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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

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by Amanda Ripley

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Through the compelling stories of three American teenagers living abroad in the world’s top-notch schools, an education expert explains how these systems cultivate the “smartest” kids on the planet.

America has long compared its students to top-performing kids of other nations. But how do the world’s highest-ranked school systems


Through the compelling stories of three American teenagers living abroad in the world’s top-notch schools, an education expert explains how these systems cultivate the “smartest” kids on the planet.

America has long compared its students to top-performing kids of other nations. But how do the world’s highest-ranked school systems look through the eyes of an American high school student? Author Amanda Ripley has the surprising answer to this question—and many more concerning key issues in education reform in the US. When three teenagers uproot from their homes in America to spend one school year in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, Ripley follows them to discover how certain attitudes, systems, and parenting styles are creating the world’s best public schools.

In Where the Smart Kids Are, Ripley’s astonishing new insights reveal that top-performing countries have gained their ranks only in the past several decades, that fine teachers value prestige as much as (or more than) pay, and that helicopter parenting doesn’t necessarily produce smarter kids.

Ripley’s investigative work seamlessly weaves narrative and fact, providing in-depth research and gripping details that will keep you turning the pages. Written in a clear and engaging style, Where the Smart Kids Are will enliven public as well as household debates over what makes for brighter and better students.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Annie Murphy Paul
In the best tradition of travel writing…Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien—quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes.
Publishers Weekly
Though the U.S. spends more to educate its students than almost any other country, its teenagers rank 26th in math, below Finland (third), Korea (second), and Poland (19th). Yet in “a handful of eclectic nations... virtually all kids learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading.” Setting out to discover how this happened, veteran journalist Ripley (The Unthinkable) recounts the experiences of three American teens studying abroad for a year in the education superpowers. Fifteen-year-old Kim raises $10,000 so she can go to high school in Finland; Eric, 18, trades a leafy suburb in Minnesota for a “city stacked on top of a city” in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves Gettysburg, Pa., for Poland. In addition to these three teenagers, Ripley interviews educators, students, reform-minded education ministers, and others. In riveting prose, Ripley’s cross-cultural research shows how the education superpowers value rigor above all else; the “unholy alliance” between sports and academics in the U.S.; why math eludes the average American teenager; what parents in the educationally successful countries do; and how the child poverty rate doesn’t necessarily affect educational outcomes. This timely and inspiring book offers many insights into how to improve America’s mediocre school system. Agent: Esmond Harmsworth, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (Aug.)
“A must read….[The Smartest Kids in the World] is engaging, thoughtful, and accessible.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“Fascinating….Ripley’s voice is engaging, and Smartest Kids is impeccably researched and packed with interesting interviews and anecdotes….The book ends on a positive note….while the issues are complex, we certainly get the message that we can improve our educational system for our kids.”
Kirkus Reviews
Chronicle of a journalist's global travels to visit schools, interviewing educators and talking with students and their families in order to answer the question, "Why were some kids learning so much--and others so very little?" Ripley (The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, 2008) examines why there is a disparity in performance on tests of mathematical and scientific competence between American students and their global counterparts, even when factors such as poverty and discrimination are taken into account. She explains that America's poor showing translates into lost jobs for Americans, who cannot compete with foreign labor even in semiskilled jobs. Many of the arguments about American education fail to address the real issues behind the competitive failure of American schools compared to Finnish and South Korean schools (where students are in the top tier on international tests), as well as Poland, where the rate of improvement is remarkable. Ripley builds her narrative around the experience of three American teenagers, each of whom spent a year abroad as exchange students--in Finland, South Korea and Poland, respectively. The author describes a political consensus in each of the three countries that nearly guarantees the creation and maintenance of a highly educated workforce, from top to bottom. The importance of education is a reflection of national consensus on the respect for teachers. A large portion of their education budgets go to teachers' salaries, and the instructors are chosen from the top third of their graduating classes and must meet high professional standards on a par with engineers. Per capita, America spends more money on education, but the money is allocated differently--e.g., to sports teams and programs that provide students with laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards. A compelling, instructive account regarding education in America, where the arguments have become "so nasty, provincial, and redundant that they no longer lead anywhere worth going."
