Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Very Late Review of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way

If I was still teaching I’d have to give myself an F for late work. (Very late work!) In the fall of 2013 the publisher of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way sent me a copy and asked for comment.

Eighteen months later, I’ll start with the good news. The author, Amanda Ripley, is an excellent writer. This allows her to take what might have been a slog through data and turn it into a lively, interesting story. She also demonstrates a sincere interest in unlocking the secrets of educational success.

For that reason, in 2010-2011, Ms. Ripley set out on a trip around the world to study schools in foreign lands. She spoke with leaders in education in several countries, compared notes with American educators, and followed the stories of three American teens who headed off to high school in foreign lands. Kim grew up in Oklahoma and went to Finland. Eric grew up in Minnesota and headed for South Korea. Tom left Pennsylvania to study in Poland. The author interviewed all three at length and surveyed two hundred foreign exchange students about their experiences—both those coming to this country, and ours, going the opposite way.

Although I found much of interest in the pages of The Smartest Kids and Ripley’s tale made me think, I had doubts from the start when she claimed that in a small number of countries “something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.”

What about this country? Were we preparing kids to survive in a modern economy? 

According to the CEO of BAMA, an Oklahoma company that makes apple pies for McDonalds, we were not. The CEO told Ripley it was getting harder and harder to find “people who could read, solve problems, and communicate what happened on their shift, and there weren’t enough of them coming out of Oklahoma high schools and community colleges.”

According to the CEO the only possible solution was to open a factory in Guangzhou, China. So, I am assuming as I read, that China must be chock full of high school graduates ready to solve problems and communicate what happens on their shifts.

Also: these high school graduates will accept one tenth of what American workers expect to be paid.

This thread in Ms.  Ripley’s story may be accepted wisdom in school reform circles—and certainly, the corporate types love to talk about it and deflect attention from the fact they like shipping jobs overseas to low wage countries. But was it true? Were America’s schools really failing to prepare students to survive in a global economy? I decided to pull on this loose end and see if Ripley’s argument unraveled. First, I checked the list from 2009 that Ripley used in writing her book. Which countries were graduating virtually everybody with the skills they needed in a rapidly changing world?

Okay. Good job, Portugal and Slovenia. They graduated 96%. Finland and Japan were next at 95%. 

And then we had the laggard United States, with a graduation rate of 76% (since raised).

Pulling on one thread loosened another. So I gave a tug. If BAMA was having trouble finding skilled apple pie makers and American companies were desperate to find enough educated workers—why weren’t they opening up factories in Portugal or Finland? Only 65% of Chinese students graduate from high school. And yet when I pick up a pack of light bulbs at Lowes, a package of underwear at Target or a copy of Pat the Bunny at Barnes and Noble, I see “Made in China” every time.

I don’t see “Made in Finland.”

Despite my skepticism, there’s much in The Smartest Kids for every educator, parent, student and school reformer to ponder. When it comes to school reformers (who never bother to teach) what Ripley says might temper their arrogance. Studying educational systems around the world, she discovers, “Policies mostly worked in the margins.” So changing policy would be a secondary or tertiary affair. She doesn’t believe in all the high stakes testing we’ve been doing either. She refers to such exercises as “bubble tests our kids had to zombie walk through each spring.”

If there was one area where I most agreed with Ms. Ripley it was in making the case that American education wasn’t as rigorous as it should be. Ripley cites a study which found that four of every ten U. S. fourth graders said math homework was too easy. She notes that seven out of ten eighth graders in this country attended schools that do “not offer algebra courses with the kind of content that was standard in most other countries.” 

A Finnish exchange student told the author she was surprised to get a study guide in U. S. history, with answers provided. She scored an A on the test but several peers had C’s. American kids, she said, didn’t study much because they didn’t need to. “Not much is demanded of U. S. students.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Ripley rarely asked teachers, either here or during her travels, to comment. So there are missing elements in her tapestry. She did interview William Taylor, who first taught in a Washington, D. C. school under a principle who did believe in rigor. Taylor explained how he himself set high standards for students and graded accordingly. When he switched schools and began to ask around, however, he was shocked (as Ripley is in her telling) to find “some of his colleagues were basing 60 percent of students’ grades on effort alone.”

