Book Review & Give-Away: The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way

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I will read anything that’s well written.  I like words, and I adore well-crafted sentences.  Good thinking and fresh insight delight me.

This book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, combines all of these things. Amanda Ripley is a talented journalist;  her research is thorough and her insights profound. Beyond that, she is a great writer. She deftly weaves together stories, statistics, history, and analysis. I would read this woman’s to-do list.

Do not be put off by the title of this book, as I originally was.  This is not a book for competitive parents about how to make your own children achieve more;  it is not a book that aims to teach you how to get your kids to score like South Koreans.  It is not even a book written primarily for parents.

Rather, it is a book written for citizens, all citizens of the United States, parents or not.  It is a book that examines how we can improve our entire education system so that it successfully educates all our kids to a much higher level, from the poorest to the wealthiest.  And, rest assured, it will not lose you in the weeds of education policy.  It takes a big picture approach and succeeds in bringing along even the least policy-oriented among us.

Ripley begins by describing a test that has been administered five times since the year 2000 to fifteen year olds in countries throughout the world.  The test is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and it aims to test students’ critical thinking skills, not simply what they know in math, science, and language but what they do with what they know.  To score highly, students need “fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate.”  Ripley took the test herself and does a good job describing it to readers and giving sample questions, such that I could immediately understand its value.  From her description, I agree that this test is measuring important aspects of students’ abilities and that the countries whose students score high marks on it are indeed educating their students effectively.

You may not be surprised to learn that never in the five times this test has been given have American students scored at the top of the world or even near it.  Our kids do okay in reading and writing, but in math and science, they consistently put forth mediocre performances.  The countries that do best are a diverse bunch, ranging from Finland to South Korea to Canada to Singapore to Poland.  Ripley calls them the “education super powers.” So, what are these countries doing that we in the United States are not?  Why are their kids beating ours so handily?

That is precisely the question Ripley set out to answer when she began her research in 2008. She decided to focus “most of all on developed democracies, countries where changes could not be made by fiat.  I wanted to go where parents, kids, and teachers had to tolerate the vagaries of politics and the dull plod of compromise, and succeeded anyway.  That was a magical thing that had to be seen to be believed” (emphasis mine).  Indeed, she does uncover something magical:  countries no more functional than ours politically who are yet managing to educate all of their kids to much higher levels.  Countries where even the poor kids are scoring higher than our kids.

What Ripley discovers is actually encouraging.  Yes, I said encouraging.  How?  Because if Poland can do it, and Canada can do it, and Finland can do it, so can we!  I will not summarize here every bit of wisdom that Ripley uncovered, but I will tempt you with two of her insights:

When it comes to math, we are thinking about it all wrong.  In our culture, we seem to believe that whether a person will “get” math is a matter of innate ability.  This is in contrast to reading where we think hard work can propel almost any child forward.  We act as though reading competence can be attained by everyone with enough work and instruction, but math competence can only be gained by those who were born with certain built-in hardware.  The education super powers prove this assumption entirely wrong.  They are managing to educate their entire populations to high levels of competence in math, not just a “gifted” portion.  These countries assume that anyone can learn math, and guess what, their results show this to be so. They have high expectations, they work their kids hard, and they see results.

Further, Ripley does a good job showing why math competence is important.  She explains that “Math is a language of logic.  It is a disciplined, organized way of thinking.  There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed.  More than any other subject, math is rigor distilled.  Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher-order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, for example, to detect patterns and to make informed guesses.”  Exactly.

Ripley also helped me to see that we need to totally rethink how we train our teachers and how selective our education schools are.  Ripley explores at length how teachers are trained in Finland.  She learned that “the Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and the brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously.”  Finland’s education schools are as selective as MIT, their programs remarkably rigorous, and their teachers commensurately esteemed.  Six years of intensive education and training are required to become a teacher in Finland.   In other words, to become a teacher in Finland is nearly as difficult as it is to become a doctor in the U.S.  Think about that.  Imagine if our education schools selected only the best and brightest, and then worked them very, very hard as they prepared them to teach our kids.  Think of what our teaching force would become.  And before you retort that we would never be able to attract enough people into the teaching profession if we raised our standards to such a degree, let me inform you that currently, we are producing 2.5X as many teachers as we actually need.  Our supply far exceeds our demand.