Rocky Mountain Telegram
“Ripley’s evaluation of education in a changing world is revealing and thought-provoking.”
Coshocton Tribune
“A good read . . . . If you want to understand what goes on in other countries’ education systems, read [The Smartest Kids in the World].”
OECD “Education Today” Blog
“In lively, accessible prose….Ripley’s book looks at the data from a new perspective. Those stunned parents and teachers in New York State and elsewhere would do well to read this book first if they are inclined to blame their children’s/students’ poor results on a new test.”
Brain, Child Magazine - Kristen Levithan
“[Ripley] is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings.”
From the Publisher
"A compelling, instructive account regarding education in America, where the arguments have become 'so nasty, provincial, and redundant that they no longer lead anywhere worth going.'" ---Kirkus
“Ripley’s stirring investigation debunks many tenets of current education reform.”
The Daily Beast
“[The Smartest Kids in the World is] a riveting new book….Ripley’s policy recommendations are sensible and strong….The American school reform debate has been desperately in need of such no-nonsense advice, which firmly puts matters of intellect back at the center of education where they belong.”
US News & World Report
The Smartest Kids in the World should be on the back-to-school reading list of every parent, educator and policymaker interested in understanding why students in other countries outperform U.S. students on international tests.”
The Huffington Post
“Gripping….Ripley's characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh….If you're interested in how to improve public schools, read Ripley's book today.”
OECD “Education Today” Blog
“In lively, accessible prose….Ripley’s book looks at the data from a new perspective. Those stunned parents and teachers in New York State and elsewhere would do well to read this book first if they are inclined to blame their children’s/students’ poor results on a new test.”
New York Times Book Review
“[Ripley] gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange…The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes.”
The Economist
“Compelling . . . What is Poland doing right? And what is America doing wrong? Amanda Ripley, an American journalist, seeks to answer such questions in The Smartest Kids in the World, her fine new book about the schools that are working around the globe ….Ms. Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.”
Jay Mathews
“[T]he most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.”
Walter Isaacson
"If you care about education, you must read this book. By recounting what three intrepid kids learned from the rest of the world, it shows what we can learn about how to fix our schools. Ripley's delightful storytelling has produced insights that are both useful and inspiring."
Joel Klein
“This is a no-nonsense, no-excuses book about how we can improve outcomes for all kids, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It avoids platitudes and ideology and relies instead on the experiences of students.”
Randi Weingarten
“This book gives me hope that we can create education systems of equity and rigor—if we heed the lessons from top performing countries and focus more on preparing teachers than on punishing them."
Doug Lemov
“Amanda Ripley observes with rare objectivity and depth. She finds a real and complex world ‘over there’—schools with flaws of their own but also real and tangible lessons about how to do better by our kids. The Smartest Kids in the World gave me more insights, as a parent and as an educator, than just about anything else I’ve read in a while.”
Wendy Kopp
“Such an important book! Amanda Ripley lights the path to engaging our next generation to meet a different bar. She makes an enormous contribution to the national and global discussion about what must be done to give all our children the education they need to invent the future.”
Michelle Rhee
"The Smartest Kids in the World is a must read for anyone concerned about the state of American public education. By drawing on experiences, successes, and failures in education systems in the highest-performing countries across the globe, Amanda Ripley lays out a course for what we must do to dramatically improve our nation's schools.”

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.36(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.04(d)

Read an Excerpt


For most of my career at Time and other magazines, I worked hard to avoid education stories. If my editors asked me to write about schools or tests, I countered with an idea about terrorism, plane crashes, or a pandemic flu. That usually worked.

I didn’t say so out loud, but education stories seemed, well, kind of soft. The articles tended to be headlined in chalkboard font and festooned with pencil doodles. They were brimming with good intentions but not much evidence. The people quoted were mostly adults; the kids just turned up in the photos, smiling and silent.

Then, an editor asked me to write about a controversial new leader of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. I didn’t know much about Michelle Rhee, except that she wore stiletto heels and tended to say “crap” a lot in interviews. So, I figured it would be a good story, even if it meant slipping into the fog of education.

But something unexpected happened in the fog. I spent months talking to kids, parents, and teachers, as well as people who have been creatively researching education in new ways. Pretty soon I realized that Rhee was interesting, but she was not the biggest mystery in the room.

