by Rebecca Bauer

When I began reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, I had no idea that a book could be so inspiring and depressing at the same time.

After discovering America’s average scores on the international PISA tests, Ripley started to wonder what factors contributed to a country’s success. Why did certain countries outperform others?

She knew examining the data alone would only take her so far, so in search of answers, she followed the stories of 3 American students as they spent a year in countries known for their high quality education systems, South Korea, Finland and Poland. Ripley supplements their stories with research and weaves in connections to previous education reforms in America. What is so empowering and alarming about this book, is Ripley really offers answers to the tough questions and promising solutions.

Why are so many students failing? Why do so many students drop out of school? Why are teachers unhappy? Ripley addresses these questions and uses countries who have drastically improved their education as examples to show us how we can fix our broken system. Why then is it, in part, a depressing read? Because it shows us exactly how far we have to go.

Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from the book:

Selective Teachers’ Colleges

Ripley’s description of Finland’s teacher education process, had me floored. Here is a short excerpt:

“In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into a medical school in the United States. The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else” (85).

I started to imagine how drastically different my teacher preparation experience would have been if we had that attitude in America.

Maybe my college guidance counselor wouldn’t have looked at me with surprise when I told him I wanted to be a teacher. Maybe he wouldn’t have corrected me, suggesting I aim higher, “you mean you want to be a principal, one day then, right?”

Maybe classmates at college wouldn’t have told me that doing fieldwork in an elementary school classroom was a waste of time when I could be learning from college professors. Would they have said that to a pre-med student interning at a hospital?

I’d like to say that these are only perspectives from people outside field of education, but sadly the low expectations exist within teacher preparation programs, as well. I started to look into Master’s degrees in education, I noticed an upsetting trend in the admissions policy, minimum GPA: 2.5. Especially in today’s state of grade inflation, a GPA of 2.5 does not indicate an ability to do rigorous work.

Ripley reports similar findings, noting that the teacher she featured only needed a score of 19 or higher (20.6 is average) on the ACT to be admitted to the teachers program. She nicely summarizes the outrageous implications of this fact: “It was acceptable to perform below average for the country on a test of what you had learned throughout your educational career if you aspired to dedicate your career to education” (93).

Teaching Kids How to Fail

Interestingly, while failure needs to be less acceptable in teachers’ colleges, it needs to be more acceptable in K-12 schools. Ripley describes how Tom, the exchange student in Poland, got further and further behind in math each year, because in America, failure is to be hidden rather than dealt with.

Ripley summarizes the contrast between Poland’s and America’s attitudes about failure:

“Kids in Poland were used to failing, it seemed. The logic made sense. If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn” (72).

“Failure in American schools was demoralizing and to be avoided at all costs. American kids could not handle routine failure, or so adults thought” (72).

What I found so fascinating about this attitude was not only that it keeps children from seeking out challenges in the context of school, but also that it does not effectively prepare students for the world. A frequent topic in education policy today is that students are arriving to college unprepared and they must take remedial courses upon arrival. While the academic deficit is a major struggle, InsideHigherEd also reports that the emotional health of incoming freshman is lower than it has been in at least 30 years. Providing opportunities for students to fail in safe and supportive environments will not only allow them to aim higher, it will also help to build their resilience.

Character & Conscientiousness

As most of the book focuses specifically on academic success, I was excited that Ripley also explicitly addresses the importance of character:

“Mastery of math never made anyone get to work on time, finish a thesis or use a condom. No, those skill sets had more to do with motivation, empathy, self-control and persistence. These were core habits, workhorse traits sometimes summed up by the old-fashioned word character” (120).

Ripley goes on to explain that, “researchers discovered something wonderful: character was malleable, more malleable in fact than IQ” (120). Therefore, she concludes that some communities may be better at fostering character than others.

Ripley’s points about character tie in closely with our beliefs at First, it is of extreme importance that we work to ensure that our kids become both smart & good. Second, we can create schools that can develop students character.