We have quite a lot of room to increase the selectivity and rigor of our teacher preparation.  As Ripley points out, “At most U.S. colleges, education is known as one of the easiest majors.  Education departments usually welcome almost anyone who claims to like children.  Once students get there, they are rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work.  Instead of taking the more rigorous mathematics classes offered to other students, for example, education majors tend to take special math classes designed for students who do not like math.”  She reminds us a few pages later, “You cannot teach what you do not know.”  Or as one unnamed Korean policymaker has wisely said, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”  Let us soak in that wisdom for a moment.

These are just a few of the powerful insights in The Smartest Kids in the World.  Friends, go read the rest!  Ripley manages to uncover some fundamental flaws in our system and to point the way forward to serious improvement.  Her answers do not lie with the usual solutions;  she champions neither more funding for schools nor less power given to teachers unions.  She advocates neither more technology in classrooms nor more innovative curricula.  She plants herself in none of the usual camps of our education debates.  Her ideas feel fresher and less complicated.

I believe in this book.  If I could put it in the hands of every governor, school superintendent, teacher, and citizen in this country,  I would.  I cannot do that, but I am going to give copies to five of you!  I contacted Simon and Schuster and asked if they would provide me with several copies to give away on my blog (“a modest blog that yet has a diverse and thoughtful readership”!). They said they would be happy to send books to five winners selected by me.  To enter this give-away, all you need to do is comment on this post.  You are free to make any sort of comment you’d like or you can simply put the name of the best teacher you ever had and what they taught.  The comments sections will be open for entries until this Thursday, March 19th, at 8 PM.  After that, I will randomly choose five winners who will receive copies of the book.

If you don’t win, get yourself quickly to a library or a book store.  This is an important book.

© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.

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39 thoughts on “Book Review & Give-Away: The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way

  1. As an educator, this is an idea that has long fascinated me. Thanks for the wonderful review! I look forward to reading more in the future. If you’re ever interested in some other great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow. Thanks!!!

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  2. Kristen Johnson

    I heard the author of this book interviewed on NPR and was very intrigued, but not apparently intrigued enough to actually track down the book and read it as you did! Thanks for this very helpful summary and the tantalizing tidbits.

    Growing up in the Washington, DC area, I had three friends, all female, who wanted to be teachers and only one of them stayed with it beyond a short first teaching stint. In my current location, I have been amazed at how many people, male and female, are or long to become teachers – it is a much more esteemed profession here than in my original circles. It makes me think that the “aura” around teaching can be changed with some cultural re-imagining. At my undergrad, the legend goes that no one wanted to live in the old housing at the center of campus because it was less convenient and a bit run down, until they made it the most competitive housing on campus for only the best and brightest seniors, and now students spend three years trying to earn a spot there. Could something similar happen with education? Interesting to ponder.

    I wonder what you and the author think of Teach for America, by the way, as one stab to get the nation’s motivated and top-tier graduates into our urban schools for at least a little bit. As I understand it, one of the motivations of starting Teach for America was that those who have this intense experience in low-functioning educational systems within our country would take what they have learned and experienced with them into their subsequent professions, with hopes that they would help enact change in the ways they can.

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  3. Thanks for your comments, Kristen. Interestingly, Wendy Kopp (founder of TFA) has an endorsement in the first pages of the book, but I think the insights of this book actually go against the practice of TFA. This book works hard to show that quality teachers are made (not born) through intense, lengthy and rigorous training, the very thing that TFA does not provide those it sends out to teach. It only gives them 2 weeks of “intensive training.” That is laughable from the standpoint of Finland’s rigorous training.
    I also noticed among my peers at top tier colleges an unwillingness to pursue teaching partly b/c of its lack of esteem. I well remember my friend in the Mich Business school who absolutely loved kids and loved teaching but would not consider it. Same story with a friend at Harvard. These are the very people (and many more) who might be drawn into the very noble and challenging profession of teaching if it was a more respected path to take.

