Ripley recommends revving up rigor

Amanda Ripley is on a global quest to save America’s schools.

An investigative journalist, author and Emerson Senior Fellow at New America Foundation, Ripley has spent time studying the smartest kids in the world and how they got that way.

Co-sponsored by the College of Education, Gerstacker Fellowship Program and the Dow Visiting Scholars and Artists Program, Ripley’s presentation of her findings took place in the Malcolm Field Theatre at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 3.

The Valley Vanguard

Vanguard photo | Cody Shrader

She theorized the reason the United States was falling so far behind in academics was due to a lack of curricular rigor and investment in people.

Ripley’s research method was different than that usually employed by those studying international differences in education: she interviewed students who have experienced two or more national systems, as they could penetrate the schools far more fully than she.

“Students were perfect for this … they are unflinchingly non-ideological and amateur anthropologists,” she said.

Her presentation followed three specific American students who each studied abroad for one academic year: Kim, a 15-year-old girl who went from rural Oklahoma to the “Nordic utopia” of Finland; Eric, a star student at his school in Minnesota who entered the “pressure cooker of education” in South Korea where his classmates had reached astronomical heights of academic success regardless of socioeconomic status; and Tom, a philosophy student from Pennsylvania  who experienced the recent major reforms Poland had made to its education system.

In conversations with those students, some of the differences between national education systems became obvious to Ripley.

“What I found interesting is that we what usually talk about, like tenure, teacher evaluations and charter schools, didn’t matter at all,” she said. “School in America is about many, many things. In other countries, it’s only about learning from other people.”

For instance, many of the students she interviewed said schools in the United States placed more emphasis on sports than schools in other countries.

Then, more technology has been observed in classrooms in the United States than in classrooms in other countries.

“The thing is we haven’t even seen substantial learning gains in these large technological advancements we’re making,” she noted. “Have we even invested in the people using those iPads?”

Many students also noticed classes in the United States were far easier than those in other countries.

“Students aren’t expected to think for themselves,” she said. “Of course, there are many exceptions, but also many examples of this. Students in other countries are not psychologically shattered when they receive less-than-perfect grades.”

This, Ripley believes, boils down to a lack of rigor and opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one another.

“Debriefing, collaborating (and) coaching is at the core of their work,” she said. “That’s how they really teach students to learn. We just have to figure out how we can give teachers the time to observe each other.”

Finally, she emphasized the role parents can play in helping their students: through involvement at home, not necessarily by fundraising and chaperoning.

“Schools in the United States are surrounded by beautiful rolling fields, but they just produce miserable outcomes for their students,” Ripley said. “We must start investing in our people, and we must start at the beginning.”

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