School Days

“School days, school days, dear old golden rule days, readin’, and writin’, and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of the hickory stick.”  That old song from a long-ago era recalls a time when a rap on the knuckles – or worse – was the way children who acted up, or failed to pay attention, were disciplined.  A far cry from what is acceptable these days, and there are some who think that when the stick went out so did teaching and learning.

Whatever the merits of that point of view, it is certainly true that both teachers and students have come in for a lot of criticism these days.  Parents as well as teachers have been held responsible for a perceived failure of children to apply themselves to their studies.  Comparisons are constantly made to the achievement of students in other countries which are said to have educational systems more effective than our own.  In writings such as those by the Chinese Tiger mother, and others, blame is placed on parents for not expecting enough of children and being too concerned about their self-esteem.  Yet the criticism is also made that children are pressured much too hard in order to meet parents’ expectations of success. 

With the start of school at hand, a rash of articles has appeared about education generally, and also about the different ways children learn.  Particularly interesting is a review in the New York Times Book Review of a book by Amanda Ripley, THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD And How They Got That Way.  In it, Ripley reports on the experiences of three American teenagers who individually studied for a year abroad in Finland, South Korea and Poland, each country ranking far higher on the educational achievement scale than our own.  Three characteristics noted are quality of teachers, motivation of students, and absence of a focus on sports.

Finland, which lacks any of the modern technological tools in their schools, instead has talented, well-trained teachers who love their jobs.  Only top students are allowed to enter teacher-training programs, which in themselves are more demanding than those in our country.  When asked why students work so hard in school, one girl gives what is considered an obvious answer: how else will she get into a good university and get a good job?

In South Korea, many students doze through classes, some wearing wrist pillows  enabling them to put their heads down to sleep on their desks.  The reason for this is that they are up all night studying at cram schools where their real education takes place.  Government officials and school administrators are aware that academic pressure is out of control, and have tried to enforce study curfews.  But they are no match for ambitious students and parents who know that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a prosperous life.

Finally, Poland, which has reached the heights in international test-score rankings, has followed the approach of the other two countries: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a challenging exam required for graduation.  The young American who is the student there, notes the absence of sports as a factor in the school day, especially as compared to his school in America, where sports is the core culture.

Anne Murphy Paul, who wrote the review cited here, quotes Ripley as saying that the kids in the countries discussed, “knew 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.”  She makes the further point that in the past Americans hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, as “wealth had made rigor optional.”  But everything has changed in an automated global economy in which kids need to know how to adapt and need a culture of rigor.

Historically, immigrant generations have viewed education as the key to success and achieving the “American dream.”  That is still true for some groups today, but there are other reasons for the decline of our educational system. We gave up the hickory stick in favor of a different set of values, and a different understanding of children and how they learn, as well as of effective ways of teaching them.  These values have given way in the face of social and economic pressures, large numbers of children to be educated, and ever greater demands that they be prepared for higher education.

The wish to compete in a technological world and global economy has placed a focus on grades and test scores, a “race to the top,” which looks to the countries cited here as a model.  Yet people like Tom Friedman and Ken Robertson write about the need to nourish individual creativity as the key to successful functioning and achievement in the modern world.  As a culture, we prize individuality, which has contributed to our national success as well as to some of our problems.  But a focus on the individual would now seem to be at odds with the kind of education that is thought to be the key to success today.

According to the book review, Ripley concludes that we’ve got the schools we want.  It is unlikely that these are the schools parents want.  As parents we reflect the values of our culture, yet now it remains to us to nurture our children’s creativity despite the pressures to the contrary.        



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