Last week, before Snowmagedon crippled our lives here in the south, I attended the North Carolina State Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) Forum held in Raleigh. Coordinated by IEI Director (and Cary Academy board member) Anita Brown-Graham and chaired by former governor Jim Hunt, the gathering brought educators and policy makers from around North Carolina to discuss and think about some of the most critical issues impacting education in the state.

Our first strand focused on educational standards and the issues related to poor US performance on international tests.

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of the 2013 book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, was on hand to share what she learned as she followed three American students who had enrolled in local schools in the high-performing countries of Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

Combining feedback from the students she interviewed and a review of the research, Ripley summarized some of the key differences between US and high-performing countries. They all had:

  • Fewer and more rigorous standards,
  • A high-level social respect, professional independence, and training for teachers,
  • Serious students, who focused less on the athletic or social pursuits that can make up the bulk of the traditional US high school experience.

It gave me some sense of reassurance to reflect on this list and note that all three are highly contributing factors to what makes Cary Academy such a wonderful place.

Ripley went on to say that the students she interviewed were shocked at how motivated their peers in other countries were to succeed, even if their adopted schools lacked many of the technological bells and whistles of their US counterparts. Most students seemed to have accepted that hard work at school is a necessary prerequisite to a good job and secure future.

In all, the highest performing countries have made deliberate bets that the future competitiveness of their countries will depend on the overall quality of their educational systems.

Ripley did, however, sound a very troubling cautionary note: As students in these countries put so much emphasis on test scores and the race to get into the best colleges, an entire shadow school system has emerged to prep students for college entrance exams. This is creating a high level of stress and elbowing out all other elements of a balanced and healthy life.

An unhealthy focus on tests was the theme of the second presenter of the conference, Finnish educator and visiting Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Pasi Sahlberg. Over the past few years, Finland has received much attention for its rapid ascension up the league tables of international school testing.

Pasi argued that Finland’s success on international tests was in part because they chose not to focus on tests. Instead, the country raised the training, social standard, and working environment for teachers — and then got out of the way of the professionals.

Less focus on standardized curriculum and standardized testing is the only way, Pasi argued, that we can prepare students in the 21st century for their greatest challenge: to be “innovation ready.”