The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is a gripping new book by Amanda Ripley that answers the question, “what exactly is happening in classrooms in the countries that out-perform the U.S. academically?” Ripley investigates this question by spending time where the action is: in classrooms abroad, specifically in Poland, South Korea, and Finland. Her “informants” are American high school students who chose to study in those countries, and foreign students who come to the U.S. to study.
I literally couldn’t put The Smartest Kids in the World down. Ripley’s characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh. There’s no hint of tired education talking points or polarizing rhetoric. Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around.
The first “aha” moment in The Smartest Kids is this: The performance of students in other countries has changed dramatically over time. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, it has improved markedly; in others, such as Norway, which has a homogeneous population, low poverty rate, and generous social safety net, it has gotten significantly worse . The U.S. is actually the exception, not the norm, in that we have plodded along at the same level for decades as other countries pass us by.
The fact that student achievement levels across the world are so dynamic is an enormously hopeful fact. If other countries have steadily improved their performance, we can, too.
But how? What gives in the countries that have already surpassed the U.S. or are heading that direction? If you ask Ripley’s “moles,” the students from the U.S. who studied abroad in other countries, they’ll tell you it’s due to a few key things (and it’s worth noting that their findings are backed up by a broad survey of students who have studied in and outside the U.S.).
The first is rigor. The level of expectations and work required in the non-U.S. classrooms is higher. The experience of Tom, a Pennsylvanian studying in Poland whom Ripley profiled, is a good example. In Tom’s U.S. math classes, everyone used calculators. In Tom’s classroom in Poland, everyone did math in their head, to the point that it seems like they were fluent in a language he was not. And after every test the teachers publicly announced how each student had performed, from a 1 (lowest) to a 5 (highest). Tom waited all year for someone to get a 5. No one ever did. Compare this to American classrooms, where A’s are common and GPAs are often over a 4.0.
The second thing is the teachers. The teachers in the highest-performing countries come from the top of their college classes, even top-performers in college work extremely hard to get accepted into teacher-training schools, and teachers are highly respected and well-paid. You may already have heard that about Finland, for example, but Ripley uncovers something that isn’t talked about much: it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1970s the teacher training landscape in Finland looked a lot like it does now in the U.S.: a lot of teacher preparation programs, many of which were mediocre, a low bar for who was accepted into the programs, and limited oversight. As part of a broader education reform movement, the government closed low-performing teacher-training colleges and ensured the remaining schools raised the bar for entry. It was extremely controversial at the time. And it worked.
The last thing is parent involvement. In other countries, Ripley reports, parents aren’t asked to come into the classroom and volunteer, or to fundraise for their school. Schools don’t lament that lack of parent involvement because there is general agreement that parents should be involved where they are needed: at home. This is something that our family engagement program Stand University for Parents teaches our parents: the most impactful thing you can do for your child is to work with him or her on reading, writing, and math at home.