Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World

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On my flight back to Madrid from our summer visit home (Oregon) I started reading Amanda Riply’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.  I had been seeing positive reviews for it everywhere (e.g The Economist and the NY Times), and as I am an international teacher with strong opinions on the subject I figured I should probably pick it up. I was not disappointed. This book is both a great read and a wonderful synthesis of current education research. It has become my go-to recommendation for parents and others who are concerned about success in education.



Ms. Riply, a journalist by training, knows how to tell a good story. And for the book she choose an ingenious technique of following three inquisitive American foreign exchange students as they matriculate in schools at higher performing host countries. Kim, an ambitious 15 year old Oklahoman bravely sets out for Finland, the Nordic education superpower that consistently tops international assessments. Eric, a bright young man from a middle class Minnesotan high school heads to South Korea, an equally high performer known for it’s intense pressure system and, as Riply explores, a lucrative free market tutor system. And Tom, a budding young intellectual from Pennsylvania who heads to Poland, a relatively poor country that has very quickly rocketed to the top of international test scores due to intelligent policy reforms.

Ms. Riply also doesn’t slack on relying the critical information an objective observer needs to know in order to access the research. Like a good scientist, she provides a methodology explanation so that we can understand how these country systems are being accessed. For example she also lucidly explains the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. The PISA test has been designed to assess student’s problem-solving abilities, rather than factual recall.  Ms. Riply gives examples of the test and even took it herself. (She found it to be a decent enough assessment of the basic life skills one needs to navigate the modern world).  Since the test’s advent in 2000 teenagers in more than 40 countries have taken the test with students in Finland, Korea, Japan and Canada consistently scoring much higher than their peers in Germany, Britain, America and France. 

Smartest kids Graph

PISA scores by highest performing countries.

Through the eyes of the three intrepid amateur anthropologists, and some good old fashioned journalist interviews, Ms. Riply details the critical differences between those high performing countries and the lackluster performance of the United States. Travelers, particularly young ones, are very adept at noticing differences and these bright students key differences between the schools they attended in the US and those in their host countries.

Key Findings

1. Kids Have to Want to Succeed
2. Teachers Must Be Top Quality, Trained, and Respected Professionals
3. Treat Students Equally and Have High Academic Expectations of All
4. Parents Should Instill Good Education Values and Then “Coach”
5. Tests Can Be an Effective National Tool (But Only if They Matter) 
6. US Schools Care Way Too Much About Sports
7. Money Should Be Spent Where it is Needed
8. Technology is Not a Cure-All Panacea
9. Quality of Work, Not Quantity
10. Rigorous Work Sometimes Requires Failure; Students Need to Learn Resilience

1. Kids have to Want to Succeed

This seems pretty straightforward but I can’t emphasize this enough. If students don’t care, then they won’t really try. We must inoculate a culture where children care; where they have a drive to learn and succeed in school.

Consider this wonderful exchange between our Oklahoman Kim and two Finnish school girls.“Why do you guys care so much? I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” T he students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?”  

The NY Times Annie Murphy Paul points out that this is the only sensible answer, and laments that so many American’s lack this sort of common sense.  But in my opinion that is not quite right, most American students want these same things, they just don’t have to do very much to achieve it (although even then nearly a quarter fail).  What’s must glaringly wrong to me is that Kim is even motivated to ask this question of Finnish students. Of course school should matter, of course students should care–How can Kim not think that is so?

Ms. Riply points out that in the countries where education systems are succeeding, the student’s buy-in to the idea of school and they are self-motivated to achieve. For example, in Finland even the cool alternative kids–whom Kim labeled ‘The Stoners” and in the US would probably be hanging around in the parking lot–study hard and do their homework. Despite appearances they still value education and want to succeed. Ms. Riply contrasts these examples with an anecdote by a Finnish exchange student studying in the US who is dismayed that none of her American peers did all their required assignments in a Journalism course yet all passed the class–most with good marks. This is hardly good for the morale of students who are trying.  Woody Allen once said that “90% of life is just showing up,” and in many American High Schools, it might just be 100%.*

Contrast the typical American attitude with South Korea, where the government patrols Hagwons, independent tutoring businesses, to enforce a 10pm student curfew so students won’t stay up all night studying.

Ms. Riply speculates that in the United States “wealth had made rigor unnecessary” I suspect there is a lot of truth to that, but it’s certainly not true any longer.  But cultures have inertia, and our High School students have been raised on generations of cultural programing where school is just a boring right of passage.  Think about the classic movies from Ferris Bueler’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, even the anodyne Saved by the Bell, when did you ever see those kids actually learn anything at school? I can’t think of once.  American School is more a socialization process rather than an educating one.

