Book of the Month

Back to May 2015 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley, Simon and Schuster, 2013, $15.99

Amanda Ripley wanted to know why Finland and Korea remain at the top of international test results, and how Poland dramatically increased student achievement in a short period of time.

Her book follows three typical American exchange students from their state-side high schools as they attend school for a year in Finland, Korea, and Poland, respectively. She combines students’ anecdotal experiences with research data and information provided by questionnaires given to other foreign and American students and parents to determine what happens in these high-achieving countries that brings about testing success.

Perhaps the most “fundamental theme” that unites the three countries studied in this book is that “everyone — kids, parents, and teachers — saw getting an education as a serious quest, more important than sports or self-esteem.”

The most vital part of this book for parents and grandparents might be Appendix I, titled “How to Spot a World-Class Education.” In it, Ripley uses what she discovered from her research to provide a list of exactly what to look for and what questions to ask when seeking good schools for children.

Among her suggestions are:

  • Observe students: Kids should sometimes feel uncomfortable and there should be a palpable sense of urgency in classrooms. There should be a feeling of united sense of purpose and students should be constantly made aware that they are there to learn.
  • Talk to parents: The best parents act as coaches. They focus on academics, not sports. They read to their children, talk to them about school and the world around them; they give their children enough autonomy to mature and to think and act independently.
  • Ask principals: How do you hire teachers? How do you train them? Why do you let them go?

Ripley credits Poland’s success to reforms. Among them are: standardized tests are only used as measures of what should change and which students need help, not to pigeonhole students, or to rank schools or teachers; teachers choose curriculum from approved options; and educators earn bonuses for professional development.

In Finland, only the best students gain admittance to highly competitive teacher education programs and they must maintain high standards in order to become teachers. Finnish children are allowed unsupervised time and greater autonomy than most American kids.

In Korea, students do well on tests due to relentless study and after-school tutoring.