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  4. Dear Laura, What a helpful review! I grew up in a system where the standard was impossibly high, memorization and math were glorified, children feared their teachers, and each child was numbered according to his or her test scores. When I moved to the States the first time as a ten-year-old, I remember thinking how the teachers here in the United States here gentle and kind, and I somehow felt that they cared. When I returned to the States as a college student, I learned to write my first paper in English 101. In this country, I discovered my love for words. =) I wonder how cultural orientations and relationships between students and teacher affect the “smartness” of children around the world.

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  5. Susan Shanaman ( a Moldy Mint)

    I have read and enjoyed every one of your posts. As a former teacher I read this one with interest. If I should be one of the winners, I will share the book with some of my teacher pals who are still in the trenches and with one of my best friends who is a former school superintendent and is currently heading up searches for new superintendents in three Detroit suburban districts.

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  6. Hi Irene! Ripley does touch on the warmth of American teachers as compared to others around the world. And one of the things I liked about the book was that it describes education systems in very, very diverse cultures that are all managing to succeed in educating their kids. So it is not that only one culture lends itself to quality education, but there are several items that all quality education systems share (e.g. highly trained teachers, high expectations for students in math, a difficult nation-wide test at the end of high school required for graduation…)

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  7. Laura, great review and I have enjoyed your blog. My math grad students would with agree with you about math teaching. They find students coming out of AP Calc courses terribly unprepared for college math.

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  8. Pat

    Hi Laura,
    I have been thinking about some of my teachers and which were the best. Of interest to me is that I can not say the best ones were in the University where I studied to be a science teacher! I hardly remember those classes. Rather, my two best teachers are from my high school days. One a man named Nick who taught me analytic geometry and trigonometry. Why was he the best? Because he taught with such clarity and energy. The subject was tough and he was demanding, but his class was fun as well as very informative. I later tracked him down at the University where he began teaching, and his enthusiasm was still just as obvious. He made those math classes fboth enjoyable and significant.
    The other teacher that I remember as being excellent was Mrs. H, the teacher of American History in my Junior year in high school. Why was she a good teacher? Her absolute love of her subject and her ability to make it come alive. I still remember her role play as she discussed the dynamics of the battles of the Civil War. She would act out the roles of the armies from each side and how they moved and what happened. She made history come alive for me.

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  9. Kim Upton

    Laura,
    It is obvious that you are well-read, as your blog is exceptionally written! What a treasure you are to the online community. In response to your recent post, I have an insight I’d love to share from our son, who is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Masters program in Mechanical Engineering and who astounded this Calculus-challenged mother as he graduated summa cum laude. One of his best friends, also an engineering grad, hailed from Singapore. Lubin confided that in his elementary education, students in his country were trained to persevere in wrestling through a math problem and were not allowed to move ahead to the next problem until that one was solved. In doing so, the mistakes uncovered became lessons and the resolution of the present problem became wisdom towards resolving the next. Watching Matt and our other three children excel in a challenging subject led me to the understanding that unlike me, their high school accelerated classes trained them in this as well. One of my fondest memories as a parent was to hear the revelation of understanding in my kids’ voices as the error in their calculations came to them…”oh, YEAH!!!”… after many minutes of frustrating mathematic gyrations. A beautiful thing. In contrast, my own mathematic mental muscles weren’t forced to be taught, as I would become exasperated and move on to an ‘easier’ problem, thereby missing many educational building blocks. Now that our son works as a mechanical engineer at Tesla Motors in CA, he jokes when we discuss the extensive mathematics he once was engulfed in. “I hardly use it in my career”, he’ll laugh. While the academic aspect may not be overly apparent in everyday operations, little did he realize the character and tenacity that was being ingrained in order to compete in areas outside the school walls.