In order for our students to succeed they have to have the drive to want to succeed. When that becomes the dominant school zeitgeist then the peer effect takes over, where students feed upon one another. Sometimes that might go too far, for example in South Korea, where top ten percentile Korean student Jenny berates herself: “I need to do better, I regret not working harder this year.” But going too far is probably better than not enough. We have to change the culture.

2. Teachers Must Be Top Quality Trained and Respected Professionals

As such they need to be trusted by the administration and the community. Students must care, but after that they need to be in the hands of people who can actually help them. Teachers need to know what they are talking about and be trained to guide students towards the next level.

One of the things I was most startled to learn in the book was simply how many bad teachers the United States produces every year.  Doing some further research I found out that every year “239,000 teachers are trained each year and 98,000 are hired.”  Do we really graduate three times as many teachers as we need?  Perhaps even more disconcerting, nearly half of all US teachers come from the bottom third of college classes.  It is a symptom of wider education problems but in my view the negative cultural stigma we attach to teaching.

“If you can’t do it, teach it” is a saying I heard more than once growing up. To be honest this is a sentiment that even held when considering careers. I would even attribute this to part of the reason I went into a different line of work despite my love of ideas and knowledge.   This is an incredibly detrimental sentiment for a society to hold.

Countries that are succeeding do not treat their teachers so dismissively. In Finland, for example, every teacher has attended very selective university programs and graduated with master’s degree in their respective field and then had additional training.  South Korea has a teacher who is so prized that he made 4 million dollars last year.

3. Treat Students Equally and Have High Academic Expectations of All

Ms. Riply suggest that too often in the United States poverty can be used as an excuse for poor performance.  Poverty is a huge problem, but students must not be taught to see themselves as victims, they “have the same brains.” Riply recounts numerous studies that have shown how expectations matter. I think I address this well above under building a culture of success, but it is critical that we are conscious of the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Ms. Riply also discusses the tracking of students and how sorting students into groups leads to worse test scores for the lowered tracked students.

Poland provided a great case study for this as before reforms they tracked students in to vocational or university tracks, then they implemented a 2 year delay and, lo and behold, the test discrepancies disappeared, until the tracking actually happening and then the came right back. Ms. Riply suggests that perhaps tracking students as a matter of policy might need to be reconsidered.

This finding was perhaps the most difficult one for me to interpret.  I fully understand the logic and agree with it. But I also value vocational education and I know alot of 17 or 18 year olds who are just chomping at the bit to get out into the world.  Not to mention how difficult it is to teach a comprehensive lesson to students of widely varying abilities.  In these cases, tracking is extremely helpful, and should lead to better outcomes.

However, as I reflect on my own experiences, for example this year my ESL classes that were separated by level. Many of the students quickly labeled themselves “tontos,” (fools) or “listos” (clevers). Needless to say I did not like that, and clamped down on that pronto.  But I must admit I have noticed that some of the less skilled classes are not performing as well as others. The majority of the class seems to have given up on even learning English as beyond them and it affects even the borderline students who used to be doing ok. It’s still early and I think I will be able to turn this around, but I can’t help but wonder if this the same phenomenon that is showing up in the tests.  Students stop believing in themselves, or just turning off. I am not sure but I have much reflection on this to go.

4. Parents Should Instill Good Education Values and Then “Coach”

Volunteering at schools is nice. It connects us to our community and shows children that we are involved in their lives, but studies have shown that it doesn’t really do anything beneficial for education. Instead parents should be working with their children but showing them that education is important. Riply contrasts the American parent model, that which allows kids to experience freedom and values self esteem, with South Korean and Asian American parent “coach” model, which sets expectations and then parents work with kids to help meet those expectations. The coach model she advocates is more demanding, but also more hands off, in that it trusts teachers and lets kids determine how they will meet the expectations. Riply believes that the evidence shows that these types of parents do a better job of shepherding their children into success. While the American kids seem to stagnate educationally, or drift into peer interests which are not particularly helpful towards education.

Riply’s advises that parents also need to each critical thinking skills to their children. Not only read with them, but also discuss books, TV shows, and movies. Talk about school and what they are learning. Talk about the world.  

5.  Tests can be an effective national tool (but only if they really matter)

I think this was perhaps the most surprising finding for me, I have heard very little positive about tests since No Child Left Behind was implemented, but if used well national tests can function to galvanize learning, as well as serving to evaluate both students and teachers. However you can’t spend all of your time testing. And simply teaching to the test is even worse.  Tests, like any metric, must be well thought out and designed to get good results. (All too often in the states we leave it to private companies who just rush out products that may or may not actually test the skills that are important).

6. US Schools/Students/Culture Cares Way Too Much About Sports.

I love sports, but I attended a small liberal arts college without sports teams and have never understood the huge emphasis the US places on sports.  As I have gotten older I have a more developed view on why sports are so important to our culture, essentially they are our preferred method of community building. When everybody comes from a diverse background then we need something that unites us. Civic institutions do this somewhat, but Friday nights lights is a lot more interesting.

