International Opinion

The Geography of Smart

By Anthony Jackson — August 15, 2013 5 min read
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In the education press, we hear what educators, policy analysts, and data say about education. Outside of classrooms, it is far less often that we hear student perspectives. Today, author and journalist Amanda Ripley shares what she has learned—from students—about global education.

by Amanda Ripley

The 14-year-old who inspired me to leave the country was named Wilfried Hounyo. I met him while reporting in DC public schools for Time a few years ago. Wilfried’s parents had recently moved him and his four brothers and sisters to the U.S. from Benin, a tiny country in West Africa, so that the children could get a better education and have a brighter future.

Wilfried was a shy boy who hunched slightly when you talked to him, as if he’d like to be swallowed up into the ground. But he smiled all the time, even when he tried not to, and he was polite and eager to please. He got straight A’s at his DC middle school. His father was working as a dishwasher, and his mother braided hair at a beauty salon. They lived packed together in a small apartment in northwest DC.

One day, sitting on the family’s couch talking to Wilfried and his dad, I asked Wilfried what it had been like to transition to school in America. He must have had to work very hard to get such good grades in a language he’d barely spoken when he’d arrived. He smiled, seemingly unaware of how his father must have felt to hear his answer: “No, my DC school is actually easier than my school in Africa.”

Benin is one of the poorest countries in Africa, plagued by corruption, poverty, and child trafficking, and Wilfried is almost certainly better off in the U.S. But I had heard so many similar sentiments from other children of immigrants in American schools that I found myself thinking about it long afterwards.

When I looked at the international research, I could tell that American schools were doing many things fairly well compared to other countries, particularly in reading. But it was equally clear that our schools were not all that challenging. One study found that third graders in Massachusetts were being asked easier math questions that required simpler responses than children the same age in Hong Kong. In a large, national survey, over half of American high school students said that their history work was often or always too easy, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. Less than half said they felt like they were always or nearly always learning in math class.

The research was fascinating, but maddeningly abstract. What would rigor look like up close? I decided to spend a year investigating that question in other countries. I knew I would need the help of students, so I recruited several American exchange students who were going to high school abroad. Their names were Eric, Kim, and Tom, and they served as my escorts through borrowed homes and adopted cafeterias. Eric traveled from Minnesota to South Korea, Kim from Oklahoma to Finland, and Tom from Pennsylvania to Poland.

These Americans developed strong opinions about what they saw. They were amateur anthropologists, uninterested in the policy debates of adults but keenly aware of the values and habits of the teenagers in their midst. I learned so much from them that I ended up surveying hundreds of their fellow exchange students, in cooperation with an international exchange organization called AFS.

They agreed on a surprising number of things. Nine out of ten international students, for example, reported that school in America was easier than school back home. Seven out of ten American students agreed with them.

Individually, Eric, Kim, and Tom each noticed how much more seriously students seemed to take school in their host countries. The kids themselves were similar to American kids in every other way, but they seemed to connect the dots between what they were doing in school—and how interesting their lives would be.

There are many reasons why kids were connecting the dots, but one was fairly simple: Kids took school more seriously because it was more serious. Students were expected to be capable of working hard on advanced material, especially in Korea. The teachers were seriously trained, with only the best educated allowed to even attempt the process. In Finland, there were fewer standardized tests and homework assignments, but the ones that existed required students to write, reason, and think for themselves.

Kids pick up on those signals. They know and care if school is a joke—or not. “My Finnish school fostered a great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students,” one American exchange student to Finland reported. “This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure. The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were.”

The students I followed have now returned home, and two are in college. Meanwhile, much of the country is debating whether the new Common Core State Standards, which are more rigorous and aligned to international benchmarks, are too hard—or infringe upon local control. It’s a classically American debate that feels dangerously old-fashioned.

We say we are serious about education, but are we ready to act like it? Our teenagers are more likely to earn high grades in math than teenagers in any other country, and yet they rank 26th in the world in math. We educate twice as many teachers as we need in teacher colleges that, in many cases, admit almost everyone who applies. We spend a lot of money on technology in school and football after school, but not very much on teachers’ salaries.

The world’s new education superpowers are very different places, and they all have their problems. But one thing they have in common is that they have developed a consensus among parents, students, teachers, principals, and politicians—an agreement that education is a matter of survival. Once more Americans agree on that, then they might conclude that their own children deserve to be taught by the best-educated, best-trained professionals in the world. They might decide that it’s worth letting kids fail—and try again—while they are still young, rather than waiting until they drop out of college or struggle to keep jobs. They might even begin to act as if all American children are capable of remarkable intellectual feats. Which would start to make it true.

Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, came out on Aug. 13. Ripley is an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Time contributing writer. Follow Amanda Ripley and Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.