Saturday, August 02, 2014

Amanda Ripley & The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley also spoke this morning about the findings of her book that was released a year ago, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (, which is an absolute must read. Below are the first three items from the email I dedicated to it last August, including a link to an extended excerpt from the book (including my underlining).


1) STOP THE PRESSES!  I just finished reading Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way ( and it is an absolute must read! I’m dedicating this entire email to it.


The book covers a lot of ground, but mainly focuses on three American high school students who spend a year at regular public schools in Finland, Poland and South Korea – all countries that, unlike the US, have made great progress educationally and now score well above us (despite, needless to say, spending a ton less per pupil than us). Each country has lessons for us:


·       Finland is the model we should aspire to, especially the way they recruit and train fantastic teachers – and then give them great autonomy. It’s the way EVERY successful school (and school system) I’ve seen works, rooted in what Charlie Munger calls “a seamless web of deserved trust” (he was referring to how one of the largest companies in the world, Berkshire Hathaway (of which he is Vice Chair to Warren Buffett), with nearly 300,000 employees, operates with only a couple of dozen people at headquarters).

·       I’d never heard anything about Poland’s educational system, but we could learn a lot from their first phase of reform in which the country re-set the bar to a rigorous, high level and outlined a standard national curriculum – but then gave schools and teachers freedom in how to meet the goals (Poland’s next phase is upgrading teacher quality).

·       South Korea has a laser-like focus on education – to an obsessive, insane degree, including private cram schools called hagwons – that could never be fully replicated here, but if we took education even half as seriously as they do, it would make a HUGE difference.


To summarize the book in three points:


1.     Set up a system to get only top-caliber people into teaching and then train (and retain) them well (like we do with doctors, for example).

2.     Set a high bar and demand hard work and critical thinking. “Nine out of ten international students reported that school in America was easier than school back home. Seven out of ten American students agreed with them.” Ripley’s research confirms that what I’ve long said is true worldwