Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review & Giveaway: The Smartest Kids in the World

Americans don't seem to agree on much these days. Perhaps one thing we're in agreement about is that our education system is not what we want it to be. By common measures like the PISA test, our students are way behind their counterparts in other countries.  Thus it's not that surprising that we look to the countries ahead of us on the PISA and other such measures for answers.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley dives into Poland, Finland and South Korea for answers, using exchange students as her embedded reporters.  Their perspectives reveal a lot about both the differences and similarities between our systems.

This is a difficult, nuanced issue and Ripley thankfully does not try to provide a magic bullet to fix our education system. Most problems in our country, and really in our everyday lives, have no simple answers.  If we're ever to fundamentally change our education system for the better, it will take a multifaceted, long term approach.  It will take a lot of patience and ganas to make it happen.

Ripley notices a few key issues worth exploring. First, the way we teach mathematics is the U.S. is not the way it's taught in the top scoring countries. As I have written about myself, we teach the broadest amount of topics possible every year, without diving deep and asking more challenging questions. Problem solving and logical thinking, skills that would help our kids across the board, barely make it into our curricula.

Ripley's exchange students reveal that many of the top countries seem to have a greater buy-in to the importance of education both as system but especially among parents. Of course, parents have a reason to push their students harder: their are serious, life-changing consequences when students fail. Most teachers in America will tell you that it's hard to fail a class, grade level or standardized test to begin with, but if you do, you either can retake it until you pass or find some other way to not be held accountable.  In other words, when you hear that kids are "lazy" or "don't care" it's because they know they'll probably get passed along no matter what.

Another serious, systemic issue that Ripley points out is that teacher training appears to be much more rigorous in these case study countries. Education schools are held to high standards overall and each one is highly selective. In Poland, it took amazing political will over the course of decades to pull this off, to the point where I wonder how possible it is for us to do it here. That being said, I feel like this is something we can fix, even though it will not solve all of our problems.

Of course, there were times I thought the author was oversimplifying the problem, or defending criticisms of our system with anecdotes. For example, America's obsession with sports in schools is brought up a couple of times as a problem because it simply doesn't exist in these countries. I found very little evidence to back up the assertion that we're harming our kids through our system that actively promoting athletics. Yet I did not feel Ripley was trying to blame this issue for all of our systemic ills by any stretch of the imagination.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Smartest Kids and the author clearly did her best to deal with this complicated issue with an even hand. Anyone interested in improving education in the U.S. will come away with a lot to think about.

Luckily, I have not one, but two copies of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way thanks to the good folks at Simon & Schuster to give away!  Email with the subject "The Smartest Kids Giveaway" by 11:59pm CST Friday, October 4th to be entered in a random drawing. Thank you and good luck!

Get The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way now on Amazon.