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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Paperback – July 29, 2014
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“[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)
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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"Math had a way of predicting kids' futures. Teenagers who mastered higher-level math classes were far more likely to graduate from college, even when putting aside other factors like race and income. They also earned more money after college."
Ripley focuses on three countries in this book: Finland (of course), Korea (surprise, surprise), and Poland (huh?). According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. finishes 26th in math compared to 3rd for Finland, 2nd for Korea, and 19th for Poland.
Finland is the sensation of the moment in education circles because they've figured something out: namely, it's the teachers, stupid! It's not class size, socio-economics, technology, or money. It's making teaching a ridiculously rigorous profession to get into, then paying it handsomely (move over, doctors and lawyers), then giving teachers a large role in their own curriculum. (Is this rocket science? Apparently!)
Many of the countries kicking U.S. butt are still working with only desks and a black or whiteboard up front. In math, the students typically must figure quickly using that software we call the brain, because they do not use calculators. Interactive whiteboards (a fixture in many U.S. classrooms?). Uh, no. Computers, iPads, cellphones? No, no... and no.
Sports programs after school to suck time away from academics? No siree, Bob. Stroked self-esteem? Effusive praise for trying? Grade inflation? Nopes all around. In fact, most foreign exchange students coming to America are astonished at how friendly teachers here are with their students. Abroad, the impersonal standard makes reality checks easier to administer. Teachers are hard graders and have very high standards indeed. They aren't as worried about Johnny and Suzy's ego.
In the appendix, Ripley wraps up with some basics, including the importance of talking to students themselves if you want to know how good a school is. They should be able to answer the questions, "What are you doing right now? Why?" In addition, Ripley asked students everywhere these questions: "In this class, do you learn a lot every day? Do students in this class usually behave the way your teacher wants them to? Does this class stay busy and not waste time?"
And so forth.
Enjoyable? Very. Comes with all the answers inside? Hardly. Food for thought? Given the present situation, I guess so. For variety, you even get threads of three American students' lives -- one who went to Finland, one who braved Korea, and one who ventured to Poland. This, along with the frequent reference to stats and anecdotes, made it an odd juggle at times, but overall, it coalesces into a worthwhile read, especially if you have any stake in your country's education (and if you don't, why don't you?)....
Here's the problem: US education, from top to bottom, creates underperforming students, especially in math and science (but including reading and writing. We've been doing this for two generations. Since most modern jobs require cooperation, communication skills, high-level thinking, and initiative (and many can be reduced to bits and bytes (Friedman)), US kids are, as a whole, not fit for global competition. This includes those who go to private schools (and probably those in home school, although Ripley doesn't report on this aspect of the problem.
Her questions are, How did we get this way, and what can we do about it?
Her answer is: multiple causes, but the primary one is that US students fail because we expect so little of them. She sees wretched teacher training as a second cause of this problem. There are other causes, also.
I loved Ripley's writing, and it is clear in this book that she is at the top of her journalistic game. Woven through her book are the stories of three US exchange students (one each to Korea, Finland, and Poland) and their struggles with systems substantially better than ours. All three kids and their families should share kudos for their stories.
Her story is understandable, clearly written, and from the heart. I love this writer and her work!
From the book, I learned about the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which, per Wikipedia, is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.
This, as it turns out, is how we find out that students in the U.S. ranked 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math in 2012, in comparison with about 65 participating countries. Apparently, we were 17th, 23rd and 21st, respectively, in these rankings in 2009. And, back in 2000, when all this got started, we were 15th, 16th and 20th, respectively. A trend is obvious here.
In 2012, Shanghai, China, was the winner in all three categories, but the author choses South Korea, Poland and Finland as the democratically ruled countries that he trusts best to reflect equality with U.S. social components. Each of these three countries ranks very high in the international testing, each clearly higher than the U.S.