The real mystery was this: Why were some kids learning so much—and others so very little?

Education was suddenly awash in data; we knew more than ever about what was happening—or failing to happen—from one neighborhood or classroom to the next. And it didn’t add up. Everywhere I went I saw nonsensical ups and downs in what kids knew: in rich neighborhoods and poor, white neighborhoods and black, public schools and private. The national data revealed the same peaks and valleys, like a sprawling, nauseating roller coaster. The dips and turns could be explained in part by the usual narratives of money, race, or ethnicity. But not entirely. Something else was going on, too.

Over the next few years, as I wrote more stories about education, I kept stumbling over this mystery. At Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C., I saw fifth graders literally begging their teacher to let them solve a long division problem on the chalkboard. If they got the answer right, they would pump their fists and whisper-shout, “Yes!” This was a neighborhood where someone got murdered just about every week, a place with 18 percent unemployment.

In other places, I saw kids bored out of their young minds, kids who looked up when a stranger like me walked into the room, watching to see if I would, please God, create some sort of distraction to save them from another hour of nothingness.

For a while, I told myself that this was the variation you’d expect from one neighborhood to the next, from one principal or teacher to another. Some kids got lucky, I supposed, but most of the differences that mattered had to do with money and privilege.

Then one day I saw this chart, and it blew my mind.

The United States might have remained basically flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath. And what was going on in Norway, right next door, which seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty? And there was Canada, careening up from mediocrity to the heights of Japan. If education was a function of culture, could culture change that dramatically—that fast?

Worldwide, children’s skills rose and fell in mysterious and hopeful ways, sometimes over short periods of time. The mystery I’d noticed in Washington, D.C., got far more interesting when viewed from outer space. The vast majority of countries did not manage to educate all their kids to high levels, not even all of their better-off kids. Compared to most countries, the United States was typical, not much better nor much worse. But, in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.

How to explain it? American kids were better off, on average, than the typical child in Japan, New Zealand, or South Korea, yet they knew far less math than those children. Our most privileged teenagers had highly educated parents and attended the richest schools in the world, yet they ranked eighteenth in math compared to their privileged peers around the world, scoring well below affluent kids in New Zealand, Belgium, France, and Korea, among other places. The typical child in Beverly Hills performed below average, compared to all kids in Canada (not some other distant land, Canada!). A great education by the standards of suburban America looked, from afar, exceedingly average.

At first, I told myself to resist the hype. Did it really matter if we ranked number one in the world in education outcomes? Or even number ten? Our elementary students did fine on international tests, thank you very much, especially in reading. The problems arose in math and science, and they became most obvious when our kids grew into teenagers. That’s when American students scored twenty-sixth on a test of critical thinking in math, below average for the developed world. But, so what? Our teenagers had performed at or below average on international tests for as long as anyone had been counting. It had not mattered much to our economy so far; why should it matter in the future?

The United States was a big, diverse country. We had other advantages that overwhelmed our K-12 mediocrity, right? We still had world-class research universities, and we continued to invest more in research and development than any other nation. It was easier to start a business here than in most places on earth. The values of hard work and self-sufficiency coursed like electricity through the United States, just as they always had.

But everywhere I went as a reporter, I saw reminders that the world had changed. The 2,300 days that our kids spent in school before high-school graduation mattered more than ever before. In Oklahoma, the CEO of the company that makes McDonald’s apple pies told me she had trouble finding enough Americans to handle modern factory jobs—during a recession. The days of rolling out dough and packing pies in boxes were over. She needed people who could read, solve problems, and communicate what had happened on their shift, and there weren’t enough of them coming out of Oklahoma’s high schools and community colleges.

The head of Manpower, a staffing and recruiting firm with offices in eighty-two countries, said one of the hardest jobs to fill anywhere was the sales job. Once upon a time, a salesperson had to have thick skin and a good golf game. Over the years, however, products and financial markets had become wildly more complex, and information had become available to everyone, including the customer. Relationships were no longer everything. To succeed, salespeople had to understand the increasingly sophisticated and customizable products they were selling almost as well as the engineers who worked on them.

