First off, the title of this book is a misnomer--The Smartest kids in the World. Maybe it's irony, something tongue-in-cheek, because as Ripley points out, this has nothing to do with how smart kids are, but it has everything to do with the school system that educates them and the culture they live in.
Covering educational issues as a reporter was a heeby-jeeby experience for Ripley, replete with opinionated adults and wild variations between schools and even classrooms, so she fled the U.S. and began to study other school systems around the world. She decided to focus on South Korea, an educational powerhouse for years, Finland, which dumbfounded the world and itself with the meteoric rise in its test scores, and Poland, in the midst of an educational turnaround of its own. But she didn't just want to talk to the adults in these systems who has their own opinions. Instead, she turned to the real experts--the students themselves. Specifically, she focused on three American exchange students visiting these countries for a year in order to get their in-the-trenches view of what the school systems in their host countries are doing as opposed to their home schools.
What she found might be surprising to some but probably shouldn't be. First off, throwing money at schools doesn't work. The schools in countries other than the US are downright shabby in comparison, located in aged, utilitarian buildings completely void of the educational gadgets so common in American classrooms. Yet the students these schools produce make American students look like they suffer brain damage in comparison.
In addition, Ripley takes a direct shot at sports in school and the fact that it is of such grave importance in American schools and mostly absent from foreign schools.
Another importance difference between American schools and other schools around the world is the teachers. In Finland, for example, the country quickly injected both rigor and quality into its schools by closing most of the educational colleges that churned out a surplus of teachers, thus narrowing the supply chain, and increased the qualifications a person would have to meet in order to be accepted into a teacher training program. In other countries as well, the teaching profession is seen exactly as that--a profession of professionals, and thus, something to be viewed with respect.
All of these steps point to something sorely lacking in the US--a respect for education. In so many ways, young people get the message that education is not something they should take seriously, that it is not something worthy of respect. As a person who spent nine years working in the public school system, I saw this particular problem every day. But it was something all too apparent when I myself was a student back in the nineties.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book to me is the argument that the reason American students do so poorly on international tests is because of the counterproductive narrative of intelligence so often cited in the United States. The oft-repeated idea is that academic achievement is a direct result of a person's intelligence level, that academic ability is something innate and cannot be changed. You either got it or you don't.
In high-performing countries, on the other hand, the cultural message is that academic performance is directly related to hard work. This is especially true in Asian countries, such as South Korea, where education occupies kids' every waking moment.
As an American raising a child in the US, I've already begun to see this narrative of "the smart kid" playing out with my own daughter. And she's only three years old. Repeatedly I hear adults praise her for her accomplishments by telling her she's smart. I grit my teeth and turn the compliment around by telling her she's hardworking or a "big girl" instead. So for me, the idea that this narrative permeates our culture is quite (and disturbingly) apparent to me, and I want to fight it as best I can. Adults don't realize the damage they are doing despite their good intentions.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in education and especially to parents with kids in school. And to my colleagues in Oklahoma, I recommend this as an outsider's view of what does and (mostly) doesn't work in the Oklahoma education system.
Word and Book Lover.