Review by Kathryn M. Bateman, Ph.D. Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, Science Education, The Pennsylvania State University
Book Details: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 307 pp., $15.99.
Many Americans frequently lament the products of our education system, accusing schools of not producing globally competitive students. Amanda Ripley explores this idea in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, by looking at American teens’ experiences as exchange students in foreign countries that outperform American students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. Ripley follows Kim, Tom, and Eric as they spend a year attending schools in Finland, Poland, and Korea, respectively. Each student sets out to find a new place to learn because, as Ripley argues is the controversial crux of her book, American schools lack the rigor of other countries because we have our priorities wrong. Upon Ripley’s return to the United States after her visits to Finland, Poland and Korea she states, “It was obvious we’d been wasting a lot of time and money on things that didn’t matter; our schools and families seemed confused, more than anything else, lacking a clarity of purpose I saw in Finland, Korea, and Poland.” (p. 9)
Interesting politics are at play in the political powerhouses invested in this text. Without explicit statement, Ripley’s political alliances, mentors, and benefactors allude to her beliefs in a failing American school system that can be rectified through selecting academically talented teachers, increasing school spending, and promoting school choice in the form of charter schools. Ripley, a journalist with Time and The Atlantic, became interested in American high schools while investigating the work of former Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee. Ripley holds a B.A. in Government from Cornell and uses her knowledge and training to investigate the nexus between public policy and human behavior; however, lacking a background in education, Ripley relies on her background in government to approach education. Ripley therefore uses a business approach to education that examines the bottom-line of schools, both financial and testing outputs, over the effectiveness of reaching diverse students. Ripley currently is an Emerson Fellow with the New America Foundation, an organization that advocates for Common Core and counts the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, and The McArthur Foundation among its top donors. Additionally, the book comes with endorsements from Rhee, Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America), Randi Weingarten (president of the America Federation of Teachers) and Joel Klein (former chancellor of New York City Department of Education), but no members of the educational research community. These views heavily represent one side of the educational reforms in play in American politics. Readers should take caution and familiarize themselves with the political perspectives present in the undertones of this book. For alternative perspectives to Ripley’s, see Diane Ravitch’ Reign of Error, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars or Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? which counter many of the perspectives Ripley puts forth, especially those that prioritize test scores as measures of students’ success and the dismal outlook of American schools.
“Calling Korean, Finnish, and Polish students The Smartest Kids in the World depends on how you define smart—what does that word really mean? Are we looking for students who will be able to take a test? Or are we, the United States, looking to develop students who will think outside the box to create new and innovative things and ideas?”
Ripley’s use of case studies, tracing the trials and triumphs Kim, Tom, and Eric experience during their school year overseas, paints a bleak picture for U.S. schools by directly comparing the cultures of schooling in various international contexts. Ripley illustrates the life of each student in detail, particularly Kim—a sophomore from rural Oklahoma, despondent at her American classmates whose abilities and desire for education did not match her own. Ripley highlights the lack of rigorous standards and assessments in this Oklahoma school as a proxy for the lack of rigor and resistance to change currently found throughout the United States. Current education standards, she argues, often read like a list of facts that students must memorize, something seen in many state standards, not just her example of Oklahoma. Oklahoma serves as an “any state” example of the low level of standards found in American schools that fail to challenge high achieving students. In Finland, Kim experiences a different world in which students are given freedom and autonomy in exchange for high academic expectations from the adults, parents, and teachers alike. Students are expected to push the limits of their understanding, apply information and connect their learning to the real world. Of equal importance to the perpetuation of academic success, Finnish students are allowed to fail, which is juxtaposed with the continual revision and retrials occurring in American schools. Standards in America do pose a problem, but she fails to acknowledge the teachers around the country who are pushing their students beyond the existing standards into higher level study.
