Brilliance in a Box
What do the best classrooms in the world look like?
Around the world, countries have found a variety of ways to make schools work—even for poor kids or immigrant kids. They spend less money per pupil than we do but distribute it more efficiently and more equitably. More importantly perhaps, school systems in Singapore, Finland, and Korea recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top one-third of their academic cohort, according to a 2010 McKinsey & Co. report, "Closing the Talent Gap."In the United States, about 23 percent of new teachers—and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools—come from the top one-third. "It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results," the report concludes.
Even within the United States, the best schools are not the most tricked-out ones. In Southeast D.C., Lisa Suben teaches fifth-grade math at KIPP DC: AIM Academy, one of 99 Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools around the country. When her students come into her classroom, they perform about two years behind, on average. By the time Suben has had nine months with them, they are mastering grade-level work.
Watching Suben teach on a recent October afternoon, I initially forgot to note whether her classroom contained any modern-day technology. Her class of 31 African-American students sat spellbound as she led them in call-and-response chants to practice their multiplication tables, pasted stickers on their foreheads for getting questions right, and timed how long it took them to get all their homework into a pile in the first row (18 seconds).
Finally, I remembered why I was there. I counted four computers in the back of the room, an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old. Later, I asked Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. "If I were designing my ideal classroom, there'd be another body teaching. Or there'd be 36 hours in the day instead of 24."
Suben, like most great teachers, is in a hurry. She said computers can be useful, but mostly because they save her time—by assessing what her kids know more efficiently than she can. Three times a year, her students take computer-adaptive tests, which get harder as the student goes along. Suben gets the results instantly, which means she can see how a student is doing compared with the other kids in her class, the school, and around the country. "It might say, 'You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don't know how to round to the thousands?' That's, for me, an aha moment."
Ask middle-school teachers what they would like to change about classroom design, and they suggest a bathroom for the kids. When I ask Suben which gadget she would bring with her if she had to teach on a desert island, she chooses the overhead projector, without hesitation. "I wouldn't be able to give up the overhead, because then I'd have to turn my back to the class," she said. The oldest technology in the room is the one that helps her the most with a fundamental human skill—presenting material while staying connected to every student in the room, watching who is getting it and who is not, without having to turn to write on a chalkboard.
The KIPP charter schools have proved to be among the most effective schools in the country. But their classrooms would be very familiar to anyone who went to school before there was such a thing as charters. KIPP DC founder and former teacher Susan Schaeffler says she could theoretically put a fancy interactive white board in every classroom in Suben's school for about $300,000. But, she adds, only about half the teachers would use them. "I'd rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever."
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Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Photograph of Kristin De Jesus by Enni Avila. Photograph of South Korean classroom by Kristin De Jesus.