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

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m approaching this one more as a mom than as an educator. As such, my comments reflect that perspective rather than a critical reading. I’m interested in how kids get an education that they think of as good. I’m interested in their experiences as students abroad.

p. 32. — When Kim got into the Duke summer program for gifted and talented kids and she said to her mom “This is my chance to be normal!” I just cried. In so many schools, kids who are interested in learning are ridiculed or just subtly made to feel weird and out of the norm. (The really sad part is that many of these ostracizing attitudes carry over into adult life, especially in small towns.)

p. 84 – 85 — I am astounded by what Ripley has written about America’s teacher training colleges and the value of a master’s degree in education. If true, it’s deeply saddening that the coursework isn’t rigorous and there seem to be no baseline standards for who gets in. (Can that really be true? Don’t teachers-to-be have to take the GRE and submit a transcript? Don’t they have to pass an intensive practicum?) Either way, teaching here is not held in the high regard Ripley reports it is in Finland. Nor is it limited to it the top minds.

I wanted to know more about the PISA test. I started here. I was looking to find out how many students in each country take the test each year. It’s on the FAQ page. In 2012, 6,111 15 year olds took the test. So, it can’t really be said to offer an accurate picture of our whole country’s educational system. That’s a really small percentage of the kids in the U.S. I think if all kids took this instead of the MCAS or FCAT or California achievement tests or SATs or whatever, then we could use it to generate data that tell us something real about our nation. So, that’s a bit disappointing.

As other reviewers have said, the fact that so few kids actually take the PISA calls into question Ripley’s using PISA results to conclude that Finland, South Korea, and Poland have better schools over all than the U.S.

I can’t throw out everything else she’s written; on p. 100, Ripley relates a story told by a Finnish girl who had come to Michigan for an exchange year: “It was like elementary school in Finland,” she said . . . “We did so many posters. I remember telling my friends, ‘Are you kidding me? Another poster?’ It was like arts and crafts, only more boring.” This is not hyperbole. As a parent and as a teacher in more than one district, I have witnessed first hand these demoralizing cut and paste projects that only require that a student produce some object that will be thrown away once graded. It is the rare and beloved teacher who assigns projects that grab students’ imaginations and get them to think and really learn something they’ll internalize, be proud of, and use again.

Over and over, Ripley returns to the theme of expectations. When we have low expectations of students, they work to meet those low expectations and that’s it. There’s also the theme of rigor. It’s not necessarily about tracking, about separating kids out into ‘college-bound’ and ‘not’ at a young age. It’s not about piling on the volume of work so much that kids have no time to do anything else. It’s about creating excitement about learning, developing coursework and homework that develop kids’ thinking and reasoning skills. All kids can do this, straight As or not.

And, of course, as a librarian and as a lifelong reader, I am both overjoyed and horrified that the international survey and study of family life that was done along with the PISA identified the three most important kinds of parental involvement leading to student success: 1) reading to your children from a very young age; 2) regularly making sure your children see you reading for enjoyment and information; 3) conversing with your kids about what you’re all reading and about world events. Yeesh! Do we need another study to tell us this? And, in light of this, why do library directors everywhere have to prove their worth to finance committees every year?

I might be ranting and raving now. Can you tell I’ve recently started attending curriculum committee meetings at my youngest’s school?

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