April 24, 2015

The Smartest Kids in the World (kind of a book review)

I wrote this post like a week ago.  I am up at 5am today and getting ready for Friday which, though Friday, is always a tough day to muscle through because students usually shut down on Thursday around 1pm.  I don't want to give the wrong impression here:  I did not write this post last night or just now. The only thing I used my computer for on Thursday night was a Pilates workout.  I would have used it for Netflix, but Netflix pops up on the t.v. thankyouverymuch.  

I have very mixed feelings on this book because it's written by a non-educator and someone who believes she has nothing to say about the field of education so she's not sure how she came to be writing the book in the first place.  I find this troubling just because we have enough educators who seem to believe they do have things to say about the field of education...and they still don't know what they're talking about.

This book covers a wide variety of potential problems with the American education system and I do have a vested interest in the topics.  If I were to continue on in the field of education, my goal would be to eventually work with curriculum, designing it or training teachers on it.  Our problem isn't curriculum.  We say that curriculum is our issue as textbook companies pander to schools claiming their product will raise test scores...but that's not the issue (none of that is in the book...it's just a fact).

Some information that IS in the book:

+American parents are seen as cheerleaders and not coaches.  Kids need coaches when it comes to education, not just cheerleaders.

+Along the same lines, there is no correlation between involved/volunteer-oriented parents and high-performing students.

+Sports are not a part of school in other parts of the world.  They are completely extra and not affiliated with the schools.  School is for school.

+Kids in Korea go to school all day and all night.  It is their job.  They don't go home at 4pm to play video games or football.

+Teachers are chosen based on their test scores.  The highest performing students in school become the future teachers. The students who graduate at the top of their classes will be the teachers.  That just makes sense if you think about it.

+Other countries don't have a greater respect for teachers necessarily (a long-held argument in the education community).  They have a greater respect for learning, which leads to very qualified teachers.

+The highest performing countries don't separate their students into leveled groups.  There's no low, middle, high.  Research has shown that the younger kids are when they are separated, the worse it is.  If you keep kids together, being taught the same material at the same level, they have a higher rate of success.  The example in the book was that the exchange student was "tracked" in 3rd grade in Gettysburg School District in Pennsylvania.  Now?  Kids are separated into groups in kindergarten.

As I was reading this book, I tried to think back. My parents never asked about homework, unless I didn't know how to do it and then there were painful hours at the kitchen table.  They never asked specifics; they just assumed I was learning.  And I was because I had a tendency to do well.  They probably met each of my teachers once, if that.  There were no conferences.

However, when it comes to the smartest people being teachers...there's an example in this book about a math teacher from Oklahoma.  He never took calculus or any higher level math, yet he became a math teacher.  He became a math teacher specifically because the school needed a coach and he wanted to be a coach and this was two-birds-with-one-stone.  That would never happen in other countries.

This example hits close to home because I decided in 11th grade that I was going to be an elementary teacher.  It'd always been on the table for me, but I knew that I wasn't good at higher-level math and I wanted to be successful in college, so I went the teaching route.  I knew that I wouldn't have to take calculus in college this way.  It was pure strategy.  In high school, I barely made it through trigonometry (I had a football coach for a teacher and he wasn't much of a teacher), and I was failing calculus my senior year.  In January of my senior year, I begged the counselor to let me drop calculus.  I was failing it, it would hurt my GPA, and I didn't need it.  I'd already been accepted to Penn State for elementary education.  It was a waste of my time and the teacher's time and there were only like 6 kids in the class to begin with.  It's interesting that I don't even remember what my parents thought factoring into my decision.  It was totally mine. I probably explained it away somehow, but the moral here is that because my guidance counselor was an idiot, she let me drop it. There should have been a study group or I should've sought extra help.  But because calculus was completely optional at my high school, those structures weren't put into place.  No one cared.  I ended up with an extra study hall for my last year of high school.  The only classes required of seniors at my school were English and Economics.  I also took a bonehead version of psychology/sociology and then band.  It was a horribly boring year.

