School’s back: Time to brush up on education

Jeff vonKaenel

It is August and back-to-school season. Parents of kindergartners are anxious about the first day. High school seniors are in the twilight between now and the future.

And the school-policy people are getting ready, too; rhetorically sharpening their knives for combat. They have so many different suggestions on how to improve our schools.

Governor Jerry Brown once said that everyone believes that they are an education expert because everyone has attended school. With so many experts, with so many ideas, it is hard to get any understanding of the issues, let alone agreement on a plan.

In 2008, after writing a news story on the controversial Washington, D.C., public school Chancellor of Education Michelle Rhee, Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley found herself in the “fog of education,” as she called it. She had lots of data, but it did not add up. Some kids were learning, some were struggling. The reasons were not always clear.

Ripley decided to look elsewhere for answers. On tests worldwide, Ripley noticed that some countries were doing better than the USA. She focused on three countries: South Korea, Poland, Finland. She utilized the insight of a great source of information: American high school exchange students.

This was an excellent choice. Having had an exchange student stay with us while my daughter spent her exchange year in Denmark, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting dozens of exchange students. They are an incredible group. And Ripley has written an incredible book: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

These three countries’ educational systems are quite different. South Korea has a system where the kids study all the time, even attending private after-school tutoring programs. Kids routinely fall asleep in class because they have been up most of night studying. They get results on tests, but with a reduced quality of life.

Poland has also seen dramatic improvements. It established testing like in this country, but in Poland, teachers have freedom to chose their textbooks and their teaching styles. And they are provided financial rewards for results. Ripley defines it as accountability and local autonomy.

Finland has achieved great results without sacrificing its students. In the 1970s, the country became much more selective about who could become a teacher. Instead of training many teachers, the Finns provided more training for a smaller number of strong candidates. This decreased teacher training costs, while improving the quality of teachers. Ripley points out that, in America, we train more prospective teachers than there are jobs. Rhode Island, for instance, produces five times more teachers than there are jobs.

I suggest that your back-to-school reading should include Ripley’s book. It is an education in itself.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.