Your kids are off from school by now, enjoying their summer, but in South Korea, students are still hard at work. The other day, I sat in on a public school class at a high school just outside of Seoul. It was an English class, and the kids were doing comedy sketches as part of their midterm exams. Two by two, they pulled out sunglasses, electric guitars and assorted other props and performed skits they had written in English.
The Korean school system is not famous for fun. But in that classroom at Jeong Bal High School on that day, great fun was had. The kids blushed, laughed and cheered. I saw scorned lovers, burned-out rock stars and, perhaps inevitably, a “Who farted?” skit, which was the audience favorite despite its questionable narrative arc.
In fact, the class could have been in America, a country renowned for its creativity – except for one critical difference. After all the students sat down, still tittering about their theatrical exploits, the teacher walked to the front of the room and read their names and grades aloud. It happened so fast and with so little ado that I almost didn’t notice. The kids listened to their scores, which ranged from mediocre to perfect, and then headed off to their next class.
I’ve spent the past few months traveling around the world visiting different schools and trying to figure out what we can learn from them back home. In Korean high schools, kids all know each other’s grades and class rank. High school tests are all graded on a curve. This competition goes too far, as anyone in Korea will tell you. But I am starting to suspect that American schools have the opposite problem.
Kids here are protected from competition and suffering, even in high school. In a 2010 survey sponsored by Intel, for example, 85 percent of the American teenagers interviewed said they were very or somewhat confident in their math and science abilities – despite our consistently unimpressive performance on the world stage in both subjects.
In a 2003 OECD test of 15-year-olds around the world, kids were asked whether they generally get good grades in math. Out of 41 countries and regions, guess which country scored highest? A blaring 72 percent of American kids reported that they get good grades in math, topping the world – even as our kids’ work ranked 24th on the actual math problems on the very same exam.
The kids who knew the most math on that test tended to come from countries where good grades were scarce. In Japan, only 28 percent of kids said they got good marks in math. In Korea, only 36 percent said so.
I returned home from Korea to discover Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic cover story on how the cult of self-esteem parenting is handicapping our kids. Since the 1980s, indicators of self-esteem have gone up among U.S. middle-school, high-school and college students, she reported. But at the same time, rates of anxiety and depression have risen among these cohorts. As a psychotherapist, Gottlieb noticed this generational emptiness in many of her young patients – and began to see the connections in her life as a parent. Modern parents, she argues, bend over backwards to protect their kids from falling – and then wonder why they have such poor balance when they grow up.
This same culture of coddling extends to the classroom. Despite all our agonizing about over-testing our kids, the vast majority of standardized tests have zero consequences. We call them “high-stakes” tests, but they are only high-stakes for our schools and (in some places) our teachers. They are no-stakes for kids, who are likely to experience far more agonizing over real life’s setbacks on the football field than they do in the classroom.
In fact, in other parts of the world, from Korea to Finland to Poland, standardized tests are used very differently – primarily to motivate and sort students, not schools. Although upper-income American parents lament the pressure on their kids to get into a top university or get a high SAT score, that stress is child’s play compared to what other kids experience in the fastest-growing economies in the world. Relatively speaking, we wait until our kids grow up to let them discover (too late) that the world is a brutally competitive place.
Interestingly, American kids are clear-eyed about our country’s academic limitations overall. On that same 2010 Intel survey, even as a healthy majority of the American kids said they get high marks in math, 90 percent of them ranked other countries as better at math and science.
Lucky for them, American kids aren’t graded on a global curve. Indeed, they take math in a special class, quite apart from the rest of the world. This class is a rather dull and forgiving place, relatively speaking. American math classes offer less challenging content, as evidenced by multiple studies comparing curricula in different nations. They are often taught by teachers who know less math themselves than their counterparts in top-performing countries. And in this soft moon bounce of a classroom, most of our kids have little reason to doubt their own prowess.
Now, before I am accused of being just another ruthless Tiger Mother, I should be clear about what I am suggesting. I don’t want to emulate the Korean education system. The kids sit in school all day and then spend another four to nine hours studying in private tutoring academies or on their own. Even though Korean kids outperform most of the world in math, reading and science, they do so at an unreasonable cost. Korean kids tend to be miserable in high school, which partly explains their high teenage suicide rate.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from some of Korea’s successes, or from other kinder, gentler nations that still manage to foster more accountability in grading. Take Finland, where kids are not even allowed to receive grades until about age 11, yet good marks in math are far harder to come by than in the U.S. On the same 2003 OECD exam, 56 percent of Finns reported receiving good math grades (16 percentage points fewer than in the U.S.), even as the same Finnish kids ranked No. 1 in the world on the actual math portion of the test.
Our schools have a lot of problems, and many of them have nothing to do with our kids’ motivation. But the shortage of rigor and professionalism among too many American superintendents, principals and teachers trickles down to the students, where not enough is expected of our kids – for all kinds of reasons.
At this moment in history, America is engaged in a divisive, painful fight to finally improve its schools at scale. To remain competitive in a fast-changing world, we are demanding more from our teachers than we ever have before. We should do the same from our kids – even if it makes them (and us) uncomfortable.
Amanda Ripley is a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Her forthcoming book, The Smart Kids Club: How other Countries Saved Their Schools (And Taught Their Kids to Think), will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2012.
*Photo courtesy of sansreproache.