Tuesday, March 17, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Amanda Ripley

Title: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Author: Amanda Ripley

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via Wikipedia

All told - between being a student and teacher, pre-K and higher ed included - I have spent 39 years in American education.  Virtually that entire time, I have heard about how rotten our schools are compared to the rest of the industrialized world's.  In the '80s and '90s, Japan was held up as the gold standard.  In the 21st century, Finland has become the model.  I've never been entirely sure what to make of such claims.  My own experience teaching in Japan, 1996-98, revealed many struggles in that system to go along with the many strengths.  Were the international comparisons being made truly apples-to-apples?  Were comparable cross-sections of students represented in testing from one country to another?  I willingly concede that the approach to education in the United States is highly flawed and in need of numerous reforms.  But how useful is it to compare ourselves to others?  Is there as much harm in the attempted cures as there is in the disease?

In her book, journalist Amanda Ripley explores these questions and more.  She dives into the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam - the one used to evaluate a nation's educational effectiveness - from its origins.  And yes, I am now convinced that it's both fair and thoughtfully administered.  Next, she follows the stories of three American exchange students on their adventures in Finland, South Korea and Poland, three countries with particularly impressive recent PISA results.  She interviewed and surveyed numerous other exchange students - in both directions - as well as educators, administrators and government officials around the world.  Her findings reveal significant cultural and structural differences between the United States and the nations who have been more successful on the PISA exam.

Not surprisingly, the cultural differences are the more daunting.  Put simply, education is a higher priority in other countries.  Take South Korea.  On the day of the national college entrance exam - a nine-hour ordeal far more difficult and comprehensive than our SATs - the stock exchange is closed.  The airports hold off on flights during the English aural segment so as to cut down on noise.  High school seniors ride in taxis for free on exam day.  This is just one day, albeit an important one.  But the message to all involved is crystal clear: this is a big deal.  There is no equivalent in the United States.

Both South Korea and Finland have recently placed a higher priority on teacher training.  The number of training programs was reduced and thereby became more competitive.  Students and parents respect the teachers more in part because they know how hard they had to work to get the job.

By all accounts, extra-curricular activities, especially sports, play a far more prominent role in American school culture than they do in other countries and Ripley suggests this may be part of the problem.  I concede the point.  It breaks my heart a little but I know it's true.  I dearly love college and scholastic sports.  I would assert that sports can, when kept in perspective, be part of a well-rounded education.  But far too often, they're prioritized far beyond where they should be and the academic purpose of school - any school - is diminished as a result.

Ripley's most interesting revelation is the connection between student diligence and national performance.  A group of professors attached a student survey to the PISA exam and monitored, not the answers themselves but the thoroughness with which students answered the questions.  Patterns emerged from country to country.  Amazingly, this diligence correlated more strongly with a nation's PISA performance than any other factor studied - more than socio-economic status, more than average class size more than anything.  As a teacher, once this is pointed out, it seems obvious.  Naturally, the students who care more are going to learn more.  But knowing how this tendency plays out on a global, cross-cultural scale is astonishing.

The Smartest Kids in the World is a humbling read.  So many of our issues in schools have deep, systemic roots that are difficult to change.  Frankly, the United States struggles to find collective will in much of anything these days so imagining it can be done with something so enormous and fractured as education policy feels near impossible.  And yet, other countries have done it, often starting with fewer resources than we have.  And so we must as well.  Just one question:

How do we start?


  1. You know what would change things? Just as a start.
    REQUIRE politicians to have basic education requirements.
    The higher up you go, the more you have to know to qualify for the position.
    No more uneducated idiots as presidents and senators.

    1. Yes, I understand your frustrations... It is worth point out that, historically, that line of thinking doesn't always work out so well.

      That said, I appreciate your broader point: we don't have the most enlightened leaders at the moment.

    2. Yes, well, of course, education would have to be available to all. I mean, really available to all. Free education at all levels.

  2. This sounds like a good book for many people to read. Thanks for the review.


  3. Your last paragraph says it all.
    I was able to see the Bat Shit Crazy education of my children when we lived in Laguna Beach. It first started out with the older typical school classes that changed with the feel good hippy dippy star beams of the California State Board of Education. Ending with the teach to the test. I was so happy when my last child graduated. Thank Goodness we as a family all read anything we could get our hands on. I could go on with all the changes and true lack of knowing what the heck was going on !

    1. Yes. We've all suffered through many "improvements." The same basic problems remain.

    2. But no one will listen and the problem remains.
      When I was younger California education was outstanding. Arizona Education was outstanding. We had to be because all they great teachers would go over to California. Now nothing is working and Arizona has not enough teachers. It is a swamp her. California is lost.

      Keep safe.

    3. It would help if someone, somewhere could make this a true national priority - not mandates but real research on thoughtful approaches to the problem. Throwing money at it isn't enough - we actually spend plenty per pupil compared to others ranked ahead of us on PISA scores. We need leadership and collective will.

      We're not in a good place for either right now.

  4. Interesting book. We have some lousy schools and some that are great. When I watched a news story about Scandinavian schools, I found it interesting that they tend to place more emphasis on time for children to play. When my kids were in elementary school, they were inundated with homework.


    1. Worth noting, not all Scandinavian countries shake out the same in this case. Norway, for instance, is mired in much the same mess that we are.

      And, in Finland, the rigor far exceeds ours. Ripley devoted a lot of material to the issue of rigor. Finland avoids the cram-school madness of East Asia but the students are consistently challenged.