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    1. Thanks, Kim! Yes, the ability to persevere through difficult academic problems is crucial. Ripley touches on it, calling it “diligence.” They have even developed ways to measure comparative diligence in students around the world.

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  10. Rhonda

    I remember some wonderful teachers my second grade teacher was kind&gentle &agave me my love of books .inhad teachers who interested me in history .sadly did not have an inspiring math or science teacher,.would love to share&discuss this book with my neighbor a relatively new school teacher.

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  11. Mari Caylor

    Such a great article, very informative. I have become increasingly frustrated with the school systems here in California since they adapted the Common Core Standards. I have seriously been considering homeschooling my child lately and wonder if this is a good idea because he loves his teachers. Thanks for the post!

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  12. This is such a passionate topic for me. I spent a half dozen years teaching high school English and left because I felt I was fighting a losing battle by having high expectations and standards. I worked hard to have innovated learning approaches and meet the needs of all student, but I felt no support from an administration that worried more about how numbers appeared than about the actual students–students who were going to graduate high school and were lucky to be at a 4th grade reading level, or students who were getting As while being absent more than 50% of the school days. Or administrations that kowtowed to parents who wanted an easy pass for their students. Not only do we need to value the profession by having high education standards, we need to support our teachers. If we don’t do that, they will continue to leave the profession at the high rates they currently do. Our priorities are so backward in this country. We want educated people coming out of our schools but we don’t support the institutions…however, we’re quick to support professional sports, put movie and television performers on a pedestal, and sinks loads of money into musical performers. It would be nice if we, as a nation, could understand that a strong education system is what will keep the country strong because we’ll have thinking citizens.

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  13. butiknowiam

    Laura! After hearing you talk about this book, I am so excited to read it! Especially in light of the new adventures I’ll be taking. I think I’ll respond about my favorite teacher(s):
    1. C. Barlamas – High school math teacher – I am not good at math but Ms. B was a great teacher. She had a way of inviting me to think harder about what I was doing. Her lessons were helpful and fun and relevant to life. I took her my senior yr of HS for Statistics and I loved the class. We spent a whole semester or so working on a stats project. My project: Divorce and its effects.

    2. College ethics teacher – This was a discussion based class where you had to participate, but the good news is the prof made it so worth participating b/c of topics of discussion. My brain was always spinning after class as I thought through my arguments re: genetic engineering. I loved the content and format of class.

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  14. Barb Gebhart

    Laura, like always I enjoy all your posts and pass them onto Kris, Kate and Matt and his wife. Then we always discuss them. This one was particularly interesting and provided much food for thought. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention. By the way I just ordered Kara Tippert’s book, The Hardest Peace. I have been following her blog since you posted about her.

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  15. Wendy F.

    Sounds like an intriguing read! We so value learning to learn and learning to think–so that our kids can manage well in a fast-changing world–and are always up for new ways to encourage them on this road. Thank you!

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  16. Jon

    Laura. This is an excellent, well written review of what appears to be a timely and provocative book. The author hopefully will prompt serious discusion on several very serious issues for our American society and culture. As I read your review, I could not help but reflect upon the teachers that I had from grade school through professional school. The vast majority of them were dedicated, interested in their students, and knowledgeable in their subjects. However, only three could probably have passed the “Finish-MIT” qualification test. These three teachers had supurb academic backgrounds; and very importantly, they would also have met the three “E’s” test – they were engaging in the classroom, empathetic to students outside the classroom, and enthusiastic about their subjects. Interestingly, their talents did not go unnoticed by their peers as two of them (my sixth grade teacher and my junior and senior high school math teacher) ended their careers teaching on the college level, and my professional school professor ended his career as President of one of America’s largest and most prestigious public universities. I suspect that the author of this book would applaud the career success of these three teachers; but she might also ask how can we keep such obvious talent in the elementary and secondary school classrooms? This would now appear to be one of the challenges facing our American educational system.