Actually, junior-high and high school was really just a place that I went to sit from 7:30 to 2:30 every day so I could go to soccer practice or band practice or drama club at the end of the day.  Having a long list of extra curricular activities was my only real goal because the kids with the longest list were considered the most successful in my community.

I sat around and read for pleasure most of my senior year, yet I still graduated 6th in my class. I never took Chemistry II, physics, or calculus.  I did take AP Biology, but it was shockingly easy and we spent a lot of time doing word searches.  How could that even be allowed to happen?  Ridiculous.  There was no rigor or hard work involved.  It was too easy.  This is probably why I'm so hard on my students.  They need to be held accountable for more.

When I got to college, I worked much, much harder than I ever had in high school.  I had the natural tendency to do so though, so I was successful.  I was a planner and a scheduler and a participator.  It worked out for me.  I graduated with a 3.94 GPA.  Others from my high school didn't always fare so well though because my high school was not known for preparing students for college.

Some people have a natural tendency to do well and work hard.  Some don't.  The difference between our educational system and that in other countries seems to be that we don't enforce rigor and hard work as much.  If we increase the value of education and learning, we might get more life-long learners.  That's what the other countries are doing.

A question on a recent test and the kid who answered it in a way that blew me away. I told him I was going to frame it.


  1. That is one freaking smart kid. I feel like you and I could have a pretty intense, wine fueled skype chat about this. In the last several years I've grown resentful to my parents and my education growing up because no one gave a shit what happened to me educationally. I was told what my expectations were, but no one "coached" me on. And because of that, I just sort of...went through the motions. I resent it now because I am not as smart or as educated as I could have been merely because no one was around to see to it that I was. And I was just a kid. I THOUGHT I was doing what I was supposed to do. And I couldn't understand why my fellow classmates were just doing so much better than I was all the time. It's because they had parents at home who were sitting them down at the kitchen table making sure they were doing their homework (and doing it right). I was shockingly on my own. And it didn't pan out well for me.

  2. That kid's response is incredible. I read that book earlier this year, and it got me a bit riled up. I work in special education, with my kids being in inclusion classes. Since they're in inclusion, I'm with gen ed. kids all day long, but they're the "low" kids. I am always astonished by how little they care and how little their parents care about their success in education. Kids fail tests and don't blink an eye. It's very apparent that they don't study at home, and I just don't get why their parents aren't requiring any effort from them. I could rant about it for hours, but I'll stop now. ;)

  3. This is such a great post. (Your posts always are.) I had a similar high school experience. I was not at all challenged and graduated valedictorian of my class simply because I was inclined to like learning and because I worked hard. When I got to college, it was a rude awakening. Even more so for my husband, who ended up getting his degree in engineering but had to start out in remedial math because he learned so little in high school. To some extent, I think a lot of it boils down to each individual kid and how much they want to learn. But even the hardest working student can't overcome a system that's fundamentally broken. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I so wish we valued education and learning more.

    I like sports and music and art as a part of school. I like rounded people. But I don't think sports should have the weight it does and athletes shouldn't get by with the crap they get by with (tongue twister? I swear I'm educated).

    My parents never knew what I was doing - I worked hard and did my assignments with no supervision or help. They trusted that I was doing my job - which was school. However, they let me know that was expected of me.

    I feel like parents now are looking for the school to do a lot of parenting.

  5. Oh I love that answer - do save that!! :)

  6. You know, I don't ever remember my parents helping me with school work. It just happened! My mom said she never really had to worry about me in school, though as I got older I got lazier. She said I could've been valedictorian if I had tried, I was smart enough... but I found out that it really didn't matter in the end, so I kept a good B average, and that was that.

    It's true about Korea... but they're a bit overboard. Kids start schools as young as 18 months, and yeah, they're up into the wee hours sometimes getting everything in!

  7. My dad's response whenever we asked for help was "read the chapter." I also don't remember my parents being overly involved in my education. I stopped taking math after my first semester junior year because I knew I wanted to be a high school English teacher and wouldn't need it. No one suggested to me otherwise either...


Comments make my day!