Rather suddenly, academic mediocrity had become a heavier legacy to bear. Without a high-school diploma, you couldn’t work as a garbage collector in New York City; you couldn’t join the Air Force. Yet a quarter of our kids still walked out of high school and never came back.

Not long ago, zero countries had a better high-school graduation rate than the United States; by 2009, about twenty countries did. In an era in which knowledge mattered more than ever, why did our kids know less than they should? How much of our problems could be blamed on diversity, poverty, or the vastness of the country? Were our weaknesses mostly failures of policy or of culture, of politicians or of parents?

We told ourselves that we were at least raising more creative children, the kind who might not excel in electrical engineering but who had the audacity to speak up, to invent, and to redefine what was possible. But was there a way to know if we were right?

the mythical nordic robots

Education pundits had worked mightily to explain different countries’ wildly different results. They had visited faraway schools on choreographed junkets. They’d debriefed politicians and principals and generated PowerPoints for the folks back home. However, their conclusions were maddeningly abstract.

Take Finland, for example, which ranked at the top of the world. American educators described Finland as a silky paradise, a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved. They insisted that Finland had attained this bliss partly because it had very low rates of child poverty, while the United States had high rates. According to this line of reasoning, we could never fix our schools until we fixed poverty.

The poverty narrative made intuitive sense. The child poverty rate in the United States was about 20 percent, a national disgrace. Poor kids lived with the kind of grinding stress that children should not have had to manage. They learned less at home, on average, and needed more help at school.

The mystery was not so simply solved, however. If poverty was the main problem, then what to make of Norway? A Nordic welfare state with high taxes, universal health care, and abundant natural resources, Norway enjoyed, like Finland, less than 6 percent child poverty, one of the lowest rates in the world. Norway spent about as much as we did on education, which is to say, a fortune, relative to the rest of the world. And, yet, Norwegian kids performed just as unimpressively as our own kids on an international test of scientific literacy in 2009. Something was amiss in Norway, and it wasn’t poverty.

Meanwhile, the Finns themselves offered vague explanations for their success. Education, I was told, had always been valued in Finland, going back hundreds of years. That explained it. But, then, why did only 10 percent of children finish high school in Finland in the 1950s? Why were there huge gaps between what rural and urban kids knew and could do in Finland in the 1960s? Back then, Finland’s passion for education had seemed rather uneven. What had happened?

At the same time, President Barack Obama and his education secretary said that they envied the South Korean education system, lauding its highly respected teachers and its demanding parents. On the surface at least, Korea appeared to have nothing in common with Finland. The Korean system was driven by testing, and Korean teenagers spent more time studying than our kids spent awake.

Listening to this cacophony, I kept wondering what it would be like to actually be a kid in these mystical lands of high scores, zero dropouts, and college graduates. Were Finnish kids really the Nordic robots that I kept reading about? Did Korean kids think they were getting such a sweet deal? What about their parents? No one talked about them. Didn’t parents matter even more than teachers?

I decided to spend a year traveling around the world on a field trip to the smart-kid countries. I wanted to go see these little bots for myself. What were they doing at ten on a Tuesday morning? What did their parents say to them when they got home? Were they happy?

field agents

To meet the Nordic robots, I needed sources on the inside: kids who could see and do things that I could never do on my own. So, I recruited a team of young experts to help.

During the 2010–11 school year, I followed three remarkable American teenagers as they experienced smarter countries in real life. These kids volunteered to be part of this project as they headed off for year-long foreign-exchange adventures, far from their families. I visited them in their foreign posts, and we kept in close touch.

Their names were Kim, Eric, and Tom, and they served as my escorts through borrowed homes and adopted cafeterias, volunteer fixers in a foreign land. Kim traveled from Oklahoma to Finland, Eric from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania to Poland. They came from different parts of America, and they left for different reasons. I met Kim, Eric, and Tom with the help of AFS,

Youth for Understanding, and the Rotary Clubs, outfits that run exchange programs around the world.

I chose these Americans as advisers, but they turned out to be straight-up protagonists. They did not stand for all American kids, and their experiences could not reflect the millions of realities in their host countries. But, in their stories, I found the life that was missing from the policy briefings.

