Amanda Ripley, an accomplished journalist, stumbled upon a mystery: America spends more money on education than almost any other country in the world and makes use of more technology in the classroom than most other countries and yet it continues to underperform. Why are American kids not doing as well as their peers around the globe and what makes certain countries stand out as educational powerhouses? To answer these questions, Ripley wrote a book.
Within the pages of The Smartest Kids In The World, Amanda Ripley follows three American teenagers as they become foreign exchange students who live for a year in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Her book mixes anecdotal insight from each of the students’ experiences with current research.
In 2012, a representative selection of 15 year olds from countries all over the world took the PISA, an exam that tested them in math, science, and reading. The United States ranked below average in mathematics, ranking 27th in the world. Our rank in science (20) and reading (17) were only slightly less dismal than our ranking in math. Even our most privileged teenagers who attended high-tech schools and came from affluent families underperformed when compared to affluent (and some poor) children all over the world.
Not surprisingly, Finland, South Korea, and Singapore all had excellent scores and ranking. More surprising though is Poland, a country that went from being at the bottom in 2000 to being near the top in 2012.
There are many diverse factors related to the success of Finland, South Korea, and Poland but for the sake of brevity and simplicity, let’s look at one notable factor from each country.
Education in Finland
For the country of Finland, teaching is a prestigious occupation. In fact, Finland’s teachers have the same prestige and similar pay as its lawyers and doctors. These teachers are at the top of their game: only the best even qualify to be teachers.
Education in South Korea
Amanda Ripley aptly summarizes South Korea’s education system in one word: drive. South Korean parents have high expectations for their children, teachers demand great work from their students, and students orient their whole lives around their studies. While this drive has placed South Korea at the top, many parents, students, educators, and policy-makers in South Korea feel that the price that is paid by these students is too high. In this country, students spend all day (early in the morning through 5pm) in school and then spend another five hours after supper in after-school tutoring sessions meaning they end their day at midnight or later, only to start again the next day. Many believe that South Korea needs to ease up on the gas pedal.
Education in Poland
Poland transformed its education system through a series of strategic (and controversial) reforms. These reforms included a new core curriculum, three new (and rigorous) standardized tests, more teacher autonomy, and delayed tracking of students for an extra year.
The Smartest Kids in The World is filled with powerful insights as well as counter-intuitive truths. For example, America spends more on education than almost every other country in the world, there is more technology to be found in American schools than in Korean schools, and 91% of international exchange students surveyed say that American kids put more emphasis on doing well in sports than do students abroad. Still, at the heart of her book is a simple, encouraging message: transformation is possible and highly attainable.
In her keynote speech at the 2014 National Summit On Education Reform, Amanda Ripley said:
Once you visit these places…you see that these aren’t perfect places. These aren’t mystical lands with brilliant teachers and wonderful patient parents and high-achieving children of all kinds.
No, these are countries that have found solutions that work well and have courageously implemented them despite strong opposition. Amanda Ripley’s research provides a foundation for thinking through reform in America and it’s worth paying attention to what she has to say.