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‘Smartest Kids’ author Ripley to keynote AchieveMpls event

Photo by Brooke Bready
Amanda Ripley

An observation: This may well go down as the year when the New York Times best-seller list was reliably populated by serious books about teaching. Not polemics or memoirs or how-to’s, but thoroughly researched volumes that are changing the national narrative about education policy.

This is especially significant in my mind because it says something about the rising level of interest that mainstream publishers are buying and promoting serious nonfiction work on the topic.

And here’s something equally significant: We’re talking about books that hold appeal outside of the camp of die-hards who are absorbed by education topics in much the same way as fantasy football fanatics. Put another way, there’s great storytelling between their covers.

Case in point, Amanda Ripley is the author of “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way,” a best-seller since its 2013 release. She will deliver the keynote address at next week’s AchieveMpls EdPartners luncheon.

Ripley followed three U.S. exchange students attending high schools in countries with high-performing education systems: Finland, Poland and South Korea. (Provincial bonus fun fact: The student she shadowed in South Korea is from Minnetonka.)

The youths’ experiences serve as the vehicle for an examination of how the three countries in question transformed their education systems, with one common denominator being the elevation of teaching as a tough-to-enter profession worthy of respect and recognition.

Here is how a review in the New York Times summarized the section on Finland:

Rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.

Kim [a student protagonist] soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?”

It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”

This year’s event will be held Thursday, Nov. 13, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at a new venue, the Minneapolis Convention Center. Tickets are $100, but you’re not paying for lunch, you’re underwriting the work of an organization that has placed more low-income young people than could fit inside the Target Center in professional workplaces where they’ve gotten a taste of where a college degree will get them.

Brand new proud mama disclaimer: My older son was an intern in the STEP-UP program last summer. He taught math to newly arrived immigrants at Roosevelt High School. I could use the next 1,000 words to describe his newfound poise and willingness to truly dig in and work for something, but I’ll resist.

Instead, I’ll tell you about two other education list best-sellers that really ought to be on your hibernation-survival reading list in coming months. I was privileged to hear the authors of both speak at an Education Writers Association seminar on teaching.

I haven’t finished Dana Goldstein’s “The Teacher Wars,” but I can tell you from listening to her presentation that teaching has been politicized since the late 1800s, with various combinations of labor, reform advocates and captains of industry trying to exert influence over the nation’s single largest profession. You can get a taste in this NPR interview with the author.

The final book I want to tell you about I whipped through, ending up more in-my-gut hopeful about the future of our schools than I have been in a long time. In “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Anyone),” Elizabeth Green lays out our shocking lack of a collective understanding of — or vocabulary for — what transpires between great teachers and their students and the quest to change that.

She argues powerfully that we need to let go of the myth that a person is either born with great teaching talent or not, as well as two attendant theories about how to capitalize on that talent: accountability and autonomy.

In Green’s analysis — I’d sketch it a little differently — proponents of accountability argue that the key lies in using performance data to hold teachers accountable. Autonomy advocates believe teachers must be free to do what they intuit is best.

As interesting as that discussion is, I found it less riveting than the overview of how a number of different teachers and education scholars have begun to try to come up with a taxonomy of good teaching and to really break down how to instruct someone with the drive on the best skills.

I do think she’s right about the transformative potential of thinking of teaching as a skill that can be taught and practiced. Passion may still be the force that compels a student of teaching to knuckle down, but the idea that sharing best practices and a common vernacular can spark so much progress is powerful indeed.

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