In his first day at a new high school, Eric looked around in disbelief: A third of his class was asleep. Fast asleep. Heads down. Out of it.
The teacher ignored them, as well as the students who chatted through her lecture.
This was not an urban American classroom. It was South Korea, a nation with some of the highest-achieving students in the world.
Eric is one of the American high school students featured in journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way.”
In Korea, they get that way by devoting more hours to schoolwork than most U.S. students spend awake.
Eric learned that his Korean counterparts napped in school because their real exertion began at night when they went to highly competitive private tutoring academies, or “hagwons.” The law calls for the hagwons to end at 11 p.m., but Ripley found they often exceeded the curfew. So, kids in Korea attend two shifts of school every day.
All that effort is to excel on a single test that determines whether students are admitted to one of Korea’s three most prestigious universities.
I interviewed Ripley at the recent AJC Decatur Book Festival about her book, which explores three countries that lifted themselves out of the education doldrums to become models of effective reform: South Korea, Finland and Poland. Her research is humanized and energized by the experiences and candor of American students who chose to spend a year of high school in those countries.
While American parents increasingly chafe at standardized tests, Korean parents revere the tests as all-important. When their children do not do well, there are no excuses or blaming the test, says Ripley. There is the message, “You didn’t work hard enough, and you had to work harder the next time.”
Ripley compares the Korean education system to a hamster wheel powered by a no-excuses culture of rigor. America’s system — with its rationalizations of failure, its extension of second and third chances and its acceptance of underperformance — is more akin to a moon bounce, she says.
After reading her book, I told Ripley I prefer the moon bounce. Inefficient and indulgent, it still seems more humane than the unforgiving regimen that Korean students endure.
Ripley would choose — with reluctance — the hamster wheel, explaining, “It was relentless and excessive, yes. But it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel counties know what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world.”
The moon bounce cheats kids by feeding them “a soft diet of pabulum by middling professionals. If they failed, there were few obvious consequences.”
Of course, there is a happy medium between U.S. lassitude and Korean compulsion. It’s Finland.
All eyes — in education, at least — have been on Finland since the country shucked the mantle of mediocrity and vaulted to the top despite schools that would appear to be designed by Ferris Bueller.
In Finland, high school students can leave school during their 70-minute free periods and visit a coffee shop. Teachers don’t schedule conferences with parents. If there’s a problem, teachers meet with students. Finnish students have less homework than most of the rest of the world and take their first standardized test at age 16.
So what is Finland’s secret?
One of the most highly educated, selective teaching forces in the world. Ripley highlights the differences in teacher education in Finland and America by focusing on Kim, a teen from Oklahoma who went to Finland to escape a mediocre high school that valued football over academics.
Kim’s Finnish teacher Stara had to apply to a teaching program as selective as MIT. It was only in her fourth year of the six-year course that Stara began her teacher training. She spent a full year training in one of Finland’s top schools with three teacher mentors. She taught while they observed and gave her critiques.
Kim’s math teacher back in Oklahoma told Ripley that he became a teacher mostly so he could coach football. He attended a college with a 75 percent acceptance rate. He majored in physical education and minored in math.
One of the most telling passages in the book is a conversation Ripley had with a Finnish high school student studying in the United States about how little was expected here. Work was assigned, the student said, but nothing happened if students didn’t do it. And students rarely had to prove they learned the material.
She tells Ripley: “Not much is demanded of U.S. students. … We did so many posters.”
“I remember telling my friend, ‘Are you kidding me? Another poster?’”
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.