Want to improve education? Ask the kids

As a groundbreaking education journalist, Amanda Ripley (PopTech 2012) became obsessed with one of the central mysteries about American education. The United States spends more money on education per student than any other country in the world. American students enjoy some of the smallest class sizes on the globe. And yet in comparison to huge swaths of the industrialized world from Japan to Latvia, American kids consistently perform poorly on standardized tests that measure critical thinking. This is true for rich American kids and poor kids, in racially diverse cities and homogenous U.S. towns. Why?

To get to the bottom of that conundrum, Ripley, who is the author of the forthcoming book "The Smartest Kids in the World," developed a unique stable of sources. Rather than relying solely on administrators, academics and educators, Ripley tapped into a network of students. "Kids have strong opinions about school," she said in her PopTech 2012 talk. "We forget as adults how much time they sit there contemplating their situation."

Ripley needed student-sources in some of these other countries where education was obviously better than in the United States. But she also needed students who could compare and contrast school in, say, South Korea to school in Minnesota.

So Ripley established a network of exchange students. Her students included a Minnesota boy who went to South Korea for a year, another who went from Pennsylvania to Poland, and an adventurous 15-year-old girl who left Oklahoma to go to school in Finland. Ripley also polled hundreds of other exchange students. 

What she got was unvarnished feedback. "They are happy to tell you what they don't like; what they wish was different," Ripley said. And there was remarkable consensus among those exchange students about what is different overseas.

  • School is harder. "It is about the rigor through and through," Ripley said. "School is serious business in these places." That goes for the curriculum, the training and selection of the teachers, everything. This doesn't mean more hours or more homework, just more challenges. 
  • Sports is just a hobby. "We are training these children to revere and become professional athletes," Ripley says about the American obsession with childrens' sports. "It is a huge distraction from the business of schools."
  • Kids believe there is something in it for them. "Kids believe that what they are doing in school affects what kind of car they are going to drive in the future and how interesting their lives are going to be," she said. 

It's ironic that policy makers and even journalists rarely question students, because as Ripley put it, "Kids can tell you things that no one else can." 

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