From Pennsylvania to Poland

Introducing Tom, an 18-year-old from Gettysburg, PA, who is spending the year studying in a high school in Poland—a country that represents the great hope of my forthcoming book, The Smart Kids Club.

Before he arrived, Tom knew exactly one Polish person—his cello teacher back home. He thought it would be cool to play Chopin in Poland. And more than that, he thought it would be exciting to go somewhere where people might know who Dostoyevsky and Nabokov were. So instead of spending his senior year at Gettysburg Area High School, Tom applied to an exchange program organized by his local Rotary club. He was placed in Wroc?aw, a city of about 700,000 people in southwest Poland.

Tom arrived in a country with a powerful education reform story that almost no one outside of Poland knows. Starting in 1999, Poland made a series of education reforms that propelled the country into the upper tier of education systems around the world. From 2000 to 2006, the reading scores of Polish 15-year-olds shot up 29 pts—almost one year’s worth of learning (even though the age of the test takers stayed the same). Poland went from a below-average ranking in the OECD to above average, all while spending half what the U.S. spends per pupil.

For all those who say entire countries cannot reform their schools in a decade, I give you Poland; for all those who say American kids are too poor to learn at the levels of kids in the top countries in the world, I give you Poland. Evidence that change is possible—even in a place with a higher poverty rate than the U.S.

“My Polish school is completely different from my school in America,” Tom says. “It’s much more laid back in [some] ways and more intense in others.” Overall, Tom finds school to be harder in Poland, and the students to be more mature. “While the best students in American high schools stress over getting A’s,” Tom says, “the best students in Polish high schools stress over passing their classes.”

Poland is the only country in Europe to have avoided a recession during the current crisis. In 2010, Poland had the fastest growing economy on the continent. This year, Poland’s economy is predicted to grow 4%. (The U.S. economy is predicted to grow 2.3% in 2011.) There are many reasons for Poland’s economic strength, including infusions of European Union development aid that will diminish in 2012. But it’s also true that the country’s astonishing productivity in education spending is already throwing off economic benefits. Kids graduating in Poland have, on average, more marketable skills acquired for less money than kids graduating in America—something that was not true just a decade ago.

My thanks to Tom for sharing an insider’s view of life at a Polish school. (You can also follow Tom’s story in his own words on his blog.) In May, I’ll go visit him in Wroc?aw. Stay tuned.

EducationAmanda Ripley