Ripley is a talented writer who has done wide-ranging pieces on education and other topics for Time and the Atlantic. “The Smartest Kids in the World” may not please everyone in the education-geek world I inhabit, full of people who have been arguing for decades about class size and test validity, but it has the most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.
There have been several books on education overseas. Works like “Surpassing Shanghai,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Marc S. Tucker, provide all the wonky data and arguments about what lessons we might learn from Asia and Europe. But such writing can be dull. Ripley brings the topic to life by leading us into classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea, all of which have high international test scores and give their teachers rigorous training. She follows three American students who for various reasons got a year abroad that included time in high schools.
The book starts hopefully. Ripley introduces German statistician Andreas Schleicher. He is the creator of the Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam often cited by American politicians wanting to remind us how backward our kids are. The PISA test presents itself as a way to measure the teaching of creativity and critical thinking.
Ripley visits her exchange students: Eric in Busan, Korea; Kim in Pietarsaari, Finland; and Tom in Wroclaw, Poland. She spends a lot of space on each kid’s experiences and impressions, but these do not differ much from the often-reported experiences of U.S. foreign exchange students over the past 50 years: They found foreign schools much tougher than American ones and the students more likely to take school seriously than the average American kid. She also interviews leading education officials and experts in those countries to find out how their PISA scores got so good.
The most consistent U.S. failing Ripley discovers is our way of selecting and training teachers. If we erected barriers to education careers as high as those for lawyering, we would be better off. One of the Finnish teachers in the book “had to first get accepted into one of only eight prestigious teacher-training universities,” Ripley reports. “She had high test scores and good grades, but she knew the odds were still against her. She’d wanted to teach Finnish, so she’d applied to the Finnish department at the University of Jyvaskyla. In addition to sending them her graduation-exam scores, she’d had to read four books selected by the university, then sit for a special Finnish literature exam. Then she’d waited: Only 20 percent of applicants were accepted.”