am 5. September 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, September 10, 2013.
The main argument: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed.
All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.
Ripley focuses her attention on the education systems of 3 countries in particular: South Korea, Finland and Poland. South Korea and Finland are chosen due to their being on top of the world when it comes to academic results, while Poland is chosen since it has recently been able to improve academic outcomes greatly despite the fact that the country faces many of the same challenges as the US—including especially a high rate of child poverty.
When it comes to the author’s approach in the book, it is very much that of the investigative journalist: Ripley relies heavily on interviews with specific players in the education systems of the various countries at play (including students, teachers, principals, and politicians); and her main sources are 3 American exchange students (Eric, Kim and Tom) who spend a year immersed in the education systems of the respective countries.
When it comes to South Korea, we find that this country’s edge in education has to do mainly with the very intense motivation and hard work on the part of the students. This is a culture where it is no exaggeration to say that most students spend every waking minute on school work: students spend all day at school, eat dinner at school, and then proceed from there to private tutoring schools (called hagwons), where they study right up until bed-time (and often beyond it). The reason for this intense focus on education is that there is very fierce competition to be accepted into one of the few best universities in the country, and only those who score in the top 2% on a single test at the end of high school are allowed in (a set of circumstances that most Koreans actually resent, but which they nonetheless feel compelled to play along with).
In Finland we find that academic outcomes are on par with those in South Korea, but that the students here have achieved these results without the same level of acute devotion displayed in South Korea. Indeed, Finland’s edge in education appears to derive not so much from excessive studying, but from its very high quality of teachers—which begins with Finland’s exceptional teacher’s colleges. Specifically, the country’s few accredited teachers’ colleges are very selective in terms of who they accept, and the teacher education programs in Finland are themselves very lengthy and rigorous.
In Poland we find that the country’s improvements in academic outcomes as of late may be attributed to a host of recent reforms. These include the ratcheting up of the country’s education standards and targets; the delaying of the streaming of students (i.e., separating students into academic and vocational classes); and the awarding of more funds to vocational schools and schools that under-perform in terms of academic outcomes (together with the simultaneous awarding of more autonomy to teachers in schools that excel in terms of academic outcomes).
Beyond their peculiarities, we find that there is one thing that all 3 countries have in common (which is also shared by all nations that perform well when it comes to academics); and that is that they all maintain very high educational expectations and standards, and these standards are consistently tested in a way that holds real consequences for the students and their future prospects.
The good thing about Ripley’s approach is that it gives us an insider’s look into the education systems of the various countries discussed. This approach is particularly good at unearthing specific insights with regards to effective educational practices. However, the approach does have its drawbacks compared with one that is more scientific in nature, and broader in scope. Ideally, it would have been nice to see Ripley combine the two approaches in her book. Still, Ripley has done very well with the approach that she has chosen, and there are many important insights here. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, September 10; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.