Review of Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way"

tags: Jim Cullen, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Amanda Ripley



Jim Cullen, a book review editor at HNN, chairs the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York. He's the author of the recently published Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions and the forthcoming A Short History of the Modern Media. He blogs at American History Now.

History is not destiny: this is the message of journalist Amanda Ripley in her foray into secondary education. We all know that the United States has been struggling comparatively in international rankings of academic performance as measured by standardized tests -- and has been for some time. Most of us are also aware that the reigning educational superpowers are Finland and South Korea. We tend to assume the reasons for a nation's place in the academic world are relatively static: material prosperity, cultural values, ethnic homogeneity (or lack thereof). But, Ripley argues, global performance has in fact been quite fluid. South Korea and Finland were educational backwaters until relatively recently -- as was Poland until even more recently. But, showing more confidence in the efficacy of government than Americans have been able to do, each of these nations has taken proactive steps that have made a difference (even as other nations, among them Italy and Norway, have slipped, for some of the same reasons the U.S. has lagged).


Ripley rests her case on two foundations. The first is empirical: her standard of measurement is the Program for International Assessment Exam (PISA), a standardized test developed at the turn of this century by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an NGO based in Paris. Though PISA is subject to the same skepticism and limits of many standardized tests, it is more analytical and real-world based than most, particularly those administered in the United States. But the bulk of Ripley's analysis is anecdotal: she follows three American students as they journey to rural Finland, urban South Korea, and western Poland, contextualizing accounts of their experiences with thick descriptions of the political, social, and cultural milieu in each.


As one might expect, the portraits that emerge from each of these places is starkly different. South Korean students are subject to a brutal academic grind in which most of their learning takes place under the auspices of private tutors who drill their charges late into the evening. (The government actually launches police raids to enforce a recently implemented curfew on study.) Polish students learn amid the shadows of the Nazi and Soviet past, which linger in ugly buildings and material deprivation. Finnish students, by contrast, learn under much sunnier conditions -- but that's a decidedly metaphorical statement (the American student there, who hails from Oklahoma, struggles with depression, some of which stems from the cold, dark climate). Residents of these countries find things to complain about -- perhaps a source of solace for anxious Americans -- but all have seen demonstrable success in their striving, not simply in the realm of test scores, but also in their economic fortunes.


Most important for Ripley is that for all their differences, these countries are alike in one important particular: "everyone -- kids, parents, and teachers -- [sees] getting an education as a serious quest, more important than sports or self-esteem." (Ripley's "The Case Against High School Sports" is the cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic.) American education reformers, she says, think they can improve education by improving teacher quality. But they get the equation wrong: rather than help teachers get better, they should focus on getting better teachers in the first place, and the way to do that is to make teaching a prestigious profession in which only the most qualified candidates may get in the classroom. She illustrates the point that it's all too easy to become a teacher in the United States with a story of a man who wants to become a football coach and so trains to become a math teacher. And she devotes a chapter to a Korean tutor who earns $4 million annually -- enough to beguile a college student out of a career in investment banking.


Along the way, Ripley challenges a series of conventional wisdoms. Yes, money matters, but students from rich countries often do poorly, and while those from poor countries often do well. (Poland has about the same child poverty rate as the United States.) Yes, parental involvement counts, but only the right kind -- the evidence suggests that boosterism and brownie-baking actually hurts student performance, while reading to your children is a telling indicator of future success. Yes, children need encouragement and support -- roughly half of Finnish children receive some form of special education at some point in their careers -- but lowering expectations and tracking students does more harm than good. Yes, racial and ethnic diversity is a complication, but Finnish immigrants do at least as well as natives do. (This point is among the least convincing, given the relatively small proportion of Finnish immigrants, and the growing anxiety among natives about schooling their children with them.)


This is a fast, provocative read. And the book's message is optimistic -- really: we can improve. And yet as the government shutdown of 2013 makes clear, American society is suffering from a paralysis of will in the ability of the government to take decisive action in the realm of social welfare. Maybe there will come a day when the work of reform will begin again. If and when it does, Ripley's work may point the way toward progress.


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