Kim, Eric, and Tom kept me honest. They didn’t want to talk about tenure policies or Tiger Moms; unburdened by the hang-ups of adults, they talked a lot about other kids, the most powerful influences in teenagers’ lives. All day long, they contemplated the full arc of their new lives, from their host families’ kitchens to their high-school bathrooms. They had much to say.

In each country, my American field agents introduced me to other kids, parents, and teachers, who became co-conspirators in this quest. In Korea, for example, Eric sent me to his friend Jenny, a teenager who had spent half her childhood in America and the other half in Korea. Jenny, an accidental expert on education, patiently answered questions that Eric could not. (Video interviews with my student sources can be found on the website for this book at www.AmandaRipley.com.)

To put the conclusions of these informants in context, I surveyed hundreds of other exchange students about their experiences in the United States and abroad. Unlike almost everyone else who proffers an opinion about education in other countries, these young people had first-hand experience. I asked them about their parents, schools, and lives in both places. Their answers changed the way I thought about our problems and our strengths. They knew what distinguished an American education, for better and for worse, and they did not mind telling.

When I finally came back to the United States, I felt more optimistic, not less. It was obvious that we’d been wasting a lot of time and money on things that didn’t matter; our schools and families seemed confused, more than anything else, lacking the clarity of purpose I saw in Finland, Korea, and Poland. Yet I also didn’t see anything anywhere that I didn’t think our parents, kids, and teachers could do just as well or better one day.

What I did see were whole generations of kids getting the kind of education all children deserve. They didn’t always get it gracefully, but they got it. Despite politics, bureaucracy, antiquated union contracts and parental blind spots—the surprisingly universal plagues of all education systems everywhere—it could be done. And other countries could help show us the way.

Meet the Author

Amanda Ripley is an award-winning journalist whose work about human behavior and public policy has appeared in TIME, The Atlantic, and Slate. Amanda has appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and NPR to discuss education reform throughout the world.

