‘Not Much is Demanded of American Students’

One reason — in fact the crucial reason — why so many American students are wasting their time in college is that little was demanded of them in high school and they avoid college classes that require serious work. Below is an excerpt from Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, that makes the point:

“How is it possible you don’t know this?” 

Listening to Kim’s impressions of Finland, I wondered if she were unique. Kim came from a relatively low-performing state, and no one would say she had an overly generous attitude toward her hometown. Would other exchange students notice the same differences? What about a teenager traveling in the opposite direction? Would a Finnish girl who’d chosen to come to the United States see a mirror image of what Kim had noticed in Finland? Every year, about four hundred Finnish kids travel to the United States to live and study. Most of them ended up in the Midwest in public high schools. To find out what they thought of their borrowed land, I started tracking them down. It didn’t take long to notice a pattern. 

Elina came to America from Helsinki when she was sixteen, the same age as Kim. She came because she’d spent much of her life dreaming about the American high schools she saw on television and in movies: the prom, the pep rallies, and all the twinkling rituals of the American teenager. In America, Elina lived with a host family in Colon, Michigan, a small town named after the punctuation mark, just outside Kalamazoo. At first, Elina’s new world looked a lot like home. Colon was surrounded by lakes and trees. The population was 95 percent white and native born. On weekends, men zipped themselves into down jackets and played ice hockey on frozen lakes. The winter lasted most of the year, just like back home. Early on, however, Elina discovered one important difference about America. Back home, she’d been a good student. In Colon, she was exceptional. She took Algebra II, the most advanced math class offered at Colon High. 

On her first test, she got 105 percent. Until then, Elina had thought it was mathematically impossible to get 105 percent on anything. She thought she might have more trouble in U.S. history class, since she was not, after all, American. Luckily, her teacher gave the class a study guide that contained all the questions — and answers — to the exam. On test day, Elina coasted through the questions because, well, she’d seen them in advance. When the teacher handed the tests back, Elina was unsurprised to see she’d gotten an A. She was amazed, however, to see that some of the other students had gotten Cs. One of them looked at her and laughed at the absurdity. 

“How is it possible you know this stuff?”

“How is it possible you don’t know this stuff ?” Elina answered.

I talked to Elina after she had left the United States and gone to college in Finland. She was planning to work in foreign affairs one day. Now that some time had gone by, I wondered if she had a theory about what she’d seen in her American school. Were the students too coddled? Or the opposite – too troubled? Too diverse? Maybe they were demoralized by all the standardized testing? 

Elina didn’t think so. In her experience, American kids didn’t study much because, well, they didn’t have to. “Not much is demanded of U.S. students,” she said. In Finland, her exams were usually essay tests, requiring her to write three or four pages in response. “You really have to study. You have to prove that you know it,” Elina told me about Finnish high school. In the United States, her tests were typically multiple choice. “It was like elementary school in Finland,” she said. In that history class, she remembers, the class spent an inordinate amount of time making posters. “We did so many posters. I remember telling my friends, ‘Are you kidding me? Another poster?’” It was like arts and crafts, only more boring. The teacher gave all the students the information for the poster, and the kids just had to cut and glue their way to a finished product. Everybody’s poster featured the same subject. The expectations were lower in America, Elina concluded, and the consequences were, too.

Hat tip: Will Fitzhugh

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He holds a B.A. from Carroll College (Waukesha, Wis.) and a J.D. from ...