Rigor Crisis: What Makes Education Work Elsewhere, And How To Bring It Home


I like what Amanda Ripley attacks, and I’m glad she came to attack it. Her book detailing the difference between American schools and higher-scoring systems in places like Korea and Finland, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, was released about two weeks ago. It could hardly be called an attack: its hopeful tone underlies its polite third-person examinations and deference to the data and experts. But it has a clear point to make. And it manages a rare feat: going deeply into complicated issues with nuance, and prescribing important key points as a blueprint for solutions.

As a former classroom teacher in what would quickly be categorized as “bad” schools – the kind surrounded by poverty and crime, where low scores and bleak futures appear the norm – I was drawn in to Ripley’s claim that academic success is not inversely related to financial background. I’d heard this from places like Teach For America before, but from them it sounded like a battle cry to holler before the big charge: It doesn’t matter how outnumbered and outgunned you are, fight. Idealistic, yes. Necessary, yes. But realistic? I was more prone to agree with the words of (recent incarnation) Diane Ravitch, that educational problems are a symptom of poverty problems, ones that require major change within our country.

But I love to keep an open mind and see if I can be won over, especially by intelligent, well-informed, and hope-spreading believers. Ripley follows American exchange students to compare and contrast their experiences home and abroad. She also analyzes performance data between countries along economic, social, and geographic lines, mostly on the “PISA” international standards test. The point she puts forward is that change in America will depend not on finances and race but on attitudes, standards, and expectations – a paradigm of what education is for.

She refers to foreign nations that improved their education drastically in short time (years, not centuries) because they were in dire straits – because they needed to. The United States is rich and secure, something our grandparents fought hard to achieve, and something our parents didn’t have to fight so hard to enjoy. Previous Americans found well-paying jobs and were happy even if their education was middling. Other countries did poorly and so suffered what I call a Rigor Crisis – they realized the world is tough, and they needed to be tough, so their schools became very important and demanding, and they got smarter.

Now the global economy has changed and critical thinking is important to Americans’ success – so it is up to us to make our schools more important and demanding. We are suffering (economically) from the result of our poor educations. This should be our Rigor Crisis.

It is true that America does not yet take school very seriously and does not think it is very important. When I was in high school, I skipped school almost every day because I just didn’t think it mattered. As a teacher, I saw how little others thought it mattered in a great karmic comeuppance. It’s hard for me to imagine an America where students do think school is important. You might have to reread that sentence to begin to feel a sense of horror, because we are so used to it.

Surprisingly, students in places like Poland and Finland didn’t become less human and kid-like when they started to value their education. In fact, they have more freedom than our own teenagers: more free time and even the right to drink and smoke. Countries like Korea unfortunately went in the other direction, sweat-shopping their students into zombie-eyed robots. But it isn’t hard to imagine that U.S. students could find a middle ground, a uniquely American way to value their education and keep childhood intact.

Ripley explores four main keys – drive, teaching quality, equity, and autonomy – that balance in different ways to make education great. They all revolve around this idea of sincerely valuing education. So what does this paradigm attack? It attacks the importance and involvement in sports that American schools focus on so much, while their academic rigor is lackluster (she manages to make this sports-mania at American schools seem as nonsensical as it really is). It attacks low-quality teacher admissions and training, and the resulting lack of salary and respect that teachers get. It attacks the emphasis on government control over schools, and the lack of clarity and autonomy that results. It attacks the excuse that poverty and class issues mean there is no way up. And we should all cheer to see these things attacked.

So. Does Ripley’s book succeed, in converting me, in marking a way forward? The answer is, on its own terms, yes. But those terms are specific. Almost all her data is based on the international PISA test. She goes out of her way to give us background on its creators and its focus on real critical thinking, but it is still one test, that one group of human people made. At best, one test is just one window. At worst, one test is arbitrary and misleading, pushing the fallacy that complex and nuanced human character can be quantified. Ripley pushes the importance of testing overall, which any teacher is skeptical of and besieged by, though to her credit Ripley makes no bones about American testing being excessive, inefficient, and poorly executed.

Ultimately, The Smartest Kids in the World easily passes the bullshit test, even though it can only draw its conclusions from a small sample. More than any similar book, it has the incisiveness and common sense to pick up on things that really matter and say so. I highlighted some 100 excellent conclusions that I wish I could Sharpie on construction paper and then ram down ignorant administrators’ and policymakers’ throats. And I feel some hope that as these ideas go into the mainstream, we can – not become more like Finland or Korea – but learn how to be better. How to be really great Americans.


|  “Korean schools existed for one and only one purpose: so that children could master complex academic material. It was an obvious difference. U.S. schools, by contrast, were about many things, only one of which was learning. This lack of focus made it easy to lose sight of what mattered most.”

|  “Korea did not wait to fix poverty before radically improving its education system, including its teacher colleges. This faith in education and people had catapulted Korea.”

|  “The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously […] They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated […] Most Americans said teaching was a hard and important job, but many of them, including teachers and teaching professors, didn’t seem to believe it required serious intellectual heft.”

|  “The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else.”

|  “Education was a national treasure. Getting a good one mattered more than stock market trades or airline departures.”

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.


2 thoughts on “Rigor Crisis: What Makes Education Work Elsewhere, And How To Bring It Home

  1. Pingback: The Rubber-Tree League | themidnightdiner

  2. Pingback: Those Who Can’t Teach, Control Education | themidnightdiner

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