Feature

Book of the week: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

The great American school-reform debate has been “desperately in need” of a book as direct as this one.

(Simon & Schuster, $28)

The great American school-reform debate has been “desperately in need” of a book as direct as this one, said Dana Goldstein in TheDailyBeast.com. For years, we’ve heard that U.S. students are falling behind their counterparts in other countries; journalist Amanda Ripley decided it was time to find out what those nations are doing differently. To do so, she recounts the experiences of three American teenagers who chose to study abroad in top-performing countries—one in Finland, one in South Korea, and one in Poland. In all three locales, the American kids encounter peers who appear to be “deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism.” The schools excel, it seems, because all parties focus their energy on academic achievement—not sports, or gadgetry, or cultivating excuses for failure.

Young Kim, Eric, and Tom aren’t the usual education experts, said Thomas Toch and Taylor White in The Washington Monthly. But all are shocked by the level of commitment to education they see abroad. In Finland, the government has poured money into teaching, making it a prestigious, competitive profession. Today, 100 percent of the nation’s teachers graduated in the top quarter of their high school classes. In Poland, all students tackle the same rigorous curriculum through age 16, whether they plan to attend college or not. But “not every story of academic success is a happy one,” said The Economist. Americans will probably never want to emulate South Korea, where anxious students follow a full day of school with tutoring, a quick dinner, then “cram school” sessions that run until midnight. Still, a common theme emerges in the three nations Ripley visits: “Children succeed in classrooms where they’re expected to succeed.”

Indeed, Ripley “manages to make our own culture look newly strange,” said Annie Murphy Paul in The New York Times. In Poland, Tom expresses surprise that team sports—so central to Pennsylvania high school life—don’t even exist at the school he’s visiting. In Finland, Kim can’t help asking her classmates why they work so hard. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” one of them replies. If only the idea were as obvious to all students here. Ripley has succeeded in shedding a bright light on the shortcomings of America’s current approach to education. “The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes.”

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