No longer the smartest kids

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 12:01 PM

Not too many years ago American schools were the best in the world and our kids were the smartest. But that’s not true today.

A new book, “The Smartest Kids in the World, And How They Got That Way,” explores global education outcomes. Using results from 43 countries, the PISA test ranks us in the bottom third in math and science, 12th in reading and in the middle overall, behind Finland, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Netherlands and others, including the U.K. and France. 

Author Amanda Ripley asks why, discovering these countries passed us after making concerted education reforms. Using test data, interviews with exchange students and educators, Ripley goes into the classroom, where the action is, to learn what the top nations are doing.

The U.S. spends more than all but three countries, dispelling the notion more money equals better outcomes. We explain our lower performance by citing significant poor and diverse student populations, but other nations, also having high percentages of poor and diverse students, outperform us significantly, distributing resources according to need; giving the lowest income students more money and better teachers. To prove the point, compare just the state of New Hampshire, 96 percent white and highly affluent, with other nations and it doesn’t measure up.

Our fixation with evaluating teachers demands re-engineering. In the top nations only the very smartest students are accepted for teacher training. They eliminated all but the best teacher training schools and the course of study is extremely rigorous. We educate twice as many teachers as we need, most anyone can get in and the curriculum isn’t rigorous enough. Raising the bar for entry ensures students and parents know only the best and brightest become teachers. They respect them almost as much as doctors.

Class sizes are larger in the best nations, requiring fewer teachers, so teachers in top countries earn a bit more than in America, but not significantly more. The increased admiration and respect, they say is almost as important as money. Since parents and students usually know the best teachers, some nations allow parents to select their teachers, with performance evaluations and pay based on how many sign up for their classes, test score growth and satisfaction surveys.

Rigor is important. U.S. curriculums simply aren’t rigorous enough, a reason why so many kids say they’re bored in our schools. Better teachers, tougher coursework and higher expectations result in better outcomes. Top performers do not track students until later grades and provide excellent vocational training for those not going to university.

Parental involvement doesn’t include volunteering in schools, baking cupcakes, raising money or chaperoning trips. In other nations parents understand their role is at home, reading to children, engaging them in discussion, quizzing them about what they learned, even helping with reading, writing and math. Most have more homework and less technology than our children.

It’s also not enough just to memorize math or science equations or historical dates. Top performers understand their role is to teach children how to think critically in math, reading and science, using those skills to solve problems and change to adapting circumstances they will face.

To be sure other nations aren’t perfect, but if we genuinely want the best schools and smartest students there is much we can learn from those nations outperforming us.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at