Ripley agrees that there are individual teachers and schools in this country that believe in rigor. But she misses a number of salient points in trying to explain why they might be rare. First, Taylor is earning bonus pay for raising standardized test scores on the very sort of tests Ripley feels don’t matter, under a system designed my former D. C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. (Rhee’s plan would soon fall apart when reports of widespread cheating surfaced in USAToday.) And Taylor tells her he started getting complaints from parents because he graded too hard and expected too much.

In fact, one reason I liked Ripley’s book was that her default position isn’t to blame teachers for everything. Teachers don’t get a pass, as we shall see; but she spreads the blame around.

Students in South Korea, she discovered, scored near the top in every international testing competition. How was it possible, she wondered? “Korean teenagers spent more time studying than our kids spent awake,” Ripley realized. And she rightly asked about the role played by parents. “No one talked about them. Didn’t parents matter even more than teachers?”

“Yes, often they do,” I found myself muttering. (I taught for thirty-three years, myself.)

Unfortunately, I had trouble accepting Ripley’s basic premise—that you could legitimately compare the education system of one country with that of another. I was dubious from the start when results from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) tests formed the warp of her tapestry. First, the PISA tests did not exist until fifteen years ago. The first round of tests was given in 2000, when “a third of a million teenagers in forty-three countries sat down for two hours and took a test unlike any they had ever seen.” 

Two hours later we supposedly knew which countries were doing the best job of educating roughly a billion kids annually.

Call me dense, but I couldn’t see where two hours of anything proved much about entire systems of K-12 education. But simple lists held allure for school reformers, politicians and bureaucrats, who latched onto PISA results and flipped. The Germans, for example, were shocked to find their students ranked #21 in math and science and #22 in reading. One German periodical carried the pointed headline: “Are German Students Stupid?”

Closer to home, Rod Paige, U. S. Secretary of Education when the first results were released in 2001(our kids finished #20, #15 and #16), went bug-eyed. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” he fumed to reporters. No Child Left Behind, then in the works, would fix everything.

Paige promised!

So Ripley set out to determine what factors explained the differences in PISA scores (and I kept wondering why scores on this particular test mattered). Why did kids in Finland, South Korea, and Poland score higher than our kids? Studying the evidence, she insisted increased spending did not equate to higher scores. “Beyond a certain baseline level,” she said, “money does not translate into quality in education anywhere.”

“Everything—everything—depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments,” she added.

Her first stop was South Korea. There classrooms were “utilitarian and spare.” The Koreans didn’t go in for a lot of “high tech toys.” On the other hand, she was surprised to see that in a typical classroom a third of the students were asleep. “The teacher,” she noted, “lectured on, unfazed.”

What else did Eric from Minnesota and the author discover? School uniforms were required. Makeup was banned. Students were exhausted. They cleaned the school after classes ended. Kids who had demerits were assigned bathroom duty. At 4:30 they settled in to prep for the one college entrance exam that almost entirely determined their futures. They even ate dinner at school. At nine p.m. they left the building. Most weren’t done and headed for hagwons, or tutoring mills, for which parents paid extra. 

The school year was two months longer than in Minnesota.

Sadly, Ms. Ripley mentioned in passing that both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once said they envied the South Koreans their system. This gives the reader some idea how little our leaders understand about what goes on in our schools. But on close examination the author comes away convinced the Korean system could never work in this country. Even the Korean minister of education isn’t thrilled, telling her his nation had “created a monster.”

Nevertheless, Ripley saw what countries like Korea did to raise PISA scores and came away excited. “First countries could change. That was hopeful,” she explained. Second, “rigor mattered.” The Koreans “assumed that performance was mostly a product of hard work—not God-given talent. This attitude meant that all kids tried harder, and it was more valuable to a country than gold or oil.”

I’m a former Marine. So I believe in rigor. I still wasn’t convinced that the Korean system produced cloth of a better quality. The suicide rate for teens was more than double the rate in this country. And you had to wonder why 68,000 Korean high school graduates headed to the United States for college annually if our system was such a mess. As for all those high PISA scores, they seemed to have little benefit in the long term. The Korean economy has remained stagnant for twenty years.

