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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

(Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Back-to-school stress? Bring it on: It's the sign of good education Add to ...

The week before school begins is often filled with a special air of anxiety. Every night is dominated by the hour of the wolf, the sleepless time of dread: What will class be like this year? Pass or fail? How to keep up? When it’s all over, will there be any jobs left that don’t require a polyester uniform?

And that’s just the parents. Back-to-school advice usually centres on children, for good reason: They can be quite freaked out about the prospect of the classroom after two months of freedom. But you can’t be a parent now without being carried off on a great tide of apprehension about the education system and the global scramble for success that now seems to begin with baby’s first tooth. Or, if you happen to be a bit laid-back about the whole thing (guilty!) then you’re swamped by anxiety over your lack of anxiety. It’s all very confusing, and makes you long for the days when ambition extended no further than pulling the largest turnip in the village.

Parents don’t have to search long to find fuel for their fears. In Ontario, the slipping math scores of children in elementary school has caused a mini-panic about the prospect of innumerate kids who won’t be able to make change if they’re lucky enough to get a job at Starbucks; in the U.S. this year, only a quarter of high-school students met the standards expected for beginning a postsecondary education; the British Chamber of Commerce recently lamented that employers were “disheartened and downright frustrated” at how ill-prepared students were for the real world.

We could argue all day about whether to lay the steaming mound of blame at the feet of the education system, or politicians, or parents with unrealistic expectations who don’t resemble helicopters these days so much as fully armed Black Hawks. One thing is for certain: Everyone around the world feels the same way about their schools. As Amanda Ripley writes in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, “Everywhere I went, in every country, people complained about their education system.”

And yet, some countries are obviously doing better than others. Ms. Ripley, an American journalist, set out to discover why the United States was doing so poorly in the standardized PISA tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries (Canada actually does fairly well in the tests, which stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. In 2009, our students were ranked in the top 10 in reading, math and science.)

By studying schools in Korea and Finland, two countries at the top of the chart, and Poland, which vastly improved its results, Ms. Ripley hoped to learn lessons to take back home. She discovered that many factors she’d thought would be important had negligible effects on children’s outcomes: Not spending per student, nor private education, nor parents volunteering in school. “The fundamental difference was a psychological one,” she writes. “The education superpowers believed in rigour. People in these countries agreed on the purpose of school: School existed to help students master complex academic material. Other things mattered, but nothing mattered as much.”

In other words, the curriculum in those countries was challenging. Kids were expected to take school seriously, to value their time in class, and not treat it with contempt. Failure wasn’t considered shameful but a normal part of learning, and students who stumbled weren’t tucked away in a corner and passed from hand to hand, but given the best help available till they caught up.

Granted, the rigour doesn’t work when it turns to torture, and Ms. Ripley writes with alarm about the Korean hagwons, private after-school tutoring where kids are often still studying at 10 p.m. – which then necessitates special pillows for students to sleep at their classroom desks during the day.

What was important was the quality of teaching: “The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously.” In return for years spent specializing at university, Finnish teachers get good pay, respect, and a high degree of autonomy. Interestingly, so do Finnish kids, who are given more freedom than their North American counterparts, with the understanding that while they might go to the mall, they’ll also get their work done.

What is equally important, Ms. Ripley writes, is teaching “higher-order” thinking and reasoning; that is, the ability not just to memorize facts but to analyze and problem-solve. At one point, she talks to the owner of a chain of bakeries in Oklahoma who has come to Poland to open an outlet; the owner needed factory workers “who knew how to think critically,” and couldn’t find them at home.

It’s slightly alarming reading, and I admit I was humming Beauty School Dropout to myself the entire time. And yet, in another way, it’s quite heartening. The main thing parents can do for their kids, Ms. Ripley argues, is to read to them (a lot), ask them questions (a lot) and above all, expect them to think. A lot.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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