The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley would have been a fine book. If. If the author had only stuck with her initial premise, and not focused so tightly on three unique teens and their respective adventures as exchange students in Korea, Finland and Poland. Although I’m generally a fan of using personal stories to narrate larger concepts, there’s an over-emphasis on two teens in this story, and the conclusions drawn from their stories, that makes the entire narrative feel unbalanced to me.
Now perhaps I am not the best person to provide an objective review of this book. I worked in education for over a decade, having held leadership positions for many companies including The College Board, McGraw-Hill and Teachers College Columbia University. I have taught adult education, and count among my friends some of the brightest minds in education….and so I do come to this book with quite a bit of understanding, knowledge, and yes, preconceived notions abut what I think will work, and what won’t, to change the American education system.
Amanda Ripley begins the book with the premise that something is fundamentally flawed in American education, a premise most of us will agree with. We rank far below most industrialized nations in mathematics and science, and somewhat below most in reading, although America’s reading scores always tend to be a bit higher than math and science. Countries such as Finland and Poland, two nations she focuses on in this book, have zoomed ahead of America in terms of student achievement, as measured on various standardized tests. Why?
And what about Korea? We often hear about the powerhouses of Asian education, and how the Asian students far exceed American and European students. Is this true? If so, why?
Ms. Ripley sets the stage with facts and statistics, then narrows her authorial lens to focus on three students. Kim, a teenager from Sallislaw, Oklahoma, who ventures to Finland as an exchange student; Tom, an older student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who travels to Poland to study; and Eric, a teen from Minnesota who studies in South Korea. Each student is bright and capable in America, and offers interesting insights into the culture and education of their host countries as compared to their American high school experiences.
Several conclusions stand true no matter which country the students visit. Highly educated teachers, educated in their subject matter (not Education Theory), are essential. So too is community and parental emphasis on education, not sports, which Ripley seems to feel that American schools emphasize far too much (I tend to agree with her there.) Schools are for learning, not socialization, the teens find in other countries. Whereas in America, teachers spoon feed information to students, in other nations, students are expected to seek knowledge and spend their time studying.
Yet the book falls flat at the end. I felt like I was left hanging in space. Okay, so here are the problems, but where are the solutions? And can we draw sweeping inferences about what to fix in American education from three unique and highly homogeneous countries?
Perhaps that’s the point of this book. Ripley does a good job of pointing out the cultural differences and expectations in other nations, but does not offer solutions to the American education problems. That may be for the best. We seem to have plenty of experts offering solutions, but until you identify the actual nature of the problem, the solutions proffered by the experts will not work, because they are solutions to the wrong problem. If you believe, for example, that poverty is always at the root of illiteracy, you will try to combat poverty. However, looking at Poland’s history of poverty and struggle, it is clear that poverty can be overcome by high expectations and other factors that influence student achievement.
America’s educational woes are complex, and I think I felt shortchanged by this book because I wanted Ripley to articulate solutions after she identified the differences. As a journalist, however, that’s not necessarily her job.
The book is well-written and thought-provoking, but it felt like the story was only half-told. More than a quarter of the book consists of appendices and data charts, which should have been woven better into the book itself.
Overall, I had a lukewarm reaction to the book and gave it a 3 out of 5.