- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (July 29, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 145165443X
- ISBN-13: 978-1451654431
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (603 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way Paperback – July 29, 2014
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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)
“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)
“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] 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)
“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)
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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Top customer reviews
To make her case, rather than rely on data and research (for which there are plenty to support her conclusions), Ripley actually takes us deep inside schools, and show us what actually happens in them. This makes for an entertaining read, and some of her anecdotes are outright hilarious. Ripley has a clear and analytical mind, and as an outsider she offers a fresh and balanced view on what makes schools great.
My only objection is that Ripley seems so adamant about making her case that she's all too willing to ignore the complexity of the situation, and even make bold statements that weaken her argument. For example, she compares the South Korean education system to a hamster wheel in which kids are being driven to work outrageously hard, and the American system to a "moon bounce" in which kids are praised to the sky. Neither option is good, but she says she'd prefer the hamster wheel because it teaches students to work hard and to think deeply. Really?
Ripley also takes for granted certain things that are hotly debated right now. For her, a country's PISA scores is the best touchstone of academic achievement -- if students do well on the PISA, it's because they've been taught to think rigorously and deeply. (She knows because she took the PISA once, and she got one question wrong.) She also believes that the Common Core is America's best way forward. No wonder then that her book has received ringing endorsements from the likes of Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee.
It's unfortunate that Ripley seems to have a political agenda in writing this book. It would have been a much more interesting and enlightening book if she had just focused on telling the stories of how three American teenagers fared in faraway lands.
Real learning means that graduates can “read, solve problems, and communicate what happened on their shift” (p. 5), and that’s for line workers who make the pies you get at McDonald’s. That American employer, and others, aren’t shifting jobs overseas only because of wages and benefits but often because they can’t find high school graduates who can do the work. “Better” jobs demand more; diesel mechanics must know geometry and physics, read blueprints and technical manuals, and understand percentages and ratios. Sales people have to comprehend engineering or chemistry or medicine (e.g. pharmaceutical reps) to communicate with their clients. Finance requires a command not only of markets and regulations but of financial analysis, statistics and probability. Ripley notes the extremely high recent correlation between nations’ educational accomplishments and economic growth, and America is slipping badly.
The data to my mind are irrefutable (and, to paraphrase a quote in the book, without the ability to understand and process complex data, in today’s world you’re just another schmuck with an opinion). In language and science we score poorly in relation to almost all other developed nations, but our mathematics outcomes are execrable—in the bottom five of around thirty nations. It’s not about money; we’re second in the world (!) in just one category, per-pupil expense. It’s not about students studying longer. True, Korea’s schooling sounds to me like an industrial-strength nightmare—long school days followed by homework followed by hours in costly private academies followed by more hours of homework. (Korea’s students, says Ripley, spend more time on schoolwork than American kids spend awake.) But Finnish students do less homework than Americans and have far more free time (with much less scheduling and supervision from their parents) while leading the world. Nor is it about the advantages of less diverse cultures or more prosperous families. Race and family background matter, says Ripley—but how much they matter varies greatly, and we’re just dreadful by this measure, too (poor kids in Poland are poorer than poor kids here but do much better in school). Conversely, Norway (with all the “advantages” of Finland and much higher spending) has fallen behind dramatically, now trailing us and all other nations among the fifteen with long-term data.
The heart of Ripley’s presentation lies in extended stories of three high-school students: Kim (from Oklahoma, who went to Finland for a school year), Tom (from Pennsylvania, to Poland), and Eric (from Minnesota, to Korea). She corresponded with them and traveled to interview them, their own and their exchange families, and the teachers and education administrators here and in the host communities. The stories and the data frame and interpret each other, clearly and effectively. America’s schools would do well to adopt “best practices” wherever we find them (as American companies do with their competitors), and I would suggest three benchmarks, from the Finns in particular.
First, we need very demanding requirements for teachers. In Finland it starts with admission to one of a handful of colleges for teacher training, with admission standards “on the order of MIT” and prestige comparable to admission to med school. Then come six years of training. Once the graduates begin teaching, they have much more accountability for results (national textbook standards and testing) but also much greater autonomy and flexibility in how they do their jobs (after all, their competence and commitment can be presumed). Second, schools, homes, and communities have high expectations for students. ALL students (“tracking” by “ability” turns out to be counter-productive and debilitating). Apart from clinical cognitive disorders, the hypothesis is that every kid can learn. The students see it happening, have a high estimate of themselves and each other (and they respect their teachers’ preparation and competence), and contribute peer pressure (and mutual encouragement) to the hopes their families and schools have for them. Third, every student is expected to—fail. Frequently, but not finally. Nearly everyone finishes high school. (We used to lead the world in graduation rates, but have dropped to around 20th, with a 20% dropout rate). Their diplomas demonstrate their fundamental competencies. But high standards and expectations mean that students have to be told when they’re not measuring up. “If the work is hard, routine failure is the only way to learn.” Then kids also learn to pick themselves (and each other) up, get help, dig in, and make it work. Praise and affirmation are effective only when they are “specific, authentic, and rare”.
I tremble to consider the cultural and political obstacles in our way. How can we get past our shibboleth (“hard-wired for inefficiency”, crossed purposes and compromised standards) of local control? How many of our public schools hire people more as coaches than teachers, with a Master’s in Phys. Ed. and (at best) an undergraduate minor in their teaching field? We do have some good teachers here, and Ripley has found a few of them; why can’t we learn from them as well as from other countries? In the book’s most moving story for me, an American primary student asks her teacher why he “gave” her an F in math, and he replies that an F was what she earned. Callous and harsh? Not as he works with her and believes in her, and she responds by doing the homework and forming a study group with other pupils. With a C as her year-end grade and a new sense of her own prowess and potential, she says to her teacher through her tears, “I cannot believe I did this.”
All in all, it is really informative, and interesting, especially about South Korea where we think the system is incredible, and kids learn a lot and blah blah blah. But then, you read the book and see that their system is not good at all for the health of its students and population.