By John T. McCrann — July 05, 2017 4 min read
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I heard Amanda Ripley speak a few years ago after she published her book The Smartest Kids in the World.

There is a lot of noise in the data about international educational rankings, so I’m always wary about claims comparing one nation’s system to another. I’m also not always certain that we can transplant the things that work to make rich educational cultures in other countries to our own, even when we have solid evidence to show they work.

However, I was compelled by a series of points Ripley made about the difference between schools in some countries that rank higher on international tests than the US (specifically Finland, South Korea, and Poland). She critiqued what she characteriezed as a lack of a “serious intellectual culture” in U.S. schools and made it clear that in higher performing countries there was “no confusion about what school was for—or what mattered to kids’ life chances.”

A helpful illustration of this point was this anecdote about educational culture in South Korea: no airplane takes off or lands in the entire of nation while students are taking the national exam.

Can you imagine how disruptive this must be? Business travelers, tourists, military personnel, families, travelers of all types, everyone of them inconvenienced on the off chance that an airplane engine could distract a teenager taking a test.

This is, of course, what I find fascinating about this public policy and powerful about this illustration. South Koreans, like Americans, would prefer to have smooth travel experiences, but believe that there are things that are even more valuable than a particular business deal or military exercise. For one day, the need for teenagers to have quiet space for concentration supersedes all other national priorities. What an incredible message: You, young person, are more important than your mom and dad, more important than the CEO of Samsung, more important than any army general. That’s a serious commitment to young people and their education.

I’m struck by the message the no-plane policy sends to test-takers, but even more interested in what must be the impact on younger students. What must it be like to grow up in an educational culture that is going to one day prioritize you in this way? I’m sure it creates some pressure and anxiety. I’m also sure that it helps clear up any confusion about how important learning is.

I happened upon a mini-version of this kind of tradition in my New Jersey township a few weeks ago. I went out, as I do every night, to walk my dog. But unlike most nights when the sidewalks are empty, there were crowds of people lining the streets. “The Montclair High School graduates are about to come by,” a neighbor explained when she saw my startled face. “They’ll be here any minute,” her elementary-school-aged daughter said, eyes filled with excitement, “stay and cheer on our graduates.”

A few minutes later, I saw police cars stopping traffic and leading school busses down the street. After the graduation ceremony (this was the school’s 150th), this year’s graduates—like those that came before them—had boarded these school busses to parade through our town’s streets to the cheers of former graduates, future graduates, family members, neighbors and—this year for the first time—me and my dog.

A few days later, the New York City public high school where I teach, Harvest Collegiate High School, had a lovely graduation in Manhattan. In a beautiful auditorium, students expressed gratitude to their families, teachers, and classmates. They were honored with awards and diplomas. We all celebrated their accomplishments and sent them out into the world as high school graduates.

Yet the immediate surroundings of their send off were quite different from the experience for Montclair High School graduates. Our students walked onto a Manhattan sidewalk in their caps and gowns, taking pictures and signing yearbooks on a crowded sidewalk. Many continued celebrations with friends and families, but their accomplishments were not cheered by the larger New York City community. Neighbors who happened to be walking their dogs past the event weren’t encouraged to cheer them on or wish them well, they just kept walking. Elementary school students who happened to pass by didn’t look on in awe and wonder, unless it was to wonder why they were wearing such funny hats.

Despite attacks and policies which try to undermine them, public schools remain one of the great unifying forces in American life. Montclair residents understand that we are all partially responsible for the accomplishments of graduates from our school system and partially dependent on their success moving forward. I actually don’t know any members of the graduating class, but I got to celebrate them for a brief time and in that time was reminded of the network of mutuality that binds me to them and to the other citizens of my town, country, world. Our graduates made it to the end of 12th grade and are moving on to college, career, and life after high school. That is wonderful news, news worth interrupting my routine to celebrate.

We need these kinds of traditions. Ones that point younger students towards meaningful goals and reaffirm the work that we all do to raise the next generation of citizens. Learning and celebrating learning should be a priority. This means that it should take precedence over life-as-usual for ALL people in a community, not just those with direct connections. So, what do you do to mark big educational moments in your community? What disruptions could you cause to life as normal in order to show priority for these educational moments?

Photo by greymatters

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