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

Amanda Ripley
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 13 2013
How Do Other Countries Create “Smarter” Kids?

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy.

What is it like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers?

In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embed­ded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

A journalistic tour de force, The Smartest Kids in the World is a book about building resilience in a new world—as told by the young Americans who have the most at stake.

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Review

“[Ripley] gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange…The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Compelling . . . What is Poland doing right? And what is America doing wrong? Amanda Ripley, an American journalist, seeks to answer such questions in The Smartest Kids in the World, her fine new book about the schools that are working around the globe ….Ms. Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.” (The Economist)

“[T]he most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.” (Jay Mathews, education columnist, The Washington Post)

“[The Smartest Kids in the World is] a riveting new book….Ripley’s policy recommendations are sensible and strong….The American school reform debate has been desperately in need of such no-nonsense advice, which firmly puts matters of intellect back at the center of education where they belong.” (The Daily Beast)

The Smartest Kids in the World should be on the back-to-school reading list of every parent, educator and policymaker interested in understanding why students in other countries outperform U.S. students on international tests.” (US News & World Report)

“Gripping….Ripley's characters are fascinating, her writing style is accessible, and her observations are fresh….If you're interested in how to improve public schools, read Ripley's book today.” (The Huffington Post)

“In riveting prose...this timely and inspiring book offers many insights into how to improve America’s mediocre school system.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

"If you care about education, you must read this book. By recounting what three intrepid kids learned from the rest of the world, it shows what we can learn about how to fix our schools. Ripley's delightful storytelling has produced insights that are both useful and inspiring." (Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin)

“This book gives me hope that we can create education systems of equity and rigor—if we heed the lessons from top performing countries and focus more on preparing teachers than on punishing them." (Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers)

“This is a no-nonsense, no-excuses book about how we can improve outcomes for all kids, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It avoids platitudes and ideology and relies instead on the experiences of students.” (Joel Klein, CEO, Amplify, and former chancellor, New York Department of Education)

“Amanda Ripley observes with rare objectivity and depth. She finds a real and complex world ‘over there’—schools with flaws of their own but also real and tangible lessons about how to do better by our kids. The Smartest Kids in the World gave me more insights, as a parent and as an educator, than just about anything else I’ve read in a while.” (Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion)

“Such an important book! Amanda Ripley lights the path to engaging our next generation to meet a different bar. She makes an enormous contribution to the national and global discussion about what must be done to give all our children the education they need to invent the future.” (Wendy Kopp, founder and chair, Teach For America, and CEO, Teach For All)

"The Smartest Kids in the World is a must read for anyone concerned about the state of American public education. By drawing on experiences, successes, and failures in education systems in the highest-performing countries across the globe, Amanda Ripley lays out a course for what we must do to dramatically improve our nation's schools.” (Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst)

“Fascinating….Ripley’s voice is engaging, and Smartest Kids is impeccably researched and packed with interesting interviews and anecdotes….The book ends on a positive note….while the issues are complex, we certainly get the message that we can improve our educational system for our kids.” (Washington Independent Review of Books)

“Ripley’s stirring investigation debunks many tenets of current education reform.” (BookPage)

“In lively, accessible prose….Ripley’s book looks at the data from a new perspective. Those stunned parents and teachers in New York State and elsewhere would do well to read this book first if they are inclined to blame their children’s/students’ poor results on a new test.” (OECD “Education Today” Blog)

“Ripley’s evaluation of education in a changing world is revealing and thought-provoking.” (Rocky Mountain Telegram)

“A good read . . . . If you want to understand what goes on in other countries’ education systems, read [The Smartest Kids in the World].” (Coshocton Tribune)

“[Ripley] is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings.” (Kristen Levithan Brain, Child Magazine)

About the Author

Amanda Ripley is a literary journalist whose stories on human behavior and public policy have appeared in Time, The Atlantic, and Slate and helped Time win two National Magazine Awards. To discuss her work, she has appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and NPR. Ripley’s first book, The Unthinkable, was published in fifteen countries and turned into a PBS documentary.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Amanda Ripley shares what she learned while studying pre-collegiate education in three foreign countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. The quality of education in any country reflects - for better or worse - what the adults in each country value most. For example, in Finland, rather than "trying to reverse engineer high-performance teaching culture through a dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis," as in the United States, education leaders ensure high-quality from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher training programs. Unlike in the U.S. the education of children is entrusted only to "the best and the brightest" teachers who demand academic rigor and best effort.

