Book Review: ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley

In fewer than 306 pages (much less if you exclude the author’s note, appendices, and selected bibliography attached at the end), Amanda Ripley seeks not just to gain insights into policies and practices found in high-performing countries, but to discover the very essence that makes Finland, South Korea, and Poland the ‘education superpowers’ they are. It’s this search for the psyche driving the students in these three countries that sets this book apart, transforming it from what could’ve been a layman’s white paper into a refreshing filter that leaves out the noise and distills a single conclusion that looks at the big picture: rigor.

There’s a pervasive sense of urgency throughout the book, as if the U.S. is already late to the game and is unfamiliar with the rules. It’s not even as if U.S. scores on the PISA exam (a test covering math, science, and reading for 15-year-olds in the OECD, a clubby organization of developed nations) are lagging behind the quickly-rising scores of Poland–in fact, they’re stagnant. Fortunately, Ripley takes care to maintain an optimistic tone, frequently mentioning instances in which American students, when given the chance, proved the naysayers wrong and surpassed expectations. When Oklahoma made a contentious decision to implement an end-of-school test, “Fewer than 5 percent of Oklahoma’s 39,000 high school seniors failed to meet the new graduation requirements, far fewer than many superintendents had predicted. Oklahoma’s kids had been wildly underestimated.”

Kim, a native of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, travels to Pietarsaari, Finland; Eric, from Minnetonka, Minnesota to Busan, South Korea; and Tom, of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Wroclaw, Poland. Collectively, they act as the eyes and ears within the technologically-outdated and often-crowded classrooms of these foreign countries. Their observations, in conjunction with interviews of figures as diverse as the South Korean Minister of Education and the principal of Tom’s school, offer the clues to unmasking the secret to why these students perform so well–and why American students are falling behind.

The issue isn’t money (all three nations spend less per pupil than the U.S.), nor is it the fact that schools are either public or private. As Ripley writes: “According to PISA data, private schools did not add much value; private-school students did better on PISA than public-school students, but not better than would have been expected if they’d been in public school, given their socioeconomic status.” In that case, is it race? Again, Ripley disproves the myth. Although “[African-American students] scored eighty-four points below white students in reading in 2009… On average, white American teens performed worse than all students in a dozen other countries, including all kids in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.”

In concrete terms, the answers seemed straightforward. The differentiating factors were teacher quality, local autonomy, and trust. It didn’t matter whether you had access to computer labs or electronic white boards, whether you were rich or poor, whether you were white or black. Though there were evidently variations in the results, everyone was being held back by a triumvirate of well-meaning but unqualified teachers, incessant political tugs-of-war between the federal government and those favoring local control, and a lack of trust among all parties involved. To be sure, every country had its negatives, but what was similar across all three countries was the demanding process it took to become a teacher, the high level of autonomy granted to schools, and the trust between teachers, principles, students, and the government.

Yet at a more abstract level, the secret perhaps wasn’t so secret at all. Ripley concludes that fundamentally, it is rigor that seemed to separate those who succeeded from those who didn’t. What Kim, Eric, and Tom all realized in their respective host nations was the belief that education was important, in and of itself, and it showed. Unlike in America, school was not a place for sports teams, theater plays, and bake sales, but a solely academic environment meant to prepare students not only with the skills they needed to compete in a globalized world, but with a taste of failure so that when they inevitably fell as adults in the real world, the effects would be less damaging and getting up off the ground came easier.

Ripley believes that the progress made in countries like South Korea, Finland, and Poland can be done right here in the United States, but she makes it clear that it’ll take more than a few reformists in government, schools, and teacher unions to bring about the changes that are necessary to prepare our students for the real world.

“History shows us that great leaders matter, and so does luck. Politics are critical, as is power. All major shifts, though, also require a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done.”

And maybe this book can help achieve that dream, one read at a time.

The Smartest Kids in the World
And How They Got That Way
By Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster. 306 pp.

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