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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Hardcover – August 13, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


“[Ripley] gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange…The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Compelling . . . What is Poland doing right? And what is America doing wrong? Amanda Ripley, an American journalist, seeks to answer such questions in The Smartest Kids in the World, her fine new book about the schools that are working around the globe ….Ms. Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.” (The Economist)

“[T]he most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.” (Jay Mathews, education columnist, The Washington Post)

“[The Smartest Kids in the World is] a riveting new book….Ripley’s policy recommendations are sensible and strong….The American school reform debate has been desperately in need of such no-nonsense advice, which firmly puts matters of intellect back at the center of education where they belong.” (The Daily Beast)

The Smartest Kids in the World should be on the back-to-school reading list of every parent, educator and policymaker interested in understanding why students in other countries outperform U.S. students on international tests.” (US News & World Report)

“Gripping….Ripley's characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh….If you're interested in how to improve public schools, read Ripley's book today.” (The Huffington Post)

“In riveting prose...this timely and inspiring book offers many insights into how to improve America’s mediocre school system.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

"If you care about education, you must read this book. By recounting what three intrepid kids learned from the rest of the world, it shows what we can learn about how to fix our schools. Ripley's delightful storytelling has produced insights that are both useful and inspiring." (Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin)

“This book gives me hope that we can create education systems of equity and rigor—if we heed the lessons from top performing countries and focus more on preparing teachers than on punishing them." (Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers)

“This is a no-nonsense, no-excuses book about how we can improve outcomes for all kids, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It avoids platitudes and ideology and relies instead on the experiences of students.” (Joel Klein, CEO, Amplify, and former chancellor, New York Department of Education)

“Amanda Ripley observes with rare objectivity and depth. She finds a real and complex world ‘over there’—schools with flaws of their own but also real and tangible lessons about how to do better by our kids. The Smartest Kids in the World gave me more insights, as a parent and as an educator, than just about anything else I’ve read in a while.” (Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion)

“Such an important book! Amanda Ripley lights the path to engaging our next generation to meet a different bar. She makes an enormous contribution to the national and global discussion about what must be done to give all our children the education they need to invent the future.” (Wendy Kopp, founder and chair, Teach For America, and CEO, Teach For All)

"The Smartest Kids in the World is a must read for anyone concerned about the state of American public education. By drawing on experiences, successes, and failures in education systems in the highest-performing countries across the globe, Amanda Ripley lays out a course for what we must do to dramatically improve our nation's schools.” (Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst)

“Fascinating….Ripley’s voice is engaging, and Smartest Kids is impeccably researched and packed with interesting interviews and anecdotes….The book ends on a positive note….while the issues are complex, we certainly get the message that we can improve our educational system for our kids.” (Washington Independent Review of Books)

“Ripley’s stirring investigation debunks many tenets of current education reform.” (BookPage)

“In lively, accessible prose….Ripley’s book looks at the data from a new perspective. Those stunned parents and teachers in New York State and elsewhere would do well to read this book first if they are inclined to blame their children’s/students’ poor results on a new test.” (OECD “Education Today” Blog)

“Ripley’s evaluation of education in a changing world is revealing and thought-provoking.” (Rocky Mountain Telegram)

“A good read . . . . If you want to understand what goes on in other countries’ education systems, read [The Smartest Kids in the World].” (Coshocton Tribune)

“[Ripley] is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings.” (Kristen Levithan Brain, Child Magazine)

About the Author

Amanda Ripley is a literary journalist whose stories on human behavior and public policy have appeared in Time, The Atlantic, and Slate and helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. To discuss her work, she has appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and NPR. Ripley’s first book, The Unthinkable, was published in fifteen countries and turned into a PBS documentary.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 13, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451654421
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451654424
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (525 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #47,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She is the author, most recently, of THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD--and How They Got That Way. Her first book, THE UNTHINKABLE: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, was published in 15 countries and turned into a PBS documentary. Her work has helped Time win two National Magazine Awards.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

252 of 273 people found the following review helpful By Kcorn TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
By her own admission, journalist Amanda Ripley used to go out of her way to avoid writing articles about education. She'd rather cover almost anything else. But after she was assigned a story on a controversial educator, she became intrigued. What types of education helped children become smarter? Did particular skills help them tackle learning challenges better?