Ripley claims American schools differ from their purportedly successful foreign counterparts, focusing on the absurd claim that teachers should be less empathetic towards their students. She contrasts Kim’s teacher in Oklahoma, a graduate of a local teachers’ college, with her teachers in Finland who go through a selective application process and rigorous teacher training. The Finnish teachers aim to “not have too much empathy for [the students] because I have to teach” (p. 162) and avoid feeling sorry for students. This lack of empathy, though supposedly making student evaluations more efficient and less biased, eliminates the relationships that allow teachers to understand their students’ lives outside and differentiate instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of their learners. Ripley purports these relationships would lead teachers to make excuses and exceptions for low quality work and blame poor classroom performance on poor parenting, poverty, and home lives. There are several issues with her logic. Finland’s poverty level is significantly lower than the United States’, with a much more homogenous population, so teacher empathy would occur differently than in urban American schools. Though the book is endorsed by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the call for decreased teacher empathy appears to rail against the biggest tenets of teacher training by Teach for America and other reform minded teacher-education programs, which want teachers to see the stories behind the students and embrace their cultures, while finding ways to hold students to high standards (Teach for American, 2016). Additionally, why must empathy and high expectations be mutually exclusive? Learning happens better when we can allow students to embrace the culture of school and the culture they have outside of school, without judgment (Aikenhead, 1996). Students should feel their teacher values them and supports their work, and they will respond.
Though her feelings toward teacher empathy are bound to ruffle many feathers, Ripley makes a sound argument for well-funded and well-developed national standards. Poland, which has a similar poverty rate to the U.S., Ripley claims, also holds all students to higher expectations through increased rigor in their curriculum. After establishing what Ripley describes as a more rigorous core curriculum nationally, with over 100 approved curricula that teachers can use at the local level, Poland began to see gains in their student achievement scores on the PISA test. This sounds strikingly like America’s poorly received Common Core standards, which have been challenged in many states, perceived as too difficult for students. Unlike the United States’ roll out of Common Core, Poland included an influx of funding for teachers to participate in professional development tailored to their own needs and increases in pay for teachers. In this instance, Ripley uses Poland as a useful model for what the United States’ system could and should be. Ripley believes, and I concur, America should follow Poland’s lead in this initiative and create a strong sense of professionalism and value of our teaching corps.
High performing nations are also useful models for effective teacher training and continued development. Ripley calls for teacher training to be reformed in the US in the model of the Finns—be selective about who becomes a teacher, and train them well. Other empirical works (Darling Hammond, 2004) have shown how effective valuing teacher quality is when implemented in America. These studies showcase that devoting funds and time to developing existing teachers, as well as recruiting new highly qualified teachers, can improve school outputs. However, they also find that just selecting smart candidates will not make great teachers. School districts must continue to develop their teachers. Stagnancy in teacher learning does damage as much as poorly trained new teachers. Ripley calls for high quality teachers but fails to discuss the conundrum American teachers face, as their profession is simultaneously being de-professionalized and scrutinized for effectiveness through accountability policy (Milner IV, 2013). Selectivity and training will not overturn the cultural views of teachers that portray them as greedily demanding more benefits while working 8:00am to 3:00pm with three months off in the summer. Any teacher (including this author) will profess to never having worked these kinds of schedules. Teacher respect lies in the heart of Finnish education. There, teachers are revered, not reviled. Both Ripley and education experts agree that the United States would benefit from such a culture change.
Spending more on teachers, Ripley argues, would decrease spending elsewhere. Some successful countries invest in their teachers and maintain Spartan classroom furnishing and decor, while the U.S. allocates large sums to technology that is utilized at varying levels of success. Ripley criticizes SmartBoards, one-to-one technology, and other costly resources that are used as digital proxies rather than innovations, essentially wasting money. This is a valid critique; however, she offers no solutions to this budgeting issue. Teachers are obligated to prepare students for the future global market, which is increasingly technologically grounded. Though technology as proxy for already existing pedagogical practices is a dilemma, so too would be ignoring the technological skills students will need for future careers. A happy medium could be reached if, as stated earlier, teachers were better trained throughout their careers in education, which provided opportunity to develop their understanding of and practices with technology use in the classroom. Investing in teachers from the beginning could decrease later spending on superfluous pedagogical tools.
While Poland and Finland offer valuable lessons for the U.S. school system, Korea follows an alternative path to student success. Though Korea falls into this same low technology vein alongside Poland and Finland, Korean schools are unlikely to be labeled effective in their use of time. Student PISA scores are extremely high, but their school day would not give that impression. Ripley illustrates Korean schools as places where students socialize and sleep. Learning does not happen there, but in afterschool hagwons, or cram schools. Korean students spend their afternoons and evenings memorizing and practicing for their standardized test during the last year of school. This infamous test shuts down the government and determines the future of every student in the country. Eric, originally exploring Korean schools to challenge himself, finds himself bored during the school day as students disregard the lessons, assured the real work will be done after school. Parents pay to have their students attend the best hagwon they can afford, much like U.S. parents buy homes in the best district they can afford and pay for private tutors. Relying heavily on out-of-school resources and buying into a great school districts leads to the vast inequality in our education system, and Ripley uses Korean hagwons to emphasize the need to equalize funding in the U.S. The United States has some of the best and some of the worst schools in the world, and the current local control of money is not helping our low socioeconomic students to receive quality education.
