It had almost been a year since I attended a book forum at the CityBridge Foundation. Last Thursday proved to me once again why these events provide the human electricity crucial for its participants to be able to walk out of the room and mightily engage once again in the struggle to close the academic achievement gap in the nation’s capital. The authors and guests gathered at these occasions routinely partake in conversation reflecting a professional manner exemplified by Toastmaster’s trainers. And now I understand the reason why. When Katherine Bradley the President of CityBridge speaks she has a way of elevating the quality of those all around her. It is as if her words, presence, and personal warmth demand that only elegance can be returned to the sender.
But on this afternoon it was not necessary for the CityBridge co-founder to play this role. For today we were hearing from Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Most of us involved in education public policy are already familiar with Ms. Ripley. She penned the famous Time Magazine article with DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee photographed on the cover of the publication gripping a broom. You can gain an accurate sense of this young woman’s personality from a statement she made a few minutes into her presentation. “I usually write about much simpler things than education such as terrorism, crime, and disease,” the author explained.
In an effort to understand from a kid’s perspective why certain countries excel academically over levels attained in the United States, Ms. Ripley traveled with three one-year exchange students to Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Her work has attracted wildly positive reviews from those across the political spectrum; a nearly impossible feat in this day and age. Add to this that the nonfiction book reads as a detective story and you begin to understand why she has a winner on her hands.
All I can say is that these students must have had the time of their lives hanging out with Ms. Ripley. She is funny and clever at the same time that she is able to take a highly complex subject and clarify it in a way that it appears to make common sense. Reflecting on the manner in which Finland has been able to uniformly raise student math and science proficiency in a country which is characterized by a fifteen percent poverty rate, she remarked that in America we understand that some students are behind academically because of the negative impacts of race and poverty. However, the author explained, in Finland “equity extends to the expectations of students” no matter what their backgrounds.
She also talked about the lack of emphasis sports plays in the places she researched. Of course, many students participate in these activities but they are separated from the educational institutions and are coordinated in clubs or community centers. The schools substitute academic rigor for organized sports, which is perhaps the fundamental difference between education here compared to these other countries. “If we could do a find/replace on our attitude toward sports and apply it to math” our kids would do just fine, the author declared.
That evening it was time for my wife Michele and me to continue the book conversation which had now moved over to Mrs. Bradley’s home. Between cocktails, appetizers, and wood burning fireplaces, the host and author gave a short addrress which was then followed by questions from an overflow crowd of the city’s education reformers. Again, Ms Ripley focused on the locations she had visited and their emphasis on educating their children. “In South Korea on the day of the national college entrance exam the stock market opens an hour late to allow students an easier commute to school,” the author revealed. Mrs. Bradley joked that it was difficult to imagine the Federal government closing on the morning the DC CAS is administered. And, as earlier in the day, Ms Ripley’s vibrant spirit shined bright for all to see. “Can I live here?” the author asked at the beginning of her remarks. I’m positive the answer would be affirmative if only to continue discussing her fascinating book.