The smartest kids in the world

My youngest daughter was doing fine in first grade. She was fluent in two languages, played piano, and seemed to enjoy school. The teachers and staff we met at our public school were dedicated and kind. Then, last summer, I got an education about what goes into making a great school and smart kids.

3 signs that something was missing

It was towards the end of the school year when we heard the second-grade student-teacher ratio would be 33:1. That seemed high, and my wife and I wondered how any adult could maintain order in such a class, never mind teach all those children.

Some friends were looking at private schools, and my wife suggested we find out more. But I resisted. I loved the sense of community at our local school. Besides, I said, “It’s only second grade.” When our daughter  seemed to struggle with math, we figured “maybe she’s just not good at math” and took solace in knowing she was good at languages and music.

We talked about this over dinner with my cousin, who founded the Milestone School in Mt. Vernon, NY. Her young students put on Shakespeare plays, learn a foreign language, and play chess. Her curriculum seemed fundamentally more rigorous. She taught me that, although our daughter was only in second grade, the skills and learning habits she acquired now were crucial for when things get more difficult in later grades.

Then in July we went to Japan and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. Their kids attended public school but they also went to after-school sessions and did extra homework. We saw how even the younger child was doing math far beyond what our daughter was doing. She was embarrassed. So she took some of their worksheets and practiced. With a little help, she caught up in a few weeks.

If the US is 36th in math, who’s better?

The Smartest Kids in the WorldI saw that I had, in effect, completely outsourced my children’s education to a school and that was irresponsible. My wife and I started doing more research, which included reading an excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World. It’s a book I strongly encourage every parent to read.

It’s from that book I learned about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a test aimed at gauging critical thinking in a standardized way around the world. The results for many countries are shocking. The US ranks 36th in math, on par with Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. Countries that spend far less per student than the US, including Finland and Poland, ranked much higher. Why?

Common suggestions are that the US has more diversity, more immigrants, or more poverty. But none of these are the cause of our educational issues. What the PISA data show and The Smartest Kids in the World brings to life is that three factors make the biggest difference:

Great teachers. In the education superpowers, teaching is a respected, competitive, well-paid profession. “Getting into a teacher-training program [in Finland] is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States.”

Higher expectations and more effort. The school days are longer and the curriculum is more rigorous.

A culture of learning. Students, teachers, and families all take school seriously because it is serious. Your performance in school often dictates your access to a better career and a better quality of life.

In some countries, access to such an education wasn’t a privilege but a right. “In the twenty-first century, it was easier for a poor person to get a great education in Finland than in almost any country in the world including the United States.” As one UK politician put it, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

The best school

After reading The Smartest Kids, my wife and I were determined to be more engaged  in our children’s education. She spent weeks investigating the complex web of public, charter, and private schools. We watched chilling documentaries like The Lottery. We attended information sessions and spoke with other parents. BASIS Independent Brooklyn

We finally decided on Basis Independent, which was mentioned in the book. “At BASIS public charter schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., teachers train students for academic conquests the way most American high schools train fort players for Friday night games.”

They were opening up a a new school in Brooklyn, kindergarten through 12th grade. We were awed by their curriculum: Mandarin and Engineering from the beginning, Latin in 4th grade, Logic in middle school.

I was lucky to attend a high school that changed my life. It was led by smart, accomplished professionals who had high expectations for us and pushed us to meet those expectations. I loved that school. At BASIS, it seemed like my children could have that experience starting at a much younger age.

So far, after more than half a year, the academics have surpassed our expectations. We’re also seeing two things we didn’t expect. The first is that the teachers and administration are providing a caring, nurturing environment. There’s rigor, for sure, but it’s backed up by a support system that helps each child through their individual challenges.

The biggest surprise has been my daughter’s reaction. It used to be a struggle to get her out of bed at 8am to walk the 2 blocks to school. Now, she’s up and eager at 6:30am to catch the bus. She loves her teachers and they’ve instilled in her a love of learning.

The smartest kids in the world don’t get that way because they’re rich or gifted. They’re smart because they have great teachers and high expectations, because they put in more effort, and because they’re surrounded by people focused on learning.

Every kid deserves a chance to be a smart kid.