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Amanda Ripley

Upcoming events hosted by Chattanooga 2.0

May 9: Sir Ken Robinson will speak at The Howard School at 6 p.m. His talk is titled “Building Creative Schools.”

May 16: Chattanooga 2.0 will host a community conversation at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. People are invited to drop in from 4-8 p.m. to discuss the initiative.

June 2: Tiffany Anderson will speak at 5:30 p.m. Location to be determined, and her talk is titled “Putting Schools at the Center of a Community.”

Each talk is open to the public free of charge. For more information visit chatt2.org/events.

Looking outside of the United States, reporter and author Amanda Ripley saw countries dramatically improving education for all students and felt a moral imperative to discover what was working.

Ripley decided to track three exchange students from the United States as they attended school in Korea, Finland and Poland — three countries outperforming the United States in education. She documented the findings in her book, "The Smartest Kids in the World," a New York Times best-seller.

"These are very different places, but what I want to talk about is what they have in common," Ripley told to a group of more than 150 gathered Tuesday night at the Church on Main.

Ripley is the second of four speakers to participate in the Chattanooga 2.0 speaker series, which is intended to engage the community in the work of improving public education and workforce development.

Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation and a leader of the Chattanooga 2.0 movement, introduced Ripley, saying her book shows how education has been transformed in other countries.

"It gives us a lot of ideas about what we can do here in Chattanooga to make our education system the best for our kids," Challener said.

Studying education reform in other countries is incredibly hopeful, Ripley said, because it shows progress can be made regardless of socioeconomic background. In Poland, Finland and Korea, poverty has less of an effect on educational outcomes for students than in the United States, Ripley said.

"Surely we can aspire to do better by all of our kids," she said.

But, Ripley was quick to say she hasn't found one solution to education reform.

"At the end of the day, it's not going to be one thing," she said. "How many things is it going to be? Seventeen? Seventeen-hundred?"

The crowd of educators, community members, parents and a few students listened attentively as Ripley shared some of the differences she noticed in those other countries.

Ripley said those countries say education is the most important thing and actually act upon it. Also in those countries, less focus is placed on sports, many students surveyed said classes are harder and overall there is less technology, she said.

"We have a lot of technology [in classrooms in the United States] and it isn't the silver bullet we want it to be," Ripley said. "I do think [technology] is a piece of a solution, but it is just a piece and it has not been part of the solution in other countries."

And the biggest contributors to success in education are the leaders inside the school, she said.

"So where do great leaders come from?" she asked. "These are hard questions."

Using Finland as an example, Ripley talked about how teaching programs there are more selective. Fewer than 10 percent of applicants in Finland get accepted into teaching programs, unlike in the United States, where only 5 percent of programs are even selective in who they admit.

And in Finland, teacher candidates are not accepted into the program just because of their test scores and GPA, but many who are chosen have completed at least one year working as an aid in a classroom, Ripley said.

"Finland is looking for those that are committed," Ripley said. "People with an appetite and aptitude [for teaching.]"

This attitude has produced results, as the teaching profession in Finland has gained respect, and billboards boast that the country has the most highly educated teachers in the world. This changed the perception of teaching in Finland, Ripley said, and trust was built in the teaching profession and schools, and teachers were given increased autonomy.

Before taking questions from the audience, Ripley said education reform is possible here. The irrational optimism and non-conformism attitude that exists in the United States will be unstoppable when combined with academic rigor, she said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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