Book: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

I just finished a wonderful book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley–a book on education with endorsements from both Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten! Ripley tells a good story both fun to read and meaningful, pursuing a question: why do kids in some education systems rock in international academic comparisons, while others (such as the USA)…well…don’t? In chasing her answer, she follows several American exchange students to Finland, Korea, and Poland, exploring the people and environments (schools, friends, teachers, education leaders) surrounding them both in their exchange countries and in the US.

Ripley offers some thoughts, extrapolating from this anecdotal exploration, that resonate. The common thread in top-achieving countries is high expectations for students, a.k.a. “rigor”. Several of the ideas Ripley explores, especially in fleshing out what “rigor” means in practice:

  • A high-school graduation test that really means something for a person’s future.
  • Uniform expectations of student performance, at least up to a certain level. Especially in the Finnish system, language or family weaknesses or learning difficulties are generally met with extra support in meeting the universal expectations, rather than with lower expectations–a substantial contrast with the U.S. system.
  • High expectations of teachers, with high autonomy, respect, and effectiveness as a consequence. Finland sets a really high standard for who gets to become a teacher, and they’re quite effective. The country’s system went through a fairly painful transition to emphasizing rigor in education and selection of teachers, with a lot of stipulations about how to teach. As the value of rigor became entrenched for both students and the educational system, though, policy moved toward giving a lot of autonomy, though with accountability for outcomes. Interestingly, there’s also a fair amount of autonomy given to kids (esp. high-school kids, in this book) for figuring out how to use their time responsibly. The basic academic expectations make a difference.
  • South Korea offers a different example as described in her book, of students who study at sub-par schools from 8 AM to till late evening, and then go to private tuition until 10 for “real” study. The market forces a fairly high level of effectiveness and customer service on the private teachers–but in a way that’s both inefficient and inequitable for society overall.
  • Letting kids fail early, in school where the stakes are low, is a lot kinder than letting them fail later, when they can’t get a manufacturing job because it requires substantial thinking and communication skills that they haven’t learned.
  • Most of the kinds of ways American parents get involved with schools don’t improve educational outcomes. The ways parents can make a difference at school? Read to your young kids, “coach” your kids with warmth and firmness. (See also Brain Rules for Baby for more on the “warm and firm/strict” parenting style, the most “successful” among styles.)
  • And, surely this isn’t news–but tying sports with schools harms education. It’s not that sports are bad, and physical activity is certainly good. It’s just that sports programs add a priority to schools that’s completely unrelated to academics, divert energy and finances, and make it more unlikely that a school system will excel in preparing its kids for life.
  • Common Core is one effort to limit the “system loss” in kids’ learning as kids move from place to place or from teacher to teacher–e.g., if you know every kid in your class has learned fractions, there’s no need to cover them again for those who haven’t, boring and wasting the time of the many kids who’ve covered them several times already! Multiply this by many times for many subjects, and you have a substantial contributor to the weakness of American schools.

As a homeschooled kid who had a great experience*, I’d encourage my friends to consider homeschooling their own kids, especially if they value education. In fact, it seems as though intentional homeschooling can offer one, particularly intensive, way for parents to be “involved in education” in the very ways that Ripley identifies as beneficial. But on a national level, I’m quite aware of the importance of a thriving public (or otherwise broadly accessible) school system, both for national competitiveness and for social equity. I would be thrilled to see both the country of my birth and the country of my residence learn from successful systems around the world–a movement that does involve changes at the top, but also involves a lot of awareness at the grassroots.

Read the book. It’s an engaging, “human” read, and thought-provoking. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

* Re. “a great experience”, it wasn’t just that it was nice. It was. I have great memories of reading book upon book upon book for pleasure, of opening the hydrant out back and digging out “river systems”, of various other encounters with “real life” when other kids were sitting in school. But from quite early on, I can’t ever recall testing below the 99th percentile in standardized tests. That had its own cost in inviting a fixed mindset, but I don’t think I have any reason to be embarrassed by the academic excellence of my education at home through elementary and high school.

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