The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way

College & Career Readiness, Teachers & Principals | 08/12/2013

Jonah Edelman
Chief Executive Officer

Jonah is co-founder and CEO of Stand For Children.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is a gripping new book by Amanda Ripley addressing the question, ‘what exactly is happening in classrooms in the countries that out-perform the U.S. academically?’ Ripley investigates this question by spending time where the action is: in classrooms abroad, specifically in Poland, South Korea, and Finland.  Her “informants” are American high school students who chose to study in those countries, and foreign students who come to the U.S. to study.

The Smartest Kids in the World is a page turner. Ripley’s characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh. There’s no hint of tired education talking points or polarizing rhetoric. Ripley lets facts and first hand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around.

The first “aha” moment in The Smartest Kids is this: the performance of students in other countries has changed dramatically over time. In some countries, like Poland and Finland, it has improved markedly; in others, like Norway, which has a homogenous population, low poverty rate, and generous social safety net, it has gotten significantly worse. The U.S. is actually the exception, not the norm, in that we have plodded along at the same level for decades as other countries pass us by.


The fact that student achievement levels across the world are so dynamic is an enormously hopeful fact. If other countries have steadily improved their performance, we can, too.

But how? 

What gives in the countries that have already surpassed the U.S. or are heading that direction? If you ask Ripley’s “moles,” the students from the U.S. who studied abroad in other countries, they’ll tell you it’s due to a few key things (and it’s worth noting that their findings are backed up by a broad survey of students who have studied in and outside the U.S.).

The first is rigor.

The level of expectations and work required in the non-U.S. classrooms is higher. The experience of Tom, a Pennsylvanian studying in Poland whom Ripley profiled, is a good example. In Tom’s U.S. math classes, everyone used calculators. In Tom’s classroom in Poland, everyone did math in their head, to the point that it seems like they were fluent in a language he was not.  And after every test the teachers publically announced how each student had performed, from a 1 (lowest) to a 5 (highest). Tom waited all year for someone to get a 5. No one ever did.  Compare this to American classrooms, where A’s are common and GPA’s are often over a 4.0. 

second, teachers.

The teachers in the highest-performing countries come from the top of their college classes, even top-performers in college work extremely hard to get accepted into teacher-training schools, and teachers are highly respected and well-paid.  You may already have heard that about Finland, for example, but Ripley uncovers something that isn’t talked about much: it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1970s the teacher training landscape in Finland looked a lot like it does now in the U.S.: a lot of teacher preparation programs, many of which were mediocre, a low bar for who was accepted into the programs, and limited oversight. As part of a broader education reform movement, the government closed low-performing teacher-training colleges and ensured the remaining schools raised the bar for entry.  It was extremely controversial at the time. And it worked. 

Third, parent involvement.

In other countries, Ripley reports, parents aren’t asked to come into the classroom and volunteer, or to fundraise for their school. Schools don’t lament that lack of parent involvement because there is general agreement that parents should be involved where they are needed: at home. This is something that our family engagement program Stand University for Parents teaches our parents: the most impactful thing you can do for your child is to work with him or her on reading, writing, and math at home. (You can read more on my thoughts on the highest-impact family engagement here).

We invited Amanda to come speak to our team at our annual staff retreat in July. She gave a terrific presentation covering the highlights of her research and the findings she details in her book.  Definitely worth watching:

If you’re interested in how to improve public schools, buy Ripley’s book todayAnd after you read it, tweet about it to me @JonahEdelman. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • I am confused by the graph. It seems to suggest that the USA has been near the bottom of the educational heap since the 1960s. Am I reading this wrong? Thank you.

    August 21, 2013 11:49 AM

  • Looks like we should be doing what Finland does. He look no standardized testing. High pay for teachers. Low class size. Fully paid through College. Options for vocational. Read all about it.
    Paul "Matt" Chonka

    August 21, 2013 8:05 PM

  • Does Ripley not base her statistical comparisons on disputed statistics. Some countries like China, only report the scores of their best students (namely students in the big cities and not the provinces) while the U.S. tests nearly everyone including the learning disabled. Also, American standardized test scores and graduation rates match up very well when you factor out poverty and other factors such as how we have so many children of immigrants just learning English. In other words, the scores of our better off suburbs and small towns do not lag far behind other nations. As for the more qualitative comparisons, Ripley's interviews with the exchange students and her own observations, I'm not convinced they mean American students are on the wrong track. Poland and Korea look to be preparing students for the type of job market we had in say 1950 where all you had to do is hit the books hard and were destined to have secure employment. In America even high tech work is insecure and not enough to base a large middle class on. It is hard to know exactly how to prepare young people for future work but copying Korea and Poland probably is not worth all the additional stress. Ripley exaggerates how stress free American high school is. I see a lot of students pressing even if they are not completely insane about their studies like Koreans or doing it without calculators like in Poland. One of her main assertions is that American students do not study hard because they are too wealthy and comfortable. Poverty produces academic rigor while wealth produces laziness. This seems like a half truth at best. In American the better off students by in large take school more seriously than poorer students. Lots of reasons for this and it appears to be the case the world over. For ever student studying all day in China or India, there are many more quitting school very young because they have to work and getting anything out of school seems a long shot. Ripley resorts to simply answers about a complex subject, maybe because she is more a journalist than an expert on the subject. The friendly review in the New York Times Book Review claimed that the U.S. dropout rate is 25%. The latest Dept of Ed statistics has the rate for 18 to 24 years at 7 percent in 2010, cut in half from 1970. Don't sure if he got the 25 percent figure from Ripley's book. If so, it is another reason to doubt she is trying to have an honest conversation about how our schools compare to other nations.
    scott hertzberg

    September 2, 2013 7:32 PM

  • Thank you for posting my reply. At the end of my verbose comment I meant to write, "Not sure if he got the 25 percent figure from Ripley's book."
    scott hertzberg

    September 3, 2013 8:00 PM

  • The data is based on a variety of sources but the PISA test is the centerpiece for a lot of it. The tested students are randomly sampled. The test correlates with educational outcomes. The gist of her book is that american schools are absolutely falling behind on exactly the type of skills that other top-teaching nations are able to impart to their children: the ability to reason critically and think for themselves about problems that they have not previously experienced. You should read the book. All of your criticisms are neatly put aside quite early on.

    September 6, 2013 7:31 PM

  • Neatly aside? I think my post touched on a whole host of problems with the book.
    scott hertzberg

    October 10, 2013 12:00 PM