The Smartest Kids in the World
I bought this book when it came out because I though it would help me with the most recent edition of my comparative politics textbook. When I realized she did not deal with any of the countries I covered other than the US, I put it down. Reluctantly, because it was off to a great start.
Then, a friend told me about an article she had written journalism and conflict resolution, so I figured I’d go back and finish Smartest Kids. I wish I hadn’t put it down.
She starts with a simple premise. Despite spending as much or more than anyone in the world on education, our schools don’t seem to be doing a very good job. Doesn’t matter what indicator you take. Mediocre.
Ripley focuses on PISA scores, realizing that no single indicator can tell you all you want to know about the success or failure of an educational system. However, PISA seems to be the best such indicator out there. I doubt, too, that the story would have been different if she had used other indicators.
Ripley chose Finland and South Korea because they have done consistently well and Poland because its scores rose dramatically in a very short time. Good journalist that she is, she wanted to know why they did so much better than we did. And good journalist that she did, she turned it into a story by primarily following the lives of three American teens who spent a year as a high school exchange student in each other countries. She backs those stories up with broader evidence and other individuals in all three countries whom she interviewed.
Smartest Kids is a compelling read that reminded me of how much damage graduate school does to academic writing!
Seriously, Ripley makes two points (among many) that made the book worth reading.
- Countries that do well often do so because they value education. Finland, for example, has made admission to teacher training schools as rigorous as any other program in its higher educational system–more rigorous than many in fact. Kids there are taught by some of the smartest people in the country.
- More importantly, schools demand rigor. As a result, kids come to school and are expected to learn. It’s their job. It’s the teachers job to help them learn. Including in the most underprivileged neighborhoods. South Korea does it differently–and strangely. Its public schools actually aren’t very good. But, because doing well in school (rather than in sports or band or anything else) matters, students make up for the classroom’s shortcomings by attending demanding cram schools where they often stay until late at night. Poland made great strides over the last twenty years because it demanded rigor in its classrooms as well, albeit without the craziness of the Korean cram schools.
Some schools in the U.S. get some of this. My grandson is lucky enough to attend one of them. He also has parents (and grandparents) who nurture his curiosity and nudge him toward doing his best.
So, if you have a kid in school or have any other reason to care about education, this is a must-read book.