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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)
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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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.
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.