Reading: “The Smartest Kids in the World”

Please pardon any over-enthusiasm here. I devoured this book. Don’t let the tabloid-ish title fool you. “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” is an arms-flailing, pounding-the-table sort of read, and I react that way to a book maybe once or twice a year.

The author, Amanda Ripley, delves into the U.S. education debate in a way that is highly rational, which is also to say, a way that is rare. She looks at how countries with the best-educated children are running their schools. She looks at Finland and South Korea, which both score at the top of international tests, and she looks at Poland, which has had a dramatic increase in scores in just a few years. She follows three U.S. exchange students — one living in each of those countries.

What becomes clear to both the students and Ripley is that two things lead to outstanding schools: good teachers and high expectations. Teaching colleges in other parts of the world are highly selective, whereas teaching colleges in the U.S. are known for their ease. When top students become teachers, the profession takes on more prestige, allowing teaching to pull in even more top students.

Just as important are the expectations that both teachers and parents set. The exchange students see that kids in other countries tend to care more —  much, much more in the case of South Korea — about their educations than their U.S. counterparts. U.S. schools and parents seem confused about their mission, focusing nearly as much on sports and self-esteem as they do on academics.

Ripley is clear that the other systems aren’t perfect. South Korean kids are clearly overworked, and Polish kids are given smoking breaks. Still, the U.S. is the country that is failing its kids. Ripley uses data from other countries to bat down all of the usual explanations we hear about why U.S. schools can’t do better.

I wish that every parent and teacher would read this book. It’s bewildering to see how the U.S. jumps from one education trend to the next when we could follow the lead of these countries that are doing so much better. It’s even more bewildering to hear politicians and schools defend the mediocrity. And yet, now that I’m armed with this information, I’m not sure how to use it. We need entire communities, not just a sprinkling of people, to think differently about education.

The school Eleanor will be attending next year is considered a good school by U.S. standards. Those are some middling standards though. I’m not asking for the best school in the world, but I do want her to live up to her full potential. After reading this book, I wonder whether that is at all a possibility.

One thought on “Reading: “The Smartest Kids in the World”

  1. Interesting stuff. As an educator at the university level, I have a lot of thoughts on this and hope to track down this book so glean what I can to improve my own teaching (so thanks for that).

    I often think about my nephews (13 and 11) in the public school system in Austin. My recurring thought is that I just hope they survive grade school with enough curiosity and creativity to create the life they want after high school graduation. I wish I could say that they’re getting what they need, but I’m not sure they are.

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