Out-of-school activities in the United States also often include school sports, which are unfairly attacked in The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley tells anecdotal stories about touring private schools with groups of parents who do not question the guide admitting the math program was weak but balk at the same statement about the football program. She vilifies districts that devote exorbitant amounts of funding to sports programs or that hire teachers based on their ability to coach a sport. She marvels at how parents will spend hours at soccer fields but will not protest the low quality of math standards and instruction. Foreign countries, she reports, do not have this sports focus at school. Parents expect their children to succeed in academic endeavors before athletic pursuits. However, Ripley’s opinion that sports in school are detracting from academics, in time, funding and personal value, ignores the research on increased academic performance from student-athletes compared to their non-athlete counterparts (see Hartmann, 2008, for a review of empirical work on the topic.) Athletics contribute to both the physical well-being and the social intelligence of students. For many students, sports are more than just a good time under the Friday night lights. Sports can be these students’ ticket to college because, unlike Finland, Americans must pay for their higher education. Sports increase students’ physical fitness; healthy bodies can perform better in classrooms. Sports can build character and teach children to fail. Failure was one characteristic Ripley noticed in foreign students but was absent in American schools. To admonish school sports, even as subtly as Ripley does, questions their value, without acknowledging the aforementioned research that justifies their presence. Ripley’s business and journalism background shows here, highlighting the fact she does not have an education or research background, as she fails to ground her claims and recognize the prolific research on what American schools are doing well. Her other claims throughout this book should be taken with a similar grain of salt.
Calling Korean, Finnish, and Polish students The Smartest Kids in the World depends on how you define smart—what does that word really mean? Are we looking for students who will be able to take a test? Or are we, the United States, looking to develop students who will think outside the box to create new and innovative things and ideas? We need students who will see what others do not when faced with a challenge. Though Ripley’s points regarding improving teacher quality, reforming school funding models, and increasing rigor within our classrooms are valid and necessary for American schools to compete on a global scale, her use of PISA as the only means to compare students and measure success lacks broad validity. For those that agree with her politics, Ripley’s book serves as an anecdotal illustration for ways to improve the U.S. school system. For those who do not agree with her politics, examining what Eric, Tom, and Kim saw as positive and negative differences between their learning environments can inform all members of educational communities—teachers, principals, policy makers, researchers, and parents—about the global education culture.
This text can serve as a way for parents and community members to educate themselves about the possibilities beyond their own schools, but readers must be cautioned to remember the wonderful things American schools are doing well and sometimes better than foreign complements. Ripley states repeatedly through the book that everyone complained about his or her schools and education system, regardless of country. America is not alone in its dissatisfaction, and Ripley’s case studies show that moving to Korea, Finland or Poland won’t solve the problem. Even taken with a grain of salt, knowing the author’s history and alliances, this book serves to ignite passion for educational success, for both those who do and do not agree with all of her prescriptions.
Aikenhead, G. S. (1996). Science education: Border crossing into the subculture of science. Studies in Science Education, 27, 1-52.
Castanheira, M. L., Crawford, T., Dixon, C. N., & Green, J. L. (2001). Interactional ethnography: An approach to studying the social construction of literate practices. Linguistics and Education, 11(4), 353-400.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). Standards, accountability, and school reform. The Teachers College Record, 106(6), 1047–1085.
Hartmann, D. (2008). High school sports participation and educational attainment: Recognizing,assessing, and utilizing the relationship. Report to the LA84 Foundation.
Milner, H. R. (2013). Policy Reforms and De-Professionalization of Teaching. National Education Policy Center.
Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world: And how they got that way. Simon and Schuster.
Teach For America. (2016). “Core Values.” Retrieved November 06, 2016, from https://www.teachforamerica.org/about-us/our-story/core-values
Kathryn M. (Katie) Bateman is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on Science Education at Penn State University. She is a former middle school science teacher and informal science educator, with specialization in urban education. She holds a BS in Marine Science and an M.Ed. in Elementary Education. Her current research interests include Earth Science education, learning progression development, and how science curricular practices are impacted by educational policies tied to standardized testing and accountability measures. She is the Technical Chair for the AJE Forum.