A Short List of Things that Do Not Explain Our Educational Mediocrity…


Everywhere I go, people bring me theories about why one country's students seem smarter than another. Many of these theories make intuitive sense. Some make no sense at all. The good news is that the research helps us rule out a bunch of things based on what we do know about educational outcomes around the world:


A Short List of Things that Do NOT Explain Education Outcomes:


1. School Lunches

I hear this a lot, mostly because many people have heard that Finland--an educational utopia--gives free lunches to all students. While I think it's a good idea to provide free lunch to all students,  and I agree Finnish school lunches are quite delicious (as are Korean school lunches--see photo), free lunch does not seem to be a common theme among top performing countries.

For example, Canada, which has significant child poverty but very strong education outcomes, is rather stingy when it comes to lunch. Nine out of 10 students bring their own lunches in Canada, according to this 2008 report (which is fascinating, though a bit dated). In Poland, which also has better education outcomes than the U.S., the high school where I spent the most time did not even have a cafeteria, let alone free meals.

But in Italy, which has very unimpressive education results, "children sit down at round tables with tablecloths and proper crockery and cutlery to enhance the whole meal experience." Menus typically include three courses. In Rome, students eat locally sourced, organic food cooked on-site. Fabulous! But not a substitute for actual learning, sadly...


2. Class Sizes

Around the world, class sizes are not predictive of education results. In the U.S., small class sizes seem to be better for very young students, but as usual, it depends on the teacher and the principal. 


3. Time in School

Despite popular belief, most U.S. schools require at least as much instructional time as schools in other countries. The quality of that time matters more than the quantity. I have seen a lot of time wasted in schools all over the world.... More time may be useful, particularly for kids from low-income families, but only if that time is used wisely (i.e. by giving teachers more time to watch strong teachers teach).


4. School Choice

Around the world, there is no clear relationship between the amount of school choice and competition and students' performance on a test of critical thinking in math, reading and science. In fact, if anything, school choice seems to be related to greater levels of segregation in some countries. 

Here again, the quality of choices appears to matter more than the existence of choices. So investing in the supply of great teachers and principals seems to be more effective than relying on parental demand.


5. Parental Involvement

The kind of involvement matters more than the quantity (sorry to be redundant). In a 2009 study of parenting in 13 countries and regions, parents who volunteered in school extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer—even after controlling for children’s backgrounds. What kind of parental involvement does matter? The kind that requires more thinking than baking. Adults who read on their own for pleasure, who read to their kids almost everyday when they were little and who talked to their kids a lot as they got older tended to raise students who were better critical thinkers by age 15.


So what does matter, now that we've covered what doesn't? Rigor matters: the work that kids do, the quality of teacher training, the seriousness of the entire system. That matters in every time zone. 

There is more than one way to get rigor, of course. In my experience, the best approaches start at the beginning--focusing on how teachers get selected and coached, how principals are developed and chosen, and how schools and parents work together to challenge all kids to think for themselves.

EducationAmanda Ripley