NORMAN — Parents are understandably distressed when U.S. high school students score badly in math, science and reading compared with kids in other countries. There has been an endless series of seemingly fruitless education reforms here at home to deal with the gap. Now comes an intriguing approach based on the insights of U.S. exchange students who spent a year in some of the most successful high schools in the world in Finland, Poland and South Korea.
Author and journalist Amanda Ripley followed three exchange students for her new book, “The Smartest Kids in the World , and How They Got That Way,” and argues that a way to improve academics and help American students compete in the modern economy is to de-emphasize school sports. Instead, the United States should bring its passion and intensity to academics, she concludes.
“High school in Finland, Korea and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America,” she writes. “There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted.”
Sports are a distraction, Ripley argues, and most countries require them to take place outside of school.
Trading in our school sports culture would require a huge change for Americans, who revere teamwork and sportsmanship as training for life. Communities are built around school sports teams, and colleges reward student-athletes with scholarships. But playing down sports could pay off, as it has elsewhere, if we redirect money, focus and glory to learning.
One exchange student, Kim, studied in Finland, where she noticed that “the students here care more. They see how what they do now will affect them. It’s more real to them.”
Jenny grew up in South Korea and moved to New Jersey with her family for high school in 2011. She put it this way: “Kids in Korea have this thing inside them. They feel this necessity to study and get a good job and have a better life.”
Each of the countries in “Smartest Kids” came to education reform after an economic crisis. Have the Great Recession and sluggish recovery been sufficient to persuade Americans to raise our school standards? We’ve tried so many “reforms” in education. Maybe what we need is a truly radical shift away from sports in favor of schooling.
Anne Michaud is interactive editor for Newsday Opinion
and a member of the Newsday editorial board. Readers may send her email at anne.