How did the smartest kids in the world get that way?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Last week, students, teachers and parents in New York State were stunned to learn that not even one in three third-through-eighth graders passed the new, state-wide English and math exams – tests aligned with the effort now underway in the United States to foster deep analytical and problem-solving skills and introduce more rigorous standards, known as the Common Core, into the country’s education system. While most US states have adopted the Common Core, disappointing first results are dampening enthusiasm for the reform: some states have already stopped rolling out the new exams, citing cost concerns.

I can think of one person who probably isn’t surprised by either the test scores or the resultant sulky foot-dragging to implement reforms: journalist and author Amanda Ripley.  In her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, published today in the United States by Simon and Schuster, Ripley sets the scene for what is turning out to be a battle for the soul of US education. Using PISA 2009 results as the backbone of her story, Ripley sets out to find out why it is that American students are falling behind their contemporaries in countries that aren’t as wealthy or innovative as the United States. “PISA could not tell me how those countries got so smart, or what life was like for kids in those countries, day in and day out, compared to life in America,” she acknowledges. So with three American teenagers as her guides, she explores the human dimension of PISA results: what school is really like for students in Finland, Korea (two PISA top performers) and Poland (a rapidly improving PISA participant).

She follows 15-year-old Kim from rural Oklahoma to Pietarsaari, Finland, where the American exchange student learns first-hand what the Finnish word sisu (roughly translated: strength in the face of great odds, and then some) really means; she follows 18-year-old Eric, a high school graduate who also completed the demanding International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, from suburban Minnesota to Korea, where he planned to spend a year experiencing the “pressure-cooker” of that country’s education system; and she follows Tom, 17, a voracious reader from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Poland (“[he wanted] to live somewhere where people knew the names Dostoyevsky and Nabokov”) to discover how one country could come so far so fast.

In lively, accessible prose, Ripley paints a warts-and-all picture of both the “education superpowers” and the failing American education system, and discovers the solution to the “mystery” of effective education. It involves rigor (“The problem with rigorous education was that it was hard”), learning how to learn – and recover – from failure (“’Success,’ as Winston Churchill once said, ‘is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm’”), and parents who are involved in their children’s education, not so much by being active in parent-teacher associations or coaching a sports team, but by reading to their young children every day and talking with their older children about their day or about what’s going on in the world. “They let their children make mistakes and then get right back to work. They teach them good habits and give them autonomy,” Ripley observes.

Regular readers of the educationtoday blog, PISA in Focus, or the PISA initial reports will be familiar with most of the data and some of the conclusions in The Smartest Kids in the World. But Ripley’s book looks at the data from a new perspective: that of the students who are the beneficiaries — or victims — of their countries’ education systems. Those stunned parents and teachers in New York State and elsewhere would do well to read this book first if they are inclined to blame their children’s/students’ poor results on a new test.

OECD PISA for Parents
Videos on Finland and Korea as part of the Strong Performers, Successful Reformers video series
 Photo credit: Evaluation symbol  / @Shutterstock

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