In a country such as South Korea where that is not the case, ambitious parents enroll their children in hagwons (highly intensive, after-school for-profit teaching centers) to ensure that they will pass the country's stringent graduation examination, "the key to a successful prosperous life." In 2011, parents spent $18-Billion on these cram schools. Ripley calls this system "rigor on steroids," a "hamster wheel" that has created as many problems as it has solved. In 2010, one Hagwon teacher - Andrew Kim - earned $4-million and in South Korea is renowned as a "rock star teacher." Most of his teaching is done online. Thousands of students are charged $3.50 an hour. They or their parents select specific teachers -- not hagwons -- with selections based entirely on how well the instructors' students score on the national exam.

As for Poland, its public schools seem to accomplish much more with less than do the other two.
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Format:Hardcover
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com

In Korea, one big test at the end of school decides everything: an extreme meritocracy in school creates what is almost a caste system for adults with your entire future decided by how you did on the exam. In Finland, the stress is lower for students but higher for teachers, with only 8 universities giving degrees in teaching, and all of them as competitive as MIT to get into. Both countries, however, are top performers on the international PISA tests, a method of comparing educational achievement across countries, dramatically outscoring the US and others.

The Smartest Kids in the World takes the PISA test as a way of finding out which countries are doing well, and then tries to understand what has led to their success. It’s a whirlwind tour of the high school experience in Korea, Finland, and Poland, three top achievers, and the reforms that got them that way.

Ripley’s bottom line, though she doesn’t say it quite this way, is that reforming education isn’t magic or even surprising. It means agreeing on common goals for the system, training teachers well, making the subject matter rigorous and not being afraid to fail students if they don’t learn it, and above all keeping expectations for students and teachers high. Not rocket science, but it’s amazing how hard the special interest groups in the US can make it.

Lots of things go into a great educational system, but Ripley makes some profound criticisms of the American model. It’s harder to retain varsity athlete status in the US, for example, than to get into teacher’s college, and the average SAT score of teachers is lower than the national average.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening March 9 2014
By Teach
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Should be mandatory reading for all those involved in designing curriculum and determining how schools should be operated in Canada. We better make some changes in a hurry before we lose an entire work group running the current inefficient education programs we have today, and using the wrong learning methodologies.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Anecdotal but enlightening nonetheless Jan. 6 2014
By Rodge TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The key to this book is to remember that it's primarily anecdotes and story, so it's not conclusive proof of anything. But nonetheless this book has a fascinating tale to tell, one that pretty much everyone will or should have an interest in. How countries educate their children is of course a never-ending source of fascination and concern. This book is as useful as any to help us understand why some countries do so well and others, well, less so. Of course, since this author is an American writing in the United States, this book's concerns are American centred. The book uses the results of the PRISM tests as a springboard to its tale. We visit Finland & South Korea, two top-performing countries who are also democracies (to aid comparison with the USA). We also visit Poland, which has improved its results drastically since taking the first test around 2000. Why is Poland springing ahead of the US?

Ripley comes up with some possible answers, based on anecdote mainly, as mentioned before. Ripley is skilled at telling this story and helping us understand what it could mean, without taking any conclusions too far.

Maybe this book will make you smarter, along with helping us along to educate smarter kids.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars recommended to all North American teachers
Very interesting insight, recommended to all North American teachers.
Published 4 days ago by Gab
3.0 out of 5 stars not bad
It was a little short and anecdotal for my tastes. However it was easy to read and makes some very good arguments and inferences about how cultural attitudes and institutional... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Nicholas T. Hillier
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, except for the title
This book has been quite interesting and useful in my search for schools. Even though the subjects are American students, it is still relevant for Canadian parents, and educators. Read more
Published 10 months ago by ferhannah
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent lesson on what works in education and what doesn't
Ripley found a unique way of figuring out what to do with American's failing education system: find out what works in other countries through the eyes of American students. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Flatlander11
5.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts...
According to investigative journalist Amanda Ripley’s research, most American students, even those from the top private and public school districts, cannot analyze, synthesize and... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Reader Writer Runner
4.0 out of 5 stars What a pity she didn't compare Canada and the US!
This is a most engaging book. Instead of using 'educationspeak' to explain why countries' secondary education systems perform so differently (with the US ranked as mediocre), the... Read more
Published 13 months ago by John Daniel
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United... Read more
Published 13 months ago by A. D. Thibeault
5.0 out of 5 stars A brief, but personal look, at education around the world
One of the things that, according to Amanda Ripley, parents around the world all agree with is that their own country has problems with its education system. Read more
Published 14 months ago by A. Volk
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