Learning from Amanda Ripley about the smartest kids in the world

I like to bend back the corners of pages in books to make it easier to find memorable passages later on. There are eight bent-back pages in my copy of Amanda Ripley’s recent book, “The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way.” So, what’s on those eight pages that are so memorable?

Before I get to the eight passages, a few words about the book overall. The title tells us almost everything we need to know. There are smarter kids in the world than ours ─ and there are some specific ways they got smarter.

First we learn the about the nations that have the smartest kids ─ Finland, South Korea, and Poland. And it’s not just some of the kids in these nations that are smarter ─ it’s virtually all of them. So we deduct from this that their schools ─and likely their parents and communities – are all doing something to contribute to their smarter children.

Then we learn what “smart” is in this context. Smart is the ability to think critically and solve new problems in reading, math, and science.

We learn too how educational assessment folks have determined which nations’ kids are smarter, and by implication, which educational systems are the best.The test is the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), first given to a few hundred thousand teenagers in 43 countries in 2000. It’s a two hour test that aims to measure the ‘kind of advanced thinking and communications skills that people need to thrive in the modern world.’ (page 15)

The lion share of the book follows three American teenagers who spend a year living in Finland, South Korea and Poland. We meet their friends, school teachers, parents and host parents ─ and learn about each of these nation’s efforts to build and sustain strong educational systems.There are numerous insights for parents and educators about American students and schools ─ and how we compare to students and schools in other countries.This is a book worth reading.

Here are the eight passages culled from bent-back pages in my copy of the book that carry messages that really resonate with me:

  1. Importance of  early consistent reading to children: ‘Parents who read to their children almost every day when they were young have kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were 15 years old.’ (page 108)
  2. Both academic and character skills are key to later success: ‘When it comes to predicting which kids grew up to be adults who succeeded in life and in their jobs, academic skills only went so far ─ other skill sets were important too ─motivation, empathy, self-control, persistence. And different communities and cultures differed in what they did (or did not do) to promote these traits in their children.’ (page 120)
  3. American classrooms by and large don’t teach math effectively – we need common standards and in-depth content:American textbooks tend to be too long, covering and repeating too many topics in too little depth. Internationally, the average 8th grade math textbook is 225 pages compared to the average American 8th grade math textbook of 800 pages. Teachers can’t get through all this information so they pick and choose what they cover, and different kids as a result get different content covered because we don’t have common curricular standards in the U.S.[1]  (page 74)
  4. Outcomes testing is a big part of the educational systems in high-performing countries, and these tests are high-stakes: ‘The countries with the best education outcomes all had tests at the end of high school. Many determine where they would likely go to college.Teenagers from countries with these kinds of tests performed over 16 points higher on PISA than those in countries without them.The U.S. had a surplus of tests, few of which had meaningful effects on kids’ lives.’ (pages 155-156)
  5. In high-performing countries, whole communities (schools, parents, businesses, government, students) support a culture of accountability for learning: ‘Finland had required a matriculation test for 160 years; it was a way to motivate kids and teachers toward a common goal, and it made a high school diploma  mean something. Korea rerouted air traffic for their graduation test. Polish kids studied for their tests on nights and weekend, and they arrived for the exam wearing suits, ties and dresses. In America, however, many people still believed in a different standard …students who passed the required classes and came to school the required number of days should receive their diplomas, regardless of what they had learned or what would happen to them when they tried to get a job…’  (page 185)
  6. Countries that have had to improve their lot have learned that educational rigor is key: ‘There was consensus in Finland, Korea, and Poland that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world. In every case, that agreement had been born out of crisis: economic imperatives that had focused the national mind in a way that good intentions never would. That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else. High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose…their teachers were more serious….highly educated, well-trained, and carefully chosen.They had enough autonomy to do serious work, that meant they had a better chance of adapting and changing along with their students and the economy. The students had independence too, which made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient high school graduates.’ (page 191)
  7. There is no consensus around academic rigor for American kids:  ‘Most American kids hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional in America. But everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives.They needed a culture of rigor.’ (page 192)
  8. If other nations can do it, America can too: ‘The stories of Finland, Korea, and Poland … reveal what is possible. All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true.’ (page 199)

Ripley’s book brings a lot of lessons home. While no country has the be-all, end-all educational system (that’s another blog), America can clearly do better. As a community let’s demand greater academic rigor in both our schools and parenting. And while we’re working on that, let’s follow one of the simpler, more do-able prescriptions for smarter kids on page 108: read to kids most every day when they’re young.

[1] Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are on their way in most states in the U.S., so hopefully this problem will get better.



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