Though most American educators have scant knowledge of the myriad educational systems beyond our shores, schoolhouse explorers have from time to time brought back provocative and often influential insights into how other nations teach their students. There are journalist Jay Featherstone’s 1970s dispatches on British progressive schools and Harold Stevenson and James Stigler’s research on the Japanese and Chinese educational systems from the 1990s. Even nineteenth-century educator Horace Mann, often considered the founder of American public education, spent six months in Europe in 1843 “to,” as he said, “make [him]self personally acquainted with the nature and workings of their systems of Public Instruction, especially in those countries which [have] long enjoyed the reputation of standing at the head of the cause.”


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

by Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.

Education’s role in the global economic race has spurred more recent expeditions. Introduced by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2000 to compare students’ critical thinking skills in industrialized nations, the Program for International Student Assessment—known as PISA—revealed that American students were average or below average in reading, math, and science among nearly three dozen competitor countries. The United States has relinquished its vaunted position as the world’s leading education pipeline, slipping from first to eleventh place in the percentage of young adults with high school diplomas. As higher education ballooned from twenty-four million to 136 million students worldwide between 1970 and 2005, the proportion of the world’s students attending U.S. colleges and universities decreased from 29 percent to 13 percent. (China’s share of worldwide enrollment rose from 0.1 percent to 21 percent—even though only 5 percent of the Chinese population has a college degree.)

Enter journalist Amanda Ripley and her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, as she follows three American exchange students to high schools in three of the top-scoring PISA countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. While her attempt to see deeply into those educational systems from the perspectives of students may fall a bit short—how well equipped are students to analyze the educational systems they’re in for a relatively short time?—Ripley’s well-woven tale of educational history, policy, and culture in the three countries and the lessons she draws for the United States are timely on two big topics: academic standards and teacher quality.

Three years ago, in the face of mounting evidence that the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) inadvertently led to lower expectations for many students, the nation’s governors and the states’ top education bureaucrats worked with teachers and subject specialists to hammer out new, tougher Common Core State Standards in math and literacy, now adopted by forty-five states and the District of Columbia. These same standards are currently under attack from both the left and the right as unfair to disadvantaged students, an assault on local sovereignty, and a lot more—even as majorities of American students say that their courses aren’t challenging enough.

Ripley reports that “rigor”—clear and high expectations shared by students and adults—is what drives the successful education systems in the three nations she studied, where standards are national and mandatory, as they are in most industrialized nations. Indeed, Poland, fairly new to the standards game, introduced them in the late 1990s and then leapfrogged the U.S. and other nations up the PISA ladder, despite higher-than-average levels of youth poverty than its OECD peers. Indeed, Ripley concludes, it is America’s lack of high, shared expectations for students that is “the most glaring problem with America’s fragmented [education] system.”

Ripley’s three students are shocked by the intensity of the commitment to education in other countries. One, from an affluent Minneapolis suburb where he’s studying a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum, is blown away by the fact that his South Korean high school classmates go to school, do test prep in the afternoon, eat dinner at school, and then head to after-school tutoring academies called hagwons, often not arriving home until midnight. “Study police” cruise Seoul and other cities, sometimes breaking into back rooms in the middle of the night, busting up cram sessions. “Korean kids essentially went to school twice every week day,” Ripley writes. For less-affluent parents, helping their children stay in the round-the-clock educational race is typically their biggest family priority.

Ripley makes clear that student testing is at the heart of the strong Finnish, South Korean, and Polish systems—not NCLB-style tests designed to hold educators accountable for student performance, but demanding national tests that students must pass to graduate from high school and get into the best universities. Other nations are relentlessly standards driven in ways that the American education system simply isn’t. In Finland, the university matriculation exams extend over three weeks and fifty hours. In South Korea, students spend two years preparing for an entrance exam for the nation’s top three colleges. Only 2 percent are admitted.

The “smartest kids in the world” take school seriously because school is serious in the highest-achieving countries. To them and to everyone they know, learning matters. Foreign students studying in America report overwhelmingly that academics are easier here and that their teachers’ expectations are surprisingly low. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. opening the country’s stock exchanges an hour late to free up the roads for students traveling to testing sites on the annual national testing day, or grounding planes that day to remove the distraction of jet noise, as happens in South Korea. In all three countries, sports are done outside of school, through clubs. School is about schoolwork.

As Ripley rightly points out, the intensity of education in countries like South Korea puts immense stress on students, and some collapse under its weight. But in Finland, the top PISA performer, students actually have more room to breathe, but there’s no less commitment to rigor or hard work. Nor is rigorous learning just for top students. Tracking—the practice of sorting students into classes by ability ubiquitous in the U.S.—was virtually unheard of in the countries Ripley studied. In Poland, “even diesel mechanics needed to know geometry and the basics of physics. In top-performing countries, rigor is synonymous with educational equity.”

One of Ripley’s exchange students, an Oklahoma student bored by her own high school, was so perplexed by her Finnish classmates’ conscientiousness that she asked them bluntly, “Why do you guys care so much?” The answer, Ripley concludes, has as much to do with psychology, or philosophy, as policy: “[P]erformance was mostly a project of hard work—not God-given talent.” (Likewise, Ripley says, the South Koreans are profoundly influenced by the Confucian belief that the only path to true understanding comes from long and careful study.)

And in Finland, the notion that all students can work their way to high standards allows educators to move close to half the country’s students into and—importantly—out of special education classes at some point in their educational careers without stigma. In contrast, many American educators believe ability is fixed: students are either smart and capable of reaching high standards, or they’re not.

Because of its commitment to transforming its teaching profession in recent decades, Finland has become something of a mecca for American reformers. One hundred percent of teacher candidates rank in the top quarter of their high school classes, and teacher training is concentrated in a few high-quality universities. Admissions standards for the education programs are high. Master’s degrees are required for all teachers, and educators make competitive, professional wages. As a result, Finland now attracts its best and brightest into public school classrooms, where it gives them wide latitude over their work.

That Finland has created such a high-performing teaching profession holds out the hope that we can make teaching much more than the pink-collar work it has been in this country. But some of Finland’s teacher reforms are going to be tougher to transfer to American public education than reformers—and Ripley—suggest. “[U.S.] education colleges should only be allowed to admit students with SAT scores in the top third of the national distribution or lose government funding and accreditation,” she suggests.

Yet it’s one thing to concentrate education programs on eight campuses in a tiny country like Finland, but quite another to transform the more than 2,000 teacher preparation programs that are spread across the U.S., especially since many generate substantial enrollment-driven revenues for their parent institutions. The Finnish national government also pays every prospective teacher’s tuition (and every other college student’s tuition), and supports them during yearlong residencies with mentor teachers, another expensive proposition.

Still, Ripley’s reporting leads her, and us, to valuable insights into today’s standards debate. She doesn’t pretend to know how to build a cultural commitment to educational rigor and the belief in the value of hard work that propels other countries to achieve it. But Ripley helps us see clearly that shifting philosophical gears—making drive rather than talent the cornerstone of our educational system—is a key to achieving our academic aspirations.

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Thomas Toch and Taylor White are, respectively, the director of the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a staff associate at Carnegie.