'The smartest kids': About this series

Since 2001, dozens of states have taken steps to raise student achievement in their public schools – perennially struggling states like Tennessee and Florida dramatically improved student scores on national tests; while top-rated states like Massachusetts and Minnesota raised their games even higher.

In Michigan, progress has remained agonizingly, stubbornly flat. It’s not that our scores are declining; some are, but there are also incremental gains. The more accurate analogy is of a state treading water while its peers across the nation race past. The result: Michigan is no longer a leading education state, far from it. By most measures, Michigan is now among the bottom tier nationally in preparing its students for life after high school.

How did this happen? And, more to the point, what are surging states doing that Michigan is not? The answer defies pat explanations. Some are economically stronger than Michigan; others are not. Some budget more money per student or pay their teachers more, others do not. Some have fewer poor students, others have more. Some states are run by Republicans, others by Democrats.

Last year, Amanda Ripley produced an influential best-seller with a familiar title, “The smartest kids in the world and how they got that way,” grappling with the question of why students in three wildly different countries (Finland, Poland and South Korea) lead the world in academic excellence, far surpassing the U.S.

The oversimplified short answer:

  • They allow only the brightest candidates to enter teaching, then train and pay them well.
  • They give students rigorous coursework and expect excellence.

Bridge has similar ambitions, but on a national scale. We visited four wildly distinct states that are making positive gains in classroom performance. What is their secret sauce? Why are they improving? Where do they still struggle? And could their approach work here in Michigan?

Today we begin in Tennessee.

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Joe G.
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 12:32pm
This is the most important issue for the Legislature to address in 2015.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 1:47pm
Joe G. September 9, 2014 at 12:32 pm Here is my 'Oversimplified Answer' to this issue for the Legislature to address in 2015: 1. Allow no teacher to enter a classroom without a contract that contains this Liquidated Damages Clause: 'I have the skills to fully teach each child in this class the knowledge and skills required by the Constitution of the State of Michigan for this grade level, and I will personally pay for a tutor to bring any child not meeting the end of course requirements under my care, fully up to grade level, before the start of the next school year.' 2. Require no student to be in a classroom where the following statement is not true: 'I am willing to be here and learn the materials of this course, and I believe this course to be worthwhile, and will lead to what I want to do in my life.' I believe these two things will handle the quality issues, in Michigan, being discussed in this, ‘The smartest kids’ series. I am preparing a "Why Johnny Can't Work." series. I hope Bridge will publish it. Leon L. Hulett, PE
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 2:31pm
God forbid the legislature be any more involved than it already is. Our, with all due respect, elected representatives are completely clueless when it involves children learning - just look at the financial games they are playing. There is no secret sauce - just a lot of allegedly well educated adults playing games with numbers they do not understand attempting to create an instant pudding solution. The rest of the world does not use standardized tests to determine "Smart". Really successful systems care about competency and understanding (Korea is more concerned about status and memorization mills with little imagination and creativity. Extreme diligence and hard work have a place but can lead to sleeping in the classroom and private "study" factories ). Smartest is a relative term and being 'smart' is a work in progress for a whole life, not just an academic portion. (according to cognitive science) To much focus in America on short term winning and losing as a measure of success - learning is the goal, not "education" or high scores. Want to support children learning? Ignore "smart" and listen to the teachers and students. Of course you have to ask them to participate first. Michigan does not. As to the remarkable performance of other states - where did they start? Remember the "Texas Miracle"?
Ed Haynor
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 5:57pm
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 9:57pm
Joan J September 14, 2014 at 9:25 am I don't understand how that system works, some type of Lottery. But I see 40% Asian? Do you know how kids are selected for that school? ACTs of 28 is really good! Leon
Joan J
Wed, 09/17/2014 - 11:34am
the school is run by a consortium of districts. Each participating district decides how many students it will allow to go and each district has to hold a lottery because so many people want one of their seats. Two of the three campuses allow "school of choice" entrance if there is space and if they are out-of-county. The remaining campus is always filled as it was the first. It has been a super fantastic experience for my 2 children. Their stats for all students are amazing as well. They do all this with only the bare minimum that the state gives per pupil (only the basic foundation allowance). The extra money that the state allocates per pupil in our districts stays with the districts themselves. A big part of the magic is the IB curriculum -- and this school's unique implementation of this wholistic curriculum. Does that help?
Joan J
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 9:30am
And it's #5 not #4. Sorry
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 9:50am
Two other bullet points for the oversimplified answer. First: develop continuous improvement skills within each district's administrative operations and scientifically improve the teaching-learning process. Lastly, hold everyone accountable for doing their job.
Tue, 12/23/2014 - 5:03pm
"smartest kids"...just how does one define that? and how does one agree on it? humans are not programmable robots, so what metrics have relevant significance? and for what purpose? and says who? cognitive variation is multifaceted and influencing factors can approach the infinite. hold teachers/the education system accountable for family/environmental factors? ... the list of challenges is long; the answers are not simple; just because everyone has gone through school doesn't mean they understand how to best educate children. Parents may have ideas but they are not generally equipped to make policy decisions. How well our society prepares future generations to think, rationalize, innovate, develop, etc., is a fundamental societal responsibility. We need a national education policy that sets a foundation for a minimal curriculum/content (more words needed here) and a comprehensive means of evaluating developed capability; not standardized testing. This will take a lot of focused work, to date ignored. Lastly, Education as a fundamental societal infrastructure for sustainability is not a for profit venture or business. To the extent there is a collaboration of education and profit, for a sustainable and homogeneous society it must be a post secondary factor co-mingled with a robust and free collegiate environment. There's no simple solution...put the expertise, money and emphasis into it that it necessitates and deserves...for our children's children's children...