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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Begg

What ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko can Teach America

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Great teachers make great schools that make great learners. The opposite is also true.

Having a home library means that when you find yourself thinking about something you read in a book years ago, you can hold that book in your hand, flip through the pages, and reengage with the text in a way that was not possible the first time around. The experience always leads to new discoveries.


That’s what happened to me recently when I went looking for something I remembered reading in The Smartest Kids in the World, a book by Amanda Ripley that sought to explain what countries with recently improved test scores were doing differently than the United States and other countries that lagged behind.


When I first read this book a decade ago, I was fascinated to discover that in Finland, where students are among the highest performers in the world, there are no regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences. None.


Being a teacher in Finland meant teaching kids and motivating them, not checking boxes on forms for parents.


I remember mentioning this to a friend because, at the time, I had three children in elementary school and I didn’t think much of parent-teacher conferences. I found them to be remarkably inefficient and unproductive. I thought my kids would benefit more if they had the opportunity to hear their teachers’ comments directly, with or without me in the room.


My friend made an important observation: not all parents in the U.S. would want teachers to have more engagement with their children because not all parents send their children to schools where they trust the teachers.


That was true then. It’s even more true today.


Parental rights has become a top issue for many families, public officials, and public policy leaders who are outraged by gross violations of public trust by schools pushing dangerous ideologies on kids.


This year, state legislators introduced 62 parental-rights bills in 26 states, many of which increased public transparency and parental notification regarding what students are learning and doing at school.


These laws are necessary to protect children, but most won’t improve student learning.


Great teachers make great schools that make great learners. The opposite is also true.


Education reformers in countries that dramatically improved their schools reached this conclusion time and time again.


As I reread The Smartest Kids, I was most interested in the discussion of Poland’s reforms because four of the saints featured in my new book, Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage, were Polish. More to the point, these saints had parents who were intentional about giving their children a Catholic education, despite considerable obstacles.


Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko was born in 1947, the same year the communist Ministry of National Education took over Polish education. Jerzy attended a mandatory state school, but his first teachers were his parents and they brought him up to love God and his Catholic faith; they tapped into a network of faithful families, priests, and educators who helped preserve Catholic and Polish culture for the next generation of young people.


Jerzy was a child when he discovered the writings of St. Maximilian Kolbe while reading Kolbe’s newspaper, Knights of the Immaculata, at his grandparents’ house.


When he was 14 years old, his parents sent him to a secondary boarding school that had been founded by a priest in 1945 and somehow survived the communists’ takeover of Polish education. The priest hired teachers who were well-educated Catholics who were trained to teach in the Catholic and Polish tradition. As a result, the school was among the best in the country, sending an unusually high proportion of its students to university.


It was at this school that Jerzy discovered the sermons of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, who was the Primate of Poland and a spiritual father to Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II). This discovery changed the course of his life, inspiring him to go to Warsaw to attend seminary so he could study under Cardinal Wyszyński.


Inspired by great saints and teachers, Jerzy went on to become a priest, the chaplain for the Solidarity movement, and a courageous preacher whose homilies were broadcast throughout Poland and the Eastern bloc, helping millions of people see through the lies of communism.


He was murdered by communist officers in 1984 and declared a martyr of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.


The great teachers he encountered in his life are an important part of his story that continues to inspire people today.


For that reason, I was interested to learn what Miroshaw Handke, the Polish minister of education who led Poland’s reforms at the turn of the 21st century, said when he was asked what he would do if he could push for one last change. Without hesitating, he said:


The teachers. Everything is based on the teachers. We need good teachers—well prepared, well chosen. I wouldn’t change anything else.


It’s no coincidence that today’s most principled and influential leaders in American Catholic education share this insight.


Mary Pat Donoghue, Executive Director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, “the quality of the school is directly related to the quality of its teachers.”


Peter Crawford, dean of academics for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, the leading teacher training group for the renewal of Catholic education, says that “a school can only ever be as excellent as its faculty.” He says excellent schools are made up of great teachers who know that education is “first and foremost” about a “deep interpersonal formation.”


That’s why ICLE trains teachers and connects great teachers with great schools. It’s also why Tom Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, has launched a nationwide campaign to recruit great teachers join the faculties of Boston’s Catholic K-12 schools.


Students and families involved in these efforts will benefit tremendously, as did the Polish saints in Unbreakable and the countries in Smartest Kids that recruited and trained great teachers.


But what about the rest of U.S. families?


Well, change is coming. In fact, it’s already arrived for families in eight states whose parents are now empowered to choose the best education for their children, regardless of zip code.


In the last two years, eight states have passed universal education choice programs, beginning with West Virginia in 2021 (education savings account) and Arizona in 2022 (education savings account). Oklahoma (tax credit), Florida (scholarship program), Arkansas (education savings account), Utah (education savings account), Iowa (education savings account), and Indiana (scholarship program) all passed universal education choice programs during their 2023 legislative sessions.


That means that families in these states will have the freedom to choose schools that work with ICLE or otherwise follow an education philosophy that prioritizes the hiring and training of great teachers—and it will lift all schools up.


This is a great start—but it’s important to keep the momentum going. Education choice must be expanded until all parents are empowered to give their children an excellent education that aligns with their beliefs.


We all must be invested in the education of saints.


Kimberly Begg is a Catholic wife and mother of five children who is trying to cooperate with God’s grace to guide her family to Heaven. An attorney with more than 20 years of experience strengthening Catholic and conservative causes, she serves as director of programs and general counsel for the Ortner Family Foundation and editor of Catholic School Playbook, a website that shares the best practices of successful Catholic schools. She is the author of Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage (TAN Books).

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