More than 700 people attended the at the DoSeum’s 6th annual Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon. Photo courtesy of the DoSeum.
More than 700 people attended the at the DoSeum’s 6th annual Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon. Photo courtesy of the DoSeum.

If you often find yourself in conversations about education reform, then by now you’ve probably been informed that the Poles are beating us. Along with the Finns and the South Koreans.

Speaking to the sold out crowd of 720 at The DoSeum’s 6th annual Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon, Amanda Ripley, author of the book “The Smartest Kids in the World & How They Got that Way,” drove that point home. At the heart of the somewhat depressing statistics, however, was a call to action.

“I bring a message of hope,” said Ripley.

Those gathered in the Tobin Center’s H-E-B Performance Hall were no strangers to big dreams fueled by high ideals for education. Before Ripley took the stage The DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd celebrated the raving success of the new $47 million facility, which opened in June.

Vanessa Lacoss Hurd at the Outside the Box luncheon. Photo by Robin Jerstad.
Vanessa Lacoss Hurd at the Outside the Box luncheon. Photo by Robin Jerstad.

“We have welcomed, since June 6, 250,000 kids, parents and educators,” said Hurd.

The sold out crowd produced the funds to provide 25,000 hours of museum programming. But the event didn’t stop there. The DoSeum board chair Michael O’Donnell highlighted additional opportunities to increase access to the museum through the The DoSeum for All fundraising campaign.

At the heart of The DoSeum is educational engagement. Hurd’s background with Teach for America has made her a passionate advocate for education, and she envisions The DoSeum as a resource and a leading voice in the community.

“Our job is really about inspiring kids…we do know that moments matter. Sparks matter,” Hurd said.

Ripley then took the stage to talk about what else matters. And what doesn’t.

Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley

She presented the startling Polish statistic. According to an OECD study of 24 countries, U.S. senior citizens rank third in literacy rates for their age group. Polish citizens of the same age rank 15th. Americans in their 20s, however, ranked 16th. Polish 20-somethings ranked 7th.

Ripley doesn’t use that statistic to focus on American slippage. She focuses on Polish ascendency.

Another study revealed that between 2000 and 2009 Polish 15-year olds went from lower than average on international assessments to above average. Nine years is not a long time. Certainly not long enough for Poland to become the kind of wealthy, well-resourced utopia we imagine high performing students to come from.

“It’s not like everything’s all perfect in Poland,” said Ripley.

On the contrary, Poland is still a complex, messy place with poverty and cynicism and all the other supposed roadblocks to education reform.

But they got something right.

The sold out crowed for the Outside the Box Luncheon at the H-E-B Performance Hall at the Tobin Center. Photo by Robin Jerstad
Guests take their seats for the Outside the Box Luncheon at the H-E-B Performance Hall at the Tobin Center. Photo by Robin Jerstad.

That “something,” based on Ripley’s research, is not a simple something.

Ripley compared high performing educational systems to a great breakfast taco. No one ingredient can make a great breakfast taco, she said.

“It’s the interaction of things that matter,” said Ripley.

Her analogy was admittedly limited, of course. One bad element can ruin a taco. But it takes more than one shortcoming to cripple an education system. Even money is not the deciding factor one would believe it to be if one listens to the campaigns, news headlines, and excuses offered by failing schools.

“Past a certain baseline, money is not predictive,” said Ripley.

Poverty matters, she claimed, but more in some countries than in others. In the United States, poverty is a much stronger indicator of student outcomes than in other countries. Poverty matters in the United States because of the way it interacts with our education system. In other words, our educational culture is not designed to account for poverty the way that it is in other countries.

That’s pretty damning for a state like Texas with a child poverty rate of 25%.

Understanding interactions and systems is very difficult using only statistics, so Ripley took an ethnographic approach. She shared the stories of three exchange students in some of the worlds highest performing countries: Finland, South Korea, and yes, Poland.

A student named Kim went from rural Oklahoma to rural Finland to find that it wasn’t as big of a deal that she wasn’t a cheerleader.

An overachiever named Eric went from a high performing suburban school in Minnesota, presumably for an academic sabbatical in South Korea, only to find the country’s fervor for education allows for no such rest.

A quirky scholar named Tom went seeking the source of Eastern European philosophers in Poland. He left a well-resourced school in Pennsylvania to find that while there were no iPads in the Polish classrooms, there was inspiration to spare.

Through her interviews with these and others Ripley drew conclusions about the interactions that have created the educational superpowers. She pointed to the discourses surrounding education, and how they differ in other countries.

U.S. kids care more about sports.

U.S. schools have more technology.

Classes in those U.S. schools are easier.

Ripley does not believe that sports, technology, or rigor are inherently good or evil. She wants to interrogate the signals they send, and how they work together to create a system of priorities and expectations around learning. Including how we do it, and who is most capable of doing it.

In a later Q&A session with Hurd and UTSA Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Senior LecturerJulian Trevino, Ripley again approached the topics of what matters and what does not matter, and how to create a system that focuses on the right things.

Amanda Ripley speaks in a Q&A session with Vanessa Lacoss Hurd and Julian Trevino. photo by Bekah McNeel
Amanda Ripley speaks in a Q&A session with Vanessa Lacoss Hurd and Julian Trevino. photo by Bekah McNeel

Probably the most enlightening claim, at least the one that drew the biggest sigh of relief, was that the children whose parents are the most active in the PTA and volunteering at the school are not better off academically. The children who are better off are those whose parents read to them (and for their own pleasure!) while they are young and talk to them as they get older.

Ripley said that the discourse of parent involvement centers too much on fundraising and volunteering. She wishes they would use those avenues of communication to help parents talk to the children, or give tips for how to integrate reading into the family culture.

If our cultural system could value the right things, it would make it easier for schools to institute the reforms that, in the current climate, would be unpopular, if not impossible. It would save the country a lot of money as well.

The average student costs $142,052 to educate in the United States over the course of their K-12 career. The per student spending in Poland is roughly half that, $74,025. The discourse of fundraising campaigns would have us believe that this results in an American education that is twice as effective as a Polish education. However, this does not seem to be the case. Ripley’s exchange students confirm what the test scores seem to indicate. Those Polish kids are smart.

So, how did they do it? While Ripley reminded the crowd that the system is complex, she did highlight four key reforms that made Polish schools very different from American schools.

  • A new, more rigorous core curriculum.
  • Better tests. Not more tests. They test their students less than the United States.
  • More teacher autonomy.
  • Delayed tracking. Children were not put into “honors” or “accelerated” pipelines until as late as possible. By keeping the kids together, outcomes improved across the board.

How those things worked together in the particular system in Poland is much too complex to explain at a luncheon, but Ripley hinted that it was replicable.

“If they can do it in Poland, I know we can do it in Texas,” said Ripley.

*Top image: More than 700 people attended the at the DoSeum’s 6th annual Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon. Photo courtesy of the DoSeum.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.