At first glance, Ms. Ripley appeared to weave a stronger case when she turned to comparing high school graduation rates. A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the very same organization which created the PISA tests, placed the United States #21 out of twenty-eight developed nations in terms of high school graduation.

So the author headed for Poland—where the rate was 85%—where rigor was a big deal. In Poland, Tom, the boy from Pennsylvania, found calculators were not allowed in class. At the end of a test the teacher announced scores. Five was the highest. No one ever got a “5.” In one class the teacher not only announced grades, 22 of 26 students failed.

Ms. Ripley set out to dig down and find the roots of Poland’s phenomenal “success,” in terms of graduation rates and increased PISA scores. From 2000 to 2006, she noted, reading scores for Polish kids taking PISA soared 29 points. 

(By 2012 they were up ten more points.)

Here in America, we were busy preparing students for those infernal “bubble tests.” We listened to people like Secretary Paige and Secretary Duncan, who assured everyone if we followed their lead, results would be great. PISA scores in reading for America’s kids dropped six points instead.

 “Poland’s poorest kids outscored the poorest kids in the United States,” Ripley continued. “That was a remarkable feat, given that they were worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids.” “The results,” she said, “suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world: perhaps the poor kids could learn more than they were learning. Perhaps all was not lost.”

I taught for decades, myself, and don’t doubt for a moment that poor kids can learn. But I decided to check another OECD report on childhood poverty. Ripley’s statement was true, to a point. Poland did have a higher percentage of children living in poverty (21.5% to 20.6% in the U. S.). Still, we ranked #27 out of 30 OECD countries reporting and two of three countries with more children in poverty, Turkey and Mexico, graduated only 45% of their students.

So, poverty did seem to matter.

I wasn’t just picking and choosing statistics. I was using OECD charts and data, the same organization that provides PISA data every three years. Looking closely at OECD numbers, you started seeing more loose threads in the woof of Ms. Ripley’s  telling. In terms of poverty, we finished #25 out of 30 developed nations for number of low birth-weight children. We finished #27 out of 29 nations reporting on infant mortality. We had a far higher rate of births to adolescent mothers, coming in #29 out of 30 developed countries.

In fact, it appeared that you might be able to reduce the U. S. dropout rate by ensuring every teen had access to birth control and knew how to use it. Half of teen girls who get pregnant end up dropping out. And if we were going to compare PISA scores, we might need to compare fertility rates per 1,000 females, ages 15-19. The United States had 31 live births per 1,000 in 2012. Poland had 12. Finland had 9. South Korea had 2. Multiply those numbers by four, as in four years of high school, and you see were part of the problem may lie.

Ripley suggests—and here I believe her argument breaks down entirely—that one problem is American educators’ attitudes in regard to poverty. “What did it mean, then,” she asks at one point, “that respected U. S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything?”

First, I didn’t believe young teachers were being “indoctrinated” to believe that poverty trumped everything. 

Secondly, I knew from experience what it was like to try to reach a student who lived in squalor at home, with a dead dog in the family bathtub. Every frontline educator who ever walked through the door of a classroom knows teaching kids from impoverished backgrounds is much harder. 

Ripley misses the point badly, probably because she never tried to teach.

Sometimes she even missed points she herself had made. All around the world, she admits, it has been shown parents who read to their young children produce kids who do much better at reading at age fifteen. “Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?” she asks at one point. “Yes, it could.”

Yes. It could. But one problem (of many) for poor kids is that their families don’t always have extra money for books. So money might not matter, beyond a “certain baseline” in schools.

Money surely matters at home.

I picked at a few more loose ends and discovered that the United States wasn’t just bad when infant mortality rates were tabulated. Young people of all ages were more likely to die early than in all but two nations of 26 reporting. The pattern seemed clear and a UNICEF study of 29 developed nations in 2013 (below) confirmed it. In America we did a lousy job of protecting children.

