Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired — they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.
Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, “the US$4 million teacher,” who makes a fortune as one of South Korea’s most in-demand hagwon instructors, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10pm study curfew. Academic pressure is out of control, and government officials know it — but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a prosperous life.
Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: “In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved.” Still, if she had to choose between “the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States,” she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence.” Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the skill to compete in the global economy.
The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom from Pennsylvania and finds another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and US schools. In Tom’s hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were “the core culture.” In Wroclaw, “sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for.” It’s in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is if the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.