October 11, 2013 3:10 pm

Going ballistic over education

If a country wants to improve its educational system in a hurry, it must be hungry for change
Illustration for Gillian Tett's 'Going ballistic over education'©Shonagh Rae

Earlier this week, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of the mighty ExxonMobil group, took out full-page advertisements in the American press. But he did not extol the virtues of Big Oil. Instead, Tillerson took aim at schools. He had bought the pages to reprint an article – a clarion call – that he had written for the Wall Street Journal in September.

“As a nation, we must unite in recognising the mounting evidence that the US is falling behind international competitors in producing students ready for 21st century jobs,” he thundered, calling on the country to embrace Core Standards – or a tougher, nationwide curriculum. “US students rank 14th in the world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math – and the trend line is moving in the wrong direction.”

Welcome to one of the big new trends in America today. These days there are not many things that politicians all agree on. But one issue that unites everyone – whether from the Tea Party, the White House or Planet Zarg – is the idea that America needs better education. Talk to business leaders and you will hear Tillerson’s point echoed. Listen to American politicians, and they will invariably call for reform. And if you mention the word “philanthropy” to a random billionaire, you will be regaled with tales about their pet educational-aid schemes.

But if men such as Tillerson want to get some ideas about how to turn this hand-wringing into action, they could do worse than take a look at a book which is creating an interesting buzz this autumn: The Smartest Kids In the World . This little tome, written by Amanda Ripley, is based on a deceptively simple idea: over the course of a year, Ripley followed three American high-school students who studied in three countries which seem to have recently transformed their educational systems to produce stellar results, namely Finland, Poland and South Korea.

Ripley then used this narrative not only to compare those educational systems with the US’s, but also to explain what makes those schools tick, as experienced by children and adults. Instead of being a pastiche of statistics or worthy policy statements, in other words, this is a lively story of real-life individuals, presented “bottom-up”. Of course, like any such anecdotal account, this strength is also a weakness: Ripley’s tales may not be entirely typical. But the account is compelling.

In South Korea, Eric from Minnesota discovers that the students are not simply diligent, but crammed to an extraordinary degree. In Poland, Tom from Pennsylvania finds a generation that is escaping communism, and desperate to use education to catch up with western Europe. And in Finland, Kim from rural Oklahoma is astonished to find that teenagers take the job of learning very seriously indeed.

Some key themes emerge: it pays to invest in vocational education, alongside academic learning; it makes sense to spend more in poor areas; when the status and training of teachers improve, this has a powerful impact on results; children benefit from being given more freedom to manage their time; and when parents get involved with their children at home, this produces much better results than volunteering for the Parent Teachers Association. “The more time that parents spend volunteering on PTAs, the worse their children perform,” Ripley observed at an event in New York last week.

But perhaps the most important message is the most basic one: if a country wants to improve its educational system in a hurry, its population must be hungry for change. “All the countries which have obtained this [improvement] have faced an economic existential crisis,” Ripley says. “There was a real imperative to change and their people didn’t feel they had a choice.”

And therein lies the real rub for CEOs like Tillerson. Among the immigrant population in America, Ripley suggests, many families still retain that “urgent hunger” for change. But what is less clear is whether US voters as a whole share the same level of existential crisis as, say, voters in Finland. Indeed, I suspect that the real irony about the current educational debate is that, precisely because it has been going on for so long – with those CEO appeals – that the issue has lost its sense of urgency.

Back in the 1950s, America was shocked into pouring money into science and technology when the Soviet Union suddenly launched Sputnik 1. Americans feared that they were about to lose the space race. But education has not yet produced such drama: voters know that American school kids are losing ground to Asian rivals, but (leaving aside a few remarkable turnabout stories at the local level) this is a slow-burn issue.

So I, for one, hope that plenty of parents and policy makers will read Ripley’s entertaining account, and not just in America but in places such as Britain and France, which face their own educational blight. (Indeed, it would be fascinating to repeat Ripley’s exercise today with European teenagers.) But as the hand-wringing continues – in Congress and C-Suite and at the school gate – the essential question remains: how to spark the badly needed school “Sputnik” moment? Answers on a postcard, please. Or better still, dispatched to Tillerson and his ilk.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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