Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World

I just picked up a copy of The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley from my public library.  I was enticed to read it by her article in the Wall Street Journal that I previously mentioned here.  Her basic approach was trying to understand why American kids, in particular, score so poorly on standardized tests compared to the rest of the developed world, especially on tests which measure critical thinking skills.

I really appreciated the book, and I recommend it for anyone interested in what will make or break their kids’ education, or anyone involved in education public policy.  Amanda is a journalist, not an educator or scientist, and this book is not a research study.  Instead, she presents some published data and some anecdotal evidence to back up her points, with detailed endnotes.  Her style is engaging and makes it easy to read, and despite lacking rigor, she makes some compelling arguments.  I especially appreciated the first-hand reports of American exchange students.   I’ll try to summarize some of the main points here, and in some cases comment on them.

The context of this book is that Amanda focused upon three foreign countries which have excelled on the PISA test, which measures critical thinking skills and requires answering open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice.  Those countries: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  She both visited education professionals in those countries, as well as interviewing American students who had spent time there as exchange students.  Each country had its own share of problems, but had several themes in common.

Teacher quality is of critical importance. In each of the three countries surveyed, the path to become a teacher was very difficult, highly selective, and required lots of education.  In Finland, the teacher training institutions are more selective than MIT.  Additionally, a teaching program in Finland is 6 years long, including writing and defending a thesis, and a full year of student teaching.  At any point along this way, poor performers are weeded out before they ever take over a classroom.  In contrast, an education major is often seen as an “easy” major, and many of the schools which graduate teachers are mediocre.  Few American teaching jobs even require a demonstration of teaching a lesson as part of the interview process.  As a result, these more-capable Finnish teachers are able to handle large class sizes (50 or 60 at the middle and high-school levels), are granted far more autonomy (choosing their own textbooks), and are paid significantly greater salaries than their American counterparts.  Notably, all three of the countries had teacher’s unions–I’m not a fan of them, but it is clear that good education can happen where unions exist.

Kids take education seriously. In Korea particularly, there is so much intense focus on education that high school kids practically spend their lives studying.  Parents bend over backwards and risk financial ruin to ensure that their kids get the best possible score on the end-of-high-school/college entrance exam. The government puts electrical workers on overtime the days before and during the test to ensure that there is no chance of power failure at a test site, and ground all aircraft during the English portion of the exam to prevent any distractions.  With all this emphasis, kids KNOW that it is important.  While the Finns and the Poles certainly have a less intense approach, they know that their performance in school strongly influences their lot in life, and treat school as such. Sports were not at all a part of the curriculum (more on this later.) Because they take school more seriously, the kids are given more autonomy in school and expected to perform without handholding or having to have a hall pass to go to the bathroom. In fact, by the high school level, Finnish parents rarely if ever had parent-teacher conferences.  This kind of thing is considered the responsibility of the student.  This leads naturally to . . .

Kids were expected to perform, and allowed to fail if they didn’t work hard enough or persist in trying.  In these countries, all kids were held to a significantly higher standard than in the US.  The kids who struggled, rather than being aggregated in “dummy” classes, were kept in the regular class and given the chance to engage in additional remedial instruction to get them back up to speed in the class.  All of the students were given a challenging matriculation exam before they were allowed to graduate.  Strikingly, not only were remedial students kept with their classes, but also the outstanding ones.  “Gifted” students were kept at the same pace as the others, but pushed to study in more depth and detail.

The amount of money spent per student in those countries was drastically less (50%) of what America spends. Most classrooms that Amanda observed were similar to classrooms from the US in the 50’s and 60’s: desks, chalkboards–maybe a few visual aids–but not much else.  There were few computers, and definitely no smart boards.

Local schools had autonomy, but also accountability and clear national standards. I might get this wrong, but I believe that Polish principals can hand-pick the teachers for their school.  Can you imagine what level of performance we could get, if our principals could hire exactly whom they wanted? And then get rewarded if he chose wisely and fired if they didn’t? In the US, there is a massive duplication of effort because of varying schooling standards not only across the country, but also within states and lower levels. School A may teach fractions in 2nd grade; while School B waits until 5th grade.  What happens to a 3rd or 4th grader moves from School B to School A? Right now, many systems just re-teach the same stuff to make sure everyone is up to speed.  No wonder kids think math is boring . . .

I do have a few criticisms of the book.  First, I disagree with her conclusion on school sports.  Sports are a integral part of American culture, and I believe that it is very possible to have both a strong sports program and a strong academic program.  I agree that the resources consumed by sports teams disproportionately go toward a minority of students, and that sports success is often emphasized over academic success, and that should change.  Perhaps participation in sports becomes a requirement which replaces PE classes; perhaps the minimum GPA to participate is raised (providing expectation and incentive to the athletes!) But sports teach the kids who participate in them the lessons that they are not getting in the classroom–the connection between hard work and success, the ability to fail and learn from failure, the value of teamwork and leadership, etc.

Second, I agree in principle with the idea of stopping tracking, but can’t reconcile that with being the father of a child who is well ahead of her peers in school–I do not want her held back because the others can’t keep up.  How do we bridge that gap?

The final note she makes in the book, in an appendix, is a great way to end–she gives advice to parents who need to make their kids education count right now, in the current system.  I recommend this book highly to anyone who is concerned about education in the US or elsewhere.

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