The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way by Amanda Ripley

Many in the United States of America would claim that it is a truism that there are a lot of problems in the American education system. In truth, the American education system is neither bad or good. It is best described as average. Many kids are leaving schools with an education, but not the highest possible education they could have. One of the major problems afflicting our schools is variability. There is too much of it. There is variability in quality of education between each state, variability in quality between districts within the same state, variability in quality between schools within the same district, and variability in quality between teachers in the same school. Amanda Ripley tries to address why we are lagging behind many other developed nations as evidenced by the PISA test (an international critical-thinking test with Reading, Math, and Science sections). It is this test that various critics of our education system turn to highlight the mediocrity of our system. According to the 2015 results, the United States is 40th in math, 25th in science, and 24th in reading (out of 72 nations participating). Is it the massive amounts of inequality causing it? Racial disparities?


After looking at the data, Ripley takes an anecdotal approach in which she follows three kids who enter a high school exchange program: one from Oklahoma who travels to Finland, one from Minnesota who travels to South Korea, and one from Pennsylvania who travels to Poland. She also interviews a handful of Europeans from high-performing PISA countries who spend time in the US education system. This allows Ripley to get a student’s eye view of Finland and South Korea, two of the highest performing education systems, as well Poland, which has some of the highest growth in performance on the PISA. She supplements this with interviews of principals, teachers, and government education officials in many of these countries as well. So what do all these countries have in common?

1) Many foreign countries cover less topics in math, science, reading, but in more depth.

2) Most of them have standardized curriculums that is the same place to place, but leave the methods of teaching these curriculums up to the local schools.

3) These countries have better teacher training programs that have more stringent requirements in order to enter an education program in college. Instead of taking a large portion of the weakest college-capable students like programs in the US, take only the strongest students and only a few elite universities offer teacher education programs rather than the thousands that offer them here in the US.

4) They had less standardized tests overall than the US, but the ones they had mattered more for the student’s future.

5) They delay tracking until after the kids are sixteen.

In Ripley’s view all of this comes down to education systems dedicated to rigor.

“One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible (193).”

As she interviewed foreign students coming to the US one common theme that emerged was how easy the material studied was in comparison to the material they had to study at home. It wasn’t only the content that was easier. Too much of the assigned work was busy work with the teacher doing the “hard” part for them. One foreign exchange student reflecting on her experience in American schools was shocked how often the teacher assigned a poster project in history class. It wasn’t serious work in her mind; it was arts and crafts. Even worse, the teacher gave them all the actual historical information, the actual work. All the students really had to do was cut and paste the information onto the poster.  Another foreign exchange student was shocked when she received an A on a US history exam, while many of her American classmates barely managed to get a C. When one asked how she did it, she wondered how they failed to do it. The teacher had given them a study guide earlier in the week that gave them the answers to every question.

If the students aren’t made to work hard then they don’t take school seriously. Now this can go overboard. There are plenty of criticisms of South Korean education system, which has students studying over twelve hours a day due to a Senior test that decides what college and by extension what future they will have. After normal school, where many of the kids sleep from overexhaustion, most South Korean kids then attend hagwons (private study companies) where their “real” studying happens. Although the South Koreans do well on International Tests, everyone from the kids to the parents to the head of education in the country to some of the private teachers profiting in these hagwons loathe “the pressure cooker” system of education. Everyone seems to agree that Finland is the model to emulate.

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