Thursday, May 21, 2015

Smartest Kids in the World

I just finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. It's a good book, but the first appendix on how to see if a school is rigorous is absolutely stellar. Here's my quick bullet point summary:

  • money and class size are not so important
  • a lot of technology spending is useless
  • parents' PTA volunteering not so important; parents reading to kids at home IS important -- Does the school encourage that?
  • test data doesn't show critical thinking; one should ask the principal how else the school gauges critical thinking
  • go visit classrooms; don't watch the teacher (charismatic or quiet doesn't matter); watch the students
  • an "orderly" classroom is not important
  • all the students should be paying attention and working hard; boredom and inactivity is a bad sign; if the kids really pay attention to you the observer, that's a bad sign
  • if students are breezing through exercises, they aren't being challenged
  • students should be uncomfortable sometimes (difficult thinking work required), but not despairing; helped when they need it, by the teacher or by classmates
  • not a lot of down time; there's a real sense of urgency in classrooms and between classes
  • ask the students: 1) What are you doing right now? Why? 2) Do you learn a lot every day? 3) Do your classmates behave? 4) Do you stay busy or waste time in this class? 5) If you don't understand something, what do you do? Students in rigorous schools will have good answers to each question. Many of these were key predictor questions from the Gates Foundation survey.
  • ask the principal whether he or she gets to see sample lessons before hiring teachers and gets to observe teachers often
  • ask teachers whether they have the time to watch each other

It's a fantastic list! Here's an updated version from the same author:

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.
Of all those lessons learned, the United States has employed only one at scale: A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals, known as the Common Core State Standards, for reading and math. These standards were in place for only a year in many states, so Mr. Schleicher did not expect them to boost America’s PISA scores just yet. (In addition, America’s PISA sample included students living in states that have declined to adopt the new standards altogether.)
But Mr. Schleicher urges Americans to work on the other lessons learned — and to keep the faith in their new standards. "I'm confident the Common Core is going to have a long-term impact," he said. "Patience may be the biggest challenge."

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