No Pain No Gain

No Pain No Gain

I was watching PBS news the other night and saw an interview with Amanda Ripley, the author of the new book The Smartest Kids in the World. In this book, Ripley shadows three American teenagers who decide to do a year of high school in, respectively: Finland, Poland and South Korea, three countries which have incredibly good scores on all those international indicators we now judge our high school students by.

In the interview, Ripley talked about some of the reasons why the high school students in Finland, Poland and South Korea routinely outperform their international peers in math, science and just about everything else, specifically, of course, why they outperform their American peers.

She came up with three main reasons.

Reason number one: The work is just harder. The work is harder and the students accept the fact that school is work and that work is not always entertaining or fun. It’s a serious business going to school and you’re supposed to be serious about it.

Reason number two: The teachers are better. Well, I’m a teacher and so any time someone says something like that, I do wince a little, but the point Ripley made in the interview was that students at the top of their college classes are the ones who end up being teachers in the three countries mentioned above. Teaching, in these countries, is a profession that people want to go into. It has status. Well, here I do see a problem, of course. We all know that in the USA, despite paying lip service to the ideal of the dedicated teacher, the top students in any college class are not banging on the doors of teacher-training programs. They are going off to medical or business school. They are going into professions where they can pull down six (or seven) figure salaries and not heading toward a middle or high school (and certainly not an elementary) classroom with Johny-the-wise-guy sitting in the back row. In the USA, the people who become teachers like kids, which I certainly think is a good thing, but are they the top college students in the country? Some may be. Most are not.

This is a direct result of what America values. America values success and success is measured by salary, or fame. Becoming a teacher is not going to make you a lot of money and it certainly isn’t going to make you famous. It is going to require you to be very patient with a lot of students who don’t respect their teachers very much because they live in a society which doesn’t. Our best and brightest prefer to sit in air-conditioned offices or laboratories with a bunch of other smart people who aren’t going to throw spitballs at them.

Reason number three: Parents do their job. And just what is that job? Is it running the PTA or volunteering in the school library? No, it’s the boring stuff. Sitting down with your kid and making sure the homework is done. The schools in Finland, Poland and South Korea don’t expect to see their parents in school. They expect their parents to back them up at home.

Well, what can I say about that? I’m not going to go on a rant about parents who don’t do what they are supposed to do since I know a lot of parents who are suffering heroically under the burden of endless home projects from the human cell to Ancient Greece, but I do think for a lot of people, it comes back to this. In Finland, Poland and South Korea, parents and students alike accept that school is a serious responsibility for all concerned. They accept that school is not there to trick you by entertaining gimmickry into wanting to learn. They accept that what you have to do is go to school, work hard and do as well as you can even if that may mean a real struggle for you.

Here’s the thing though. When are serious-minded American kids going to do all this harder work? They don’t have very much time now to get their “easy” work done. I lived a halcyon existence in my high school years, I see that now. All I had to do was practice the cello and go to some rehearsals for the annual high school musical. I was not on a traveling team. I was not doing any community service (I probably should have been). I was not taking extra art or singing or drawing or creative writing classes at night at the local library. The schedule of the average middle or high schooler these days is bewildering at best and withering at worst. Ripley said she believed educational culture could change, that in the three countries she writes about, it has.

Well, I hope and pray it changes here so our poor students might get a few minutes to just sit down and think. As far as I can see, however, the demand for students to be involved in extra-curricular activities has not abated in the last decades, but only intensified. Try applying to a top college in the USA with “just” good grades and high SAT scores. You’ll be laughed right out of the admissions office. They want well-rounded students, thank you very much, not some boring twerp who only did his or her homework. Are Americans really ready to scrap high school sports or scale them back significantly? I wonder. Are we really ready to can the clubs and all the extras? I doubt it.

While in the countries where student scores are highest, students are under pressure to do one thing only, to be successful at their academic work, struggling if that’s what it takes, supported by their parents. Sounds a bit boring and painful, doesn’t it? But you know what they say: no pain, no gain.