I think sports is a great way to build community and school spirit, but not at the expense of core educating missions. In today’s era of budget cuts, sports should be first on the chopping block, well before Art, Music, or Technical education.  Intramural and pick-up games work fine in just about every other country.  Perhaps we should invest in a more robust community based private club system like how European Futbul teams work.  Ms. Riply makes a lot of overt hints that many bad U.S. teachers are really just sports coaches who need a bigger paycheck. I would be all for giving these part timers real jobs in their chosen profession to get them out of the classroom. (However, I would note that many might also be great mentors so they may be providing a different need to students–particularly male students)

7. Money Should be Spent Where it is Needed

Poor students, and poor school districts should get more funding. Governments with improving education scores are those that are following this common sense dictum.  Sadly this is the opposite of the American model where in most cases schools are paid for by local property taxes. So wealthy areas do very well–and have very good school districts, and poorer areas have poorer schools. And it becomes a ongoing cycle as rich places thrive and poor… As this issue is a bit of a hobby horse for me and well be addressed in future blog posts I won’t dwell on it too much here. Suffice to say I fully agree with Ms. Riply.

8. Technology is not a Cure-All Panacea

One of the surprising things in the book was that not one of the top performing school systems outside of the U.S. have a high level of technology in the classroom. Not even South Korea, home of Samsung and numerous other cutting edge tech firms has anywhere near the technology fetish the United States does. The ramifications could be that technology does not really matter. Despite my love of technology, I suspect that there is much truth to this, but it is slowly changing. The fact is though that a lot of “technology” in the classroom is just replacing text books or good lessons with different materials. And many tech exercises are just that, exercises, that don’t really do much effectively.

Overall though I tend to feel that technology is changing the very nature of education and we haven’t yet worked out what this means. Does google help us? Obviously, is it also making us stupider?  We don’t know yet.  Basically this is a very complex topic that I have many ideas about, and am not quite certain how I yet feel. We are a long way from understanding what exactly is happening to our cognitive abilities (This will receive a future thoughts).

I will say that I do agree with the findings that technology is not necessary for a top quality education. Learning how to think does not need an ipad. But if done right, it can certainly help.

9. Quality of Work, not Just Quantity

This point reminded me of this thought provoking article by Karl Greenfield in the Atlantic about homework overload. In the article he attempts to do all of his daughter’s homework for one week, but sorta fails. In the end he adopts his daughter’s survival mantra “Memorization not Rationalization.”  The mantra speaks for itself.  I am sure that his daughter is super bright and goes to a good school with teachers that are trying there best. But memorization does not help improve problem solving ability.  In fact, this is the opposite of what one should be teaching.

Riply points out that this happens a lot in the United States.  For example the average size 8th grade math textbook is several times the average of better performing countries.  Another thing she hints at is how much time is spent on creative projects in the states. Overall she seems to support projects, but not if they do not actually promote much learning.  Ms. Riply doesn’t spend much time on explanations for these observations–her main points are far more important–but she does point out that these are not helping us. Projects must have clear learning objectives not simply creative expressions.

If I were to venture a guess as to a cause I would say that a fair amount of this can be attributed to insecure teachers/administrators/school districts. It’s always easy to add information/work, but it is very difficult to argue for less. (This is particularly true on committee projects like curriculum design where it’s always easier to take everyone’s suggestions, rather than risk confrontation).  Similarly every hard working teacher toady feels compelled to come up with creative projects to help students learn, even if some of those projects might be a stretch or done to death.  Sometimes less is more.

For this reason, among many others, I am a big believer in the new common core standards. Let’s concentrate on getting the important things right, then worry about all the interesting details and ramifications later.

10.  Rigorous Work Sometimes Requires Failure; Students Need to Learn Resilience

This I think is a root of why so many individual classes, and education systems are failing. Kids are cute and trying hard to please us, and teachers and parents love them. We all want them to succeed so badly that we sometimes might dumb things down for them. (Or, as sometimes happen, teachers just give up and don’t care at all, but that is a different problem–they can tell). Students create a culture all themselves, sometimes its one of low expectations.  We must teach them to try hard and that it is ok to sometimes fail.

Caring, yet firm. Firm yet fair. Supportive but demanding. Encouraging of freedom, yet able to focus. No wonder you need top trained teachers.






Note: These findings are listed in a loose order. Personally I tend to believe that 1, 2, 3, 4 and 10 are the most important for future student success, but this is subject to change as I grow and further mature in my career.

*Personal anecdote: I myself nearly failed out of high school my senior year due to too many absences (all justified), this despite top notch test scores, excellent grades, and numerous extracurricular activities. So maybe I am a little biased. Truth is, I was bored out of my mind and any excuse to miss school was a good one.


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