Education Reform: It’s not complicated — but it’s seriously difficult

Given the highly favorable reviews and rave blurbs from such diverse figures as former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, one might think that Amanda Ripley’s new book on education around the world, The Smartest Kids in the World, offers surprising revelations about how to improve America’s K-12 education system.  

Ripley sets out to draw lessons from Finland, South Korea, and Poland, which have achieved remarkable educational outcomes for the large majority of their students. Certainly, as we digest – year after year – data on our own students that attests to their middling performance on international comparisons, tragic and persistent learning gaps among different segments of the population, and depressingly high college remediation rates, lessons from the best-performing countries in the world could not be more welcome. 

What is stunning about Ripley’s book is that it has almost nothing new to tell us; instead, it serves to remind us in powerful terms that we simply haven’t acted on what we already know. Education systems work when… 

  •        Students are challenged with demanding and coherent curricula,
  •       Teachers are recruited from the top echelon of college graduates,
  •      We tell the truth to students about their performance, and
  •      Teachers, students, and parents are all committed to the serious work of improving results.

 I over-simplify, but not by much. There are notable sidebars – Poland made great progress by delaying tracking, high performing countries spend the most on their poorest students, and parental involvement in schools counts for far less than what they do with their children at home. But in the end, the book hammers home a single message: where schools exist “to help students master complex academic material” – and only that – students succeed.

 To put the matter bluntly, if U.S. high schools applied the rigor and attention to their academic offerings that they pay to their highest-profile sports programs, our students would match their highest-performing peers. In one of her many arresting paragraphs, Ripley describes the physical education standards American students must meet to pass the Presidential Fitness Test. That test – alone among all our assessments – is in fact the most rigorous in the world.

The lesson for those who would reform American education is clear. We are right to call for accountability, higher standards, and better teacher preparation; it’s smart to realize that grit and self-discipline and determination matter alongside grades and test scores. But in the end, we simply have to do what we seem to find most difficult: teach demanding material well and not constantly underestimate our students’ capacity to rise to the challenge. This means creating a teaching profession that draws in our best, and asking those teachers to teach demanding curricula that progressively habituate our students to serious thinking, mastery of complex skills, and sustained study-habits. Ultimately, this is what it will take to build a working pipeline from K-12 to college.

We are taking, certainly, small steps: backward-mapped from college-readiness, the Common Core State Standards at least open the door to much more rigorous curricula. But we will not see such desperately needed upgrades unless our new assessments demand them – and on that, the jury is still out.

We have modestly upgraded the demands on our schools of education, which will now, in order to be accredited, at least have to have some publicly accountable academic admissions criteria. But until we close the many, many weak programs whose graduates simply haven’t been prepared to teach effectively (as Finland did, and Norway, with the inevitable consequences, did not), we will not make a serious impact on new teacher quality. Nor will we be able to fill the more rigorous teacher preparation programs with outstanding applicants until we re-think the teaching conditions and career structures in our public schools.

We have begun to tell something of the truth to students and parents alike in a few states that, like New York, have radically raised their standards for academic proficiency – but we have yet to tell such truths to high-school students, restricting our work to date to the lower grades where the stakes are lower.

Why has doing the obvious on behalf of our students proved so difficult?

Our heterogeneous culture and cult of localism have made it extremely difficult to agree on a rigorous, shared conception of academic content in ELA and social studies – and even science. Our guilt about economic inequality has translated into patronizing condescension about the capacity of disadvantaged students to hear the truth about their performance and then raise it – dramatically – if they are taught effectively. Our post-World War Two economic boom gave too many parents the sense that success was almost inevitable regardless of their children’s educational achievement, which in turn left us relatively indifferent to the caliber of our teachers. And our history of locally funding so much of our public school expenditure has undermined most serious efforts to remedy the per-student funding gap between affluent and poor districts.

In the end, if we are serious about preparing a far higher percentage of our students for college-readiness, we have to get serious about being serious. This means, above all, telling the truth – the truth about how little we demand of our students, how poorly we select and prepare their teachers, and how little effort too many of us make to work with our children to ensure that they come to see sustained hard work as the vital path to a better future. I leave the last words to Ripley. Writing of the experience of Finland’s students, Ripley comments:

I started to suspect that the answer was fairly straightforward. They took school [in Finland] more seriously because it was more serious. And it was more serious because everyone agreed that it should be.  


David Steiner is the Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House, Klara & Larry Silverstein Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, and former New York State Commissioner of Education. A version of this essay will be published in the fall issue of AdvancED Source (

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