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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
popscipopulizer More than 1 year ago
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, September 10, 2013. The main argument: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed. All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Ripley focuses her attention on the education systems of 3 countries in particular: South Korea, Finland and Poland. South Korea and Finland are chosen due to their being on top of the world when it comes to academic results, while Poland is chosen since it has recently been able to improve academic outcomes greatly despite the fact that the country faces many of the same challenges as the US--including especially a high rate of child poverty. When it comes to the author's approach in the book, it is very much that of the investigative journalist: Ripley relies heavily on interviews with specific players in the education systems of the various countries at play (including students, teachers, principals, and politicians); and her main sources are 3 American exchange students (Eric, Kim and Tom) who spend a year immersed in the education systems of the respective countries. The good thing about Ripley's approach is that it gives us an insider's look into the education systems of the various countries discussed. This approach is particularly good at unearthing specific insights with regards to effective educational practices. However, the approach does have its drawbacks compared with one that is more scientific in nature, and broader in scope. Ideally, it would have been nice to see Ripley combine the two approaches in her book. Still, Ripley has done very well with the approach that she has chosen, and there are many important insights here. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, September 10; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am currently a junior at a major university in the teaching program. Reading this book gave me such a great perspective on the education system here in the U.S and around the world. We have a lot to learn from education systems from other countries.
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
Catchy title, huh? Do I have your attention? You heard it here first: This book is going to be controversial. Read it anyway. Not only is it going to be controversial, but it’s going to change the way you think about our education system. Here’s the short and skinny: American students are behind academically and there are hundreds of theories about why this is. Is it child poverty? Standardized testing? Teachers? Technology? Sports? Amanda Ripley (who had spent most of her career thinking education was ‘soft’) wanted to find out, so she began research what was happening in some of the best educational systems around the world. Drawing on various studies and interviews, she also followed three American high school students as they ventured to some of the top countries for a year abroad. The results were startling. Note: Most of ranking data in the book comes from the PISA scores – click here for their site. A lot of what she says in the book is not new, like: - Technology isn’t necessarily better. - Increased funding doesn’t fix much. - Smaller class sizes aren’t as important as we think. - Americans are behind. - Child poverty is not the cause of our mediocre performance (for example, Norway has low child poverty and low scores). But underneath these seemingly benign observations lie the root of the problem: Rigor. American students aren’t taught rigor. Everyone gets a trophy and, while academics are important, it’s perfectly fine to skate by. Basically, we’re soft. And a few of the contributing factors? According to the book, it’s teachers and parents. Here are her reasons why: The Teachers: We live in a country where we produce more than two and a half times the number of teachers we actually need. To become a teacher, you don’t even have to score the national average on the ACT. In fact (according to the book and her research, that is), less than half of American math teachers majored in math (less than a third minored in it). Plus, we perpetuate the culture that math is an innate ability rather than one you can learn. Then let’s factor in the importance of sports – lots of people become teachers so that they can coach, say, high school baseball. They aren’t there to teach, they are there to coach and teaching is a means to that end. It’s no wonder higher standards and performance-based pay is considered a threat, not an investment. There are a whole lot of teachers out there who aren’t even able to make the grade in what they teach. The result? The good teachers get screwed and leave the profession for greener pastures. If we made teaching more of a priority, paid them more, and took the best and brightest, then the whole system would be revamped. The Parents: There’s no argument that  parental involvement is important. But does the type of involvement matter? Studies point to yes. In America, we have what Ripley calls the PTA parents. They go to every sports game, bake cookies, help with fundraising, and volunteer in the classrooms. But none of this matters. What’s more effective is reading to your kids at home and discussing social issues with them at the dinner table. For example, reading to your children can help boost their scores, but giving them alphabet toys to play with does not. Be ing a cheerleader can be great, but not as a replacement to valuable coaching. A 2009 study by Andreas Schleicher showed that parental involvement in extracurricular activities actually led to worse performance in reading than those who didn’t (and this was after controlling for things like socioeconomic status). The Students: Ripley followed three high school students to South Korea, Poland, and Finland, respectively. Each country has their own set of pros and cons, but all three of them are competing at a much higher level than the United States. One of the things that all three students learned was that these foreign countries placed a much higher value on the importance of education. Plus, the students had a lot more autonomy, in part due to their work ethic. And with the exception South Korea, the kids all had normal lives. The difference was that their priorities and discipline. What I Think: I loved this book. I am definitely going to be going back and looking into her research to see if it all checks out because I’m a skeptic, but it does make sense. And to be honest, Ripley says a lot of things I have thought. While I’ve had some effective teachers (mostly AP/college), I have had plenty of crappy ones, too. I know there are a lot more good ones who left the profession. I know a few people who have left  teaching and were awesome at their jobs but were rundown by the system. Being underpaid, undervalued, and held accountable for kids’ futures when you don’t even have the respect you deserve is pretty disheartening. We need to stop looking at teachers as requirements and get the brightest ones into the classroom and give them incentive to stay. We also do live in a society where mediocrity is okay as long as you try hard. If we raised the standards, our kids would meet them if we instilled in them the idea that they could. Luckily for me, I had these types of parents. They read to me and discussed current events over the dinner table. I didn’t get a pat on the back for getting a C but I wasn’t chastised, either. Whenever I thought I couldn’t do something, they would give me the confidence I needed to try anyway. And you know what? I have big plans for myself that don’t include being mediocre.   A Few Disclaimers: Of course there are kids who don’t fit the norm and a ton of amazing teachers. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist, it’s that they are undervalued. Ripley also takes care to point out unique political climates that led to some of the successes in other countries. She also points out the downsides of their systems because nothing is perfect. But even after all this, it’s clear that American schools are not where they need to be. “The real world did not give second and third chances: the real world didn’t give credit for showing up.” Before I wrap this up, I want to point out a few things that reinforce what is mentioned in thebook. I want you to stop for a minute, ignore your gut reaction, and really think about it. Then, reevaluate. - How many movies are there about the jock coming in and propelling the smart girl into popularity? It’s insulting. I can think of a few off the top of my head – 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That. - How many really effective teachers have you had in your lifetime? I can count on one hand, maybe two. - Did you see a difference in how athletes were treated versus the ‘nerds’? I certainly did. I didn’t play sports and read for fun.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book really makes a reader think about what really is important for student success in schools in other places and what might be applied to our own school systems. A very stimulating read, indeed.
Gardenseed More than 1 year ago
This should be required reading for every American parent. Some of the findings may be hard to accept: We tend to hero-worship sports, technology and electronics, and beautiful buildings. These are unrelated to success in mathematics and sciences. Reading aloud to children and talking to them about the world outside their own family, friends, and school  is necessary for their success. They must learn that the world is bigger than their sports field and shopping mall. Give them the freedom to make their own choices, to succeed - or to fail - and learn to work conscientiously to avoid failure and rise above it from an early age and they will succeed if they have good teachers. Gifted, highly skilled teachers are a necessity, not a luxury.  Children can do without electronics and  expensive sports programs, but not without well educated, gifted, enthusiastic teachers. If you are a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a taxpayer - read this book!  Then act upon it!
silverarrowknits More than 1 year ago
I thought this book had a lot of great take away messages for both parents and teachers. Ripley reports that parents are most helpful when they read to their children when they are young and ask their children how their days were when they are older. Interesting, but not too surprising, children whose parents are very involved in the schools' extracurricular activities tend to perform worse than children whose parents are not involved. Ripley notes that this is only a correlation, so parents might be encouraging their kids to focus more on extracurricular activities more than schoolwork or that parents are getting involved because their kids are doing poorly and want the school to look at their children in a better light. In regards to teachers, Ripley's research indicates that teachers that provide rigor and push their students to do better are doing more for their students than teachers who provide all the answers. As someone who had teachers who gave me the answers and other teachers who made me rewrite a thesis sentence ten million times before I could write the rest of the essay, I can attest that teachers who made me work for my grade had my respect and trust. Ripley does a good job showcasing what Finland, South Korea, and Poland do right and what these countries need to work on. It was refreshing to see that school systems around the world have their problems. Ripley rightly shows that the United States' educational system has some serious problems and is ranked accordingly. She does give the United States hope; however, when she shows that countries like Poland have only made recent changes that have greatly improved their national rankings. Ripley focuses the book on three international exchange students' perspectives. Although she does speak with some other people, Ripley appeared to get most of her book from these three high school students. Granted, I think that their opinions are well thought out and interesting; however, I wish that she had interviewed a broader group of people both within the United States and in other countries. When I first started the book, I thought Ripley had only three exchange students' perspectives, so I was a little worried. Then I discovered that she had done a survey including lots of students, so I felt better. Unfortunately, I then looked at the numbers. Ripley sent a survey out to 242 US students who attended school abroad and 1104 international students who attended school in the United States; however, only 37 American students and 165 international students responded. Ripley states that these data are still good; however, I cannot see how that is true without the needed statistical analyses that she does not provide. Throughout the book, she notes that 8 out of 10 students said "fill in the blank." I do not feel confident in these statements. The sample size is much to small. I may be wrong about this; however, the lack of any statistical explanation in the appendix does not lessen my concern. I think I would not have been so bothered by this, if she had cited more of her sources in the text. Because I did not know where statistics were coming from, I did not know if I could believe them. Ripley does have resources in the back of the book, but they are grouped by chapter, not line by line (at least this is how it was done in my galley copy). Some may argue that having lots of references in the text would be distracting, but Mary Roach does this in her books and they are very readable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is awesome! I feel like this author, through her interactions with Kim, Eric, and Tom, totally sees and understands what I see in the classroom as a student. This book reads like a good novel, only one filled with all kinds of fascinating information about education in America. This is the sort of book that will leave you thinking long after you finish it- and a book that will change the way you think about education.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such a good read. It has a very enlightening point of view for such an elusive subject. A must read for any parent who wants their child to succeed in life after high school
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amanda Ripley's research brings together academia & reality. Her conclusions are very interesting & her writing style is entertaining. I recommend the book to parents, educators, & anyone interested in education.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating, highly recommended for parents of school-age children, educators and anyone interested in the future of education in America
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This is a readable account of what a
Jonesy2 More than 1 year ago
After reading the reviews of this book it has to be a very interesting and informative read .After bring up 4 children and now 4 grandchildren, I find that All of the reviews mention a lot of common sense objectives in education that somehow have been forgotten about.
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Really enjoyed the read. He supports his arguments with statistics and very interesting anecdotes.
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Thought provoking read.
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Didn't read...looks boring...blah blah blah.