Nonfiction Nagging- The Smartest Kids in the World

Let me make this review short and straight to the point: American kids are mediocre, the American government spends too much on our classrooms, American teachers aren't educated enough, and America puts too much emphasis on diversity. The end.

No? Fine. Let's back up. 

I really, really, really don't make it a habit to read "work" book at home for fun- separation of church and state and whatnot. I happened to see The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley on a couple of year end lists and was intrigued after reading the synopsis. Basically, after seeing global test results in reading and math from the PISA test, she decided to investigate why the US consistently ranks average while we throw the most amount of money at the problem (sort of like the rich parents that are constantly hiring tutors, scheduling lessons, and buying fancy gadget for their basic kid). As part of her investigation she worked with three high school students that went abroad to South Korea, Poland, and Finland, all countries with much higher scores and vast improvements. 

While this books is relatively short at 200 pages, plus notes, it covered a great deal. Here's some of the parts that stood out to me:

Teacher Recruitment
The US: This is a big deal to me, since I know that I went through a lackluster teaching program- the sad thing is that there are far, far worse out there. The US has very lax standards for teaching- many campuses require low test scores and grades to be accepted (I think where I went you had to have a 2.5- give me a break!). Teaching is not seen as a respected profession, both in terms of the salary (in comparison to how much work is put in and the years of education required) and the public's perception (although, which came first? Poor school performances or poor opinions?). Also an issue is that the US trains thousands of teachers more than they need- teachers are not a hot commodity.

High-Scoring Countries: In places like Finland and Poland it is difficult to become a teacher- the government controls what schools are allowed to have preparation programs and the bar is set much higher. Depending on the country, teachers are paid somewhat more than the US, both in terms of money and respect.

This is also, in both cases, the same for administration. 

Money and Technology
The US: The US spends more than any other country per pupil and has worked feverishly during the last decade to bring technology into the classroom. My classroom alone has a SMARTBoard, ELMO, projector, teacher desktop, teacher laptop, teacher iPad (because I'm on the leadership team), a wireless router, and several yearbook laptops. We are a low income school, though, which often means more funding.   

High-Scoring Countries: These countries spend less than the US and haven't gotten crazy with technology- most have just the basics.

Teacher Autonomy
The US: This really varies by district, and sometimes site, but for the most part teachers are not "turned loose" to do what is needed for their students. There are pacing guides, required curriculum, standards, local testing, state testing, and various other opportunities to "guide" teachers. Interestingly, if we recruited more efficiently, teachers may not need their hands held quite as much.

High-Scoring Countries: Many countries have gone through dramatic educational revolutions in the last few decades that have resulted in more trust placed on teachers. It's been a gradual process and has been met with a lot of controversy, but at some of the best schools the teachers are truly the experts.

Parental Involvement
The US: Here we see a variety of parental involvement- parents are expected to go to conferences, be on booster committees, chaperone field trips, sit on committees, etc... Parents have also become their students' cheerleaders, a step beyond advocates. They're fearful of hurting their kid's feelings and damaging their self-esteem, so instead they support everything they do and are quick to turn on teachers. Or they're completely oblivious Granted, this isn't every parent out there, but it is a substantial amount. 

High-Scoring Countries: Parents are more authoritative (the combination of permissive and authoritarian), especially in European countries (the South Korean setting she looked at portrayed parents that were a bit more overbearing). Parents are also not as involved in schools, which sounds negative, but therefore requires that the students conduct themselves more responsibly (it's more like college). 

The US: Schools don't necessarily focus on rigor, but instead moving kids through the system. Content isn't challenging, memorization is encouraged, and real-world applications aren't widespread. High school exit exams are simple, tests are multiple-choice based, review is aplenty, and reading materials are given at a lower level. Basically, expectations are low. Hopefully things will start changing with a wider implementation of Common Core, but that's yet to be determined. 

High-Scoring Countries: Other places around the world introduce concepts a few years ahead of the US and are not taught as long. Students clearly see that what they learn in high school will directly impact them as collegiate and professional adults. Unlike the US, school really is a challenge, even at the "basic" level.

Other things mentioned:
- Diversity/race/immigration: The US is so willing to label and box up these kids into compartments
- Tracking: It might be more beneficial to do this later (self-fulfilling prophecy and all that)
- Extracurricular Activities: They're great, but do they detract from the purpose of school?
- Amount of time spent in school: High-scoring countries have seen success with both excessive amounts of time studying and the same as the US.
- Student independence: Our kids coddled too much here? 

Final Thoughts
This book isn't perfect and I didn't agree with all of it, nor all of her collection methods, but it did shed a great deal of light on global education for me. I think this would be a great read for those involved in the field and would lead to some really fantastic discussions. The real question now is, though, how do we fix it?


  1. Interesting.

    There has been much debate in Australia about education of late, mainly because government funding was almost dramatically reduced (publish backlash against brand new government saved the day). This coincided with PISA rankings - Australia is ranked relatively highly however has dropped a few positions over the years. Of course, the question is why?

    I think here it is largely because teachers aren't paid enough and respected as a profession, particularly in public schools.

  2. I never know how much of my own experience I should bring to this kind of a conversation because I went to small Catholic schools for both grammar school and high school. They were privately run, but unlike fancy prep schools, to the best of my knowledge the teachers were paid well below what public teachers in the area got paid (the NY area I grew up in is known for relatively high salaries) and there was definitely no tenure or pensions. By and large, the teachers I had were so incredibly excellent and dedicated -- I can't say how they managed it, but the schools definitely did something right when it came to recruitment. A small, private, religiously affiliated school is a bit of a different environment, but I feel they were very well respected, and had a good amount of choice and freedom when it came to planning their curriculum. They were all-around excellent educators and I cannot count the number of times I've said to people that I found high school more challenging than college -- all these years later, I still feel I learned more in high school than I did in college. Granted, I wanted to work in the human services field (I've since moved out of that field) and that was not a very difficult major, but even comparing the core classes required for everyone -- English, Math, Science, History -- so many of these classes felt like a joke compared to what I was used to. The college classes I actually felt I got something out of were ones where the subject matter was completely new to me -- philosophy, sociology, that kind of thing.

    Even though I don't have kids, I find the topic of education fascinating. I keep hearing horror stories about Common Core though which really makes me wonder if that is the answer. I'm not a teacher or an expert on the subject, so I really don't know what the solution is, but it does seem like training, recruiting, and adequately compensating excellent teachers is something this country does need to work on. I know many outstanding teachers (and it sounds like you should be counted among them) and it is not fair for them to be overly hand-held because other teachers are mediocre. There will always need to be some sort of oversight, guidelines, and accountability, but I don't think reducing all teachers down to the lowest common denominator seems the right way to go.

    P.S. Yours is only one of two blogs I read written by a teacher, so I always find these little educaiton related snippets interesting!

  3. This sounds like a book I'd like to read! The state of education lately makes me sad. Maybe it's always been like this, but I didn't realize it until I was teaching. The pressure on teachers and kids to perform on tests is appalling. At the same time, I'm being told that I have to do what the other English teachers are doing but differentiate. Do what's best for my kids, document everything, but your leash is only this long.

    Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I busted my ass when it came to making things engaging. Meanwhile, the teacher next door is doing vocabulary workbooks with her GT students. Because her kids would score so high (duh), no one looked at what she was doing. I don't know. It's a mess. I'm glad I'm not in the classroom any more because it was such a beat down, and yet, I feel like at least when I was there, I was part of the solution in some small way. Like I said, it makes me sad.