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  17. Mike

    Laura, as has been recognized already, you provided a great job on considering the merits of Ripley’s book! Your thoughts and recommendation make me want to read it as a retired educator in both elementary education and high school math. In my experience, elementary teachers typically teach all core subject areas and often favor those they have an affinity for. Math was one that seemed to be less of a favorite among many of them. As students progress into middle schools and particularly high schools, they are much more apt to have teachers who have college majors in their respective subject area. High school math requires mastery of the sub-skills taught in the earlier grades; if those skills are weak, those students will have difficulty finding success.
    As you may know, implementing the Common Core Curriculum Standards (CCSS) is a huge endeavor and political firestorm currently raging in the U.S. The CCSS particularly impacts K-12 math instruction. To me, these changes are vital efforts that require the critical thinking skills that Ripley sees as essential in shaping student minds. While valid and worthwhile, the U.S. has a long history of implementing major changes in its curricula, only to suffer political backlash followed by backtracking within a few short years. From my experience, the poorly conceived implementation of this national curricular overhaul is threatening to repeat our past patterns. There is little to no transition plan and virtually no published curriculum for it; only the standardized tests exist, ones that will surely produce abysmal results with resulting outcries.
    The other issue that resonates with me is one that was mentioned earlier. Math problem solving and critical thinking requires perseverance and stamina. It is not in our cultural “DNA” for students to struggle with a problem until it is solved. My personal experience is that many students will only spend a few minutes on a more difficult problem. When they tire of it, they will move on, leaving a “?” in their wakes. Studies have shown that students in other countries, most notably Asian countries, will persevere much, much longer in trying to solve difficult problems. I wonder if that is what Ripley refers to as the “high standards.”
    Laura, you have piqued my interest. I’ll need to find out answers to my questions by doing a bit of reading myself. Thanks for the effective prod!

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    1. Mike, every part of your comment is touched on in this book – our history of quickly repealing progress due to politics, need for perseverance on students’ part, elementary teachers frequent discomfort with math, the need to master the earlier levels of math to succeed in the later ones, etc. I think you would enjoy this book; admittedly you would approach it from a different perspective than mine, given your career.

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  18. Meghan Wernimont

    I just got home from a screening of the film “Race to Nowhere” at the public library. I have been increasingly concerned about the state of education in our country, not because of outcomes, per say, but because of the extremely high toll our performance culture takes on children. I’d love to hear this author’s perspective.

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  19. Paul Seling

    I’ll add this to my “to-read” list! I have strong interest in higher education but obviously the students we see are the product of earlier education. There is such a large difference in the abilities that students bring with them to college!

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  20. Sharon Schuldt

    You are such a thoughtful writer! I love reading your blog. This book sounds fascinating, I’d love to read it! My favorite teacher was Mr. Ronaldo. So, so tough and hard to please, but the only teacher I ever remember pushing me to go beyond and use my brain muscles in a new and thoughtful way.

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  21. Laura

    I am encouraged yet again by you. I was just praying that God would lay a book on my mind to read. I have so many opinions on the education department of this country and wonder why we are so assessment driven. The poor have been forgotten in education. I am excited to read this book. Thank you.

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  22. Kristen Johnson

    Loved reading EVERYONE’s comments here – what a stimulating forum for discussion. Thanks for creating this for us, Laura. Hope we can keep it up even when no free book has been offered 😉

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    1. I agree! It was a lot of fun to read everyone’s thoughts. I really do wish I could give a copy of the book to each person, but I am contenting myself in the fact that the 5 winners are spread around the country.

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  23. Kristen Johnson

    If you are attentive to detail, you will notice that it’s been exactly a month since my last comment. I implemented a one-month boycott of your blog after not receiving a book 😉 Obviously kidding – glad to be diving back in to your wise weekly words.

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