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Education Nation

Commentary: It Takes Keeping Up with the Competition K-12

Competition in business concept with running businesspeople

When Elina came to America from Finland at age 16, all she knew about American high schools she’d learned from movies. She thought every street would look like Rodeo Drive, and every Friday would be like prom night.

She ended up in Colon, MI, just outside Kalamazoo, where she was assigned a host family through her exchange program. The town itself was not radically different from many towns in Finland: almost everyone was white, and in the winter, the locals played ice hockey on frozen lakes. But at her public high school in America, Elina quickly noticed one big difference.

On her first Algebra II test, she got 105%. Until then, she had not known such a score was mathematically possible. Before her first U.S. History test, the teacher had handed out a study guide with all the test questions—and so Elina had earned an A on that test, too. To her amazement, many of her classmates got Cs. This was in U.S. History, keep in mind.

“Not much is demanded of U.S. students,” Elina concluded. In Finland, her exams were usually essay tests, requiring her to write three or four pages in response. She’d had to work hard to learn the material inside and out. In the U.S., her tests were typically multiple choice. She got plenty of homework, but most of it didn’t require her to think for herself. “It was like elementary school in Finland,” she said.

Many, many things interact to create an outstanding education system. The alchemy is complex. But the more time I’ve spent studying the world’s new education superpowers, places like Finland and South Korea, the more I came to think that one critical component was simply this: the work that students do. The evidence suggests that we’ve been systematically underestimating what our kids can handle, especially in math and science.

When I surveyed hundreds of exchange students from around the world for my new book, a majority said their U.S. classes were easier than their classes abroad. (Of the international students who had lived in America, nine out of ten said classes were easier in the United States; of the American teenagers who had studied abroad, seven out of ten agreed.)

School in America was many things, but it was not, generally speaking, all that challenging. In a large, national survey, over half of American high schoolers reported that their history work was often or always too easy. Less than half said they felt like they were always or almost always learning in math class.

During her year abroad, Elina got to see a Broadway show, and she did track and yearbook at her school—things she could not have done in Finland, where school is mostly just about school (and 15-year-olds rank No. 1 in the world in science, No. 2 in reading and No. 3 in math). But she was surprised by the lack of rigor in the typical class.

Now comes some good news, or at least the potential for good news. Forty-six states have recently decided to adopt the same, more rigorous targets for what kids should be able to do at every grade level in math and reading. This small but unprecedented step means that most American public school children are now focusing on learning fewer things, more deeply—much like students in Finland. The Common Core State Standards give teachers a common language and clearer goals, making it possible—just possible—for them to collaborate, innovate and lead their kids to higher-order thinking. It is just one step forward (and some states may yet take two steps backwards) but it is cause for hope.