Ripley’s final stop was in Finland—a nation whose education system sounded too good to be true—a Lake Woebegone, academically.

The question Ripley hoped to answer was simple. How did Finland finish near the top in PISA scores every three years? What did Finland do that we might emulate?

Before we look at how Ripley answers the question, however, allow me to note: Finland has a population equal to Minnesota. So comparing Finland to our entire country is like comparing apples and clam chowder.

In any case, when Kim left Oklahoma to study in Finland she noticed all kinds of differences. There were no “high-tech, interactive white boards in her classroom. There was no police officer in the hallway.”

I read that line and found myself thinking that the missing police officer tells us something very important about differences in “educational systems.” It speaks volumes about how unhealthy life in the United States has become for young people, particularly when we remember that an estimated 17,000 school resource officers currently patrol the hallways of America’s schools.

Ripley doesn’t see it. The key, she insists—and here the anvil finally gets dropped on American educators’ heads—is the way Finland selects and trains teachers. There are only eight prestigious training universities in the entire country and only 20% of applicants are accepted. Finnish teachers are smart.


Well, they’re dumb. “At most U. S. colleges,” Ripley argues, “education was known as one of the easiest majors. Education departments usually welcomed almost anyone who claimed to love children. Once they got there, they were rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work.” “In other words, to educate our children, we invited anyone—no matter how poorly educated they were—to give it a try.”

(I feel, hear, lik i shud mispel som werds ar something.)

At this point, Ripley began to question the whole idea of using standardized tests and holding teachers accountable. She no longer believed it would work.

“I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards.” “What if the main problem was not motivation? Was it possible to hammer 3.6 million American teachers into becoming master educators if their SAT scores were below average?”

Nope. We were too dumb.

America needed smarter teachers—that’s why kids in Finland did well. They had smarter teachers. But I remained unconvinced. Korean students outscored Finnish kids on every PISA test given, even though they often slept through class. Ripley didn’t notice the dichotomy. Instead, she called on U. S. colleges to limit admittance to teacher training programs to those whose SAT scores placed them in the top third of their class. 

Kind of like Teach for America on steroids.

At this point, I started muttering darkly. Perhaps teachers in Finland simply had an easier time in class every day. Only 3% of students in Finland had immigrant parents. The figure here was 20%, and language barriers often created an extra layer of problems. Finland was a socialist country. So every child received quality health care. There were no Indian reservations, as in this country, where test scores are consistently low and unemployment rates and alcoholism consistently high. Finland had almost no racial minorities—no lingering effects related to a history of virulent prejudice.

Even Ms. Ripley has to admit that African American students in the United States score 84 points lower than white students on the reading section of the PISA test. Their graduation rates and SAT scores were lower—and she recognizes that “up to half the gap could be explained by economics.”

At that point, I wondered. Were teachers “indoctrinated” to believe poverty mattered—or were they realistic?

I suppose at this point I should sum up as best I can. So let me say, despite my doubts, I’m glad I read The Smartest Kids. It made me think about the keys to success in education, which I believe are the same in every country.

I think rigor matters. I think parents, students, educators and our nation’s leaders need to face that fact.

Are there ideas we might copy from other countries? Sure: we could copy Finland and pay college tuition for everyone. We could require student teachers to spend a year in the classroom as they do in Finland. We could fund schools equally the way Finland does, so every school gets the same money per pupil. We could eliminate almost all private schools, scrap vouchers, close down charter schools and eliminate interscholastic sports (Finland, like Poland, has none).

Is there reason to hope that we can improve American education? There always is and always will be. And I believe Ripley sees the clearest path to that goal. “The most important difference I’d seen so far,” she says of her travels, “was the drive of students and their families. It was viral, and it mattered more than I’d expected.”

With that, I believe, almost all educators would agree.

The dilemma for even the most dedicated teachers, and there are many more of these teachers than Ripley will ever know, is how to get students and parents to buy in to this idea.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at and I can probably send you a copy direct for a little bit cheaper. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.

Ripley is surely a better writer—but unlike her, I actually know what teaching is like. My book is based on working with 5,000 kids, not following a handful of foreign exchange students for a year.