The author sets out to find an American high school exchange student for each country. Using the three students, she collects data and experiences to build comparisons. Via these American kids, we get a first-hand view of public high schools in the three countries, plus we get to know the American kids, themselves, pretty well. Pretty cool, huh?
There is a wealth of interesting information in each of their stories, which makes it impractical to detail here. So, what I want to do in the rest of this review is to give you some of more interesting tidbits I got along the way from the book. Then, I will go to the author's conclusions as to why U.S. students fall behind students from other countries.
Some interesting tidbits:
* The Korean public schools are a mess. The kids come primarily to sleep most of the day. Their learning, it turns out, happens mostly after their public schools close for the day. The kids then head out for private tutoring schools, where they may spend another eight or so hours in what sounds like grueling, exhausting "educational" experiences. No wonder the kids sleep during the day. But they do score well in international testing!
* Testing for high school seniors in most Asian countries is very, very intense, so intense that the same test is given on the same day for all seniors in the country. Airlines, commuters and businesses are urged to reduce any kinds of noise or distractions during the testing period. But after the results are given, and the kids find out if they are accepted to the best schools or not, this pressure cooker is off, for the most part. In college, the kids do not take their studies that seriously, nor do the professors. No, the pressure is to prepare for the single test in high school, as if the results of it will determine their options for the rest of their lives.
* American schools are crazy for sporting events, especially football. Nothing like this happens in any of the other countries that were profiled. There, sports are done via clubs outside of the schools, if at all. This element, in itself, is a huge variation for the American schools, which pride themselves on school spirit, supporting athletic competition.
* Most of the higher performing countries are more selective in choosing their teachers. For the most part, the best students in college are selected. In contrast, American high school teachers tend not to be high performers in college.
* Countries smaller than the U.S. are in a better position to control the training and development of their public school teachers. In Finland, for example, private high schools are not allowed, nor are charter schools. Finland does not encourage variances in the levels of excellence amongst its schools No, all the Finish schools are to be at the same level of excellence. In the U.S., states control their own training, oversight and curriculum of and for their teachers. And private high schools and charter schools are currently all the rage.
* South Korean parents spend a ton of money on private tutoring for their kids, to the point that the Korean government tries to limit the excess. And, one of the most successful leaders of the private tutoring schools has said that he wants to devote his life in the future to the elimination of the private tutoring system. He wants to improve the public schools, instead.
At the end of the book, the author gives us some insights into her struggles in writing the book. First, she admits that trying to make sense out of such a complex subject, even involving just three countries vs. the U.S., was overwhelming. Second, she tells us that, as a journalist by profession, she does not normally intend to lead readers to conclusions. She would rather report what she finds, then let readers make their own conclusions.
But she seems to be compelled to give us some reasons why high school students in other countries are doing better in the worldwide testing than are American students. Her reasons include:
* Students in other countries tend to be more engaged and to work harder.
* Parents in other countries are more interested in educational progress than in excellence in sports or the arts or such in their public schools.
* Schools in other countries invest far less in technology that does the U.S., which, perhaps, allows them to spend more money on teachers' and principal's salaries, instead.
* Other countries have better teachers and principals, overall.
* Students in other countries tend to better understand the consequences of failure; students in the U.S. tend to be told that they are doing better than they actually are, compared with students from other countries.
* Overall, schools in the better-performing countries are harder than schools in the U.S. And, overall, the students in the other countries learn to have more persistence and drive than their counterparts in the U.S.
Personally, I do not find the list above to be earth-shaking or alarming. I do find it educational, so to speak. But as Will Rogers famous remark goes, "The schools ain't what they used to be, and never was." The quest to be the best tends to be a never-ending, frequently redefined endeavor.
I also like the adage I heard somewhere that "America produces the worst 16-year-olds and the best 30-year-olds, and no one understands why." In other words, as an educator, myself, I'm in this for the long haul. I can always learn; but I tend to think that no one, anywhere, at any time, has all the answers.
American will rise again. I guarantee it!