During her research, Ripley happened to see a chart compiling half a century of student test scores and performance rankings, gathered from a variety of different countries and cultures. She was intrigued - and puzzled. The data in that chart (collected by economists Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek) greatly changed her perspective and upended her assumptions about what children need to reach their learning potential.

The research revealed that in a handful of countries scattered across the world, kids seemed to be gaining critical learning skills, outpacing many other countries, including America (especially in math). From their earliest years, the students in these select areas learned effective and innovative ways to tackle reading, science, and math problems. Their skills also helped them master not only familiar but new information more quickly and easily.

What accounted for these differences over time? How on earth did Canada go from having a mediocre educational system to one with impressive results- even rivaling Japan? Why did a country without child poverty, Norway, end up with students who still received inadequate schooling? Why did American teenagers (even those attending elite schools) rank 18th in math compared to kids in New Zealand, Belgium, France, and other countries?
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118 of 130 people found the following review helpful By FunIsReading on October 14, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
My husband and I have been having lots of conversations about higher education in the United States, so when I read The Book Wheel's review of The Smartest Kids in the World, I decided to read the book to get a better understanding of what children are learning prior to entering college.

I really enjoyed Ripley's writing style. I felt like I was going on a journey with the author. In my humble opinion, I think a conversational style is perfect for nonfiction books, because they are a journey of discovery for the author and are filled with the author's newly found opinions. Nonfiction books are typically filled with strongly supported hypotheses, so we might as well write them like that. As a science writer myself, I use the verbs to suggest, to indicate, to find a lot. I hate it when I am reading for pleasure and nonfiction writers describe strongly supported theories as fact.

I thought this book had a lot of great take away messages for both parents and teachers. In particular, Ripley reports that parents are most helpful when they read to their children when they are young and ask their children how their days were when they are older. Interesting, but not too surprising, children whose parents are very involved in the schools' extracurricular activities tend to perform worse than children whose parents are not involved. Ripley notes that this is only a correlation, so parents might be encouraging their kids to focus more on extracurricular activities more than schoolwork or that parents are getting involved because their kids are doing poorly and want the school to look at their children in a better light.
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107 of 119 people found the following review helpful By Timothy J. Bartik on August 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Amanda Ripley's book, "The Smartest Kids in the World" is a valuable addition to the literature on education policy. Its main contribution is to add a personal student view to what the education experience is like in Finland, Poland, and South Korea - three countries that score highly on standardized international tests - compared to the U.S., where scores are average in reading and mediocre in math. This personal student side of education is provided mainly by following three American high school students in their exchange school experiences in Finland, Poland, and South Korea.

The overall impression one is left with is that Finland and Poland's educational systems clearly have advantages over the U.S. system. These systems are more rigorous, and have higher expectations than the U.S. system. Furthermore, Finland apparently has much higher standards for teacher candidates, and higher relative teacher salaries. One is left to wonder if perhaps this teacher quality variable is the key to meaningful education reform.

On the other hand, although Ms. Ripley explicitly disagrees, it is hard to see why South Korea's education system would be preferred to the U.S. `s educational system. The South Korean system is largely motivated by an overly rigid "meritocracy" that bases college admission and hiring for good jobs on performance on a standardized test in high school. While this leads to a huge amount of time devoted to cramming for this test, one has to wonder how much learning is going on for anything that isn't tested. At one point, Ms. Ripley cites the literature that shows that much of life success depends on "soft skills", which involve many traits of character including social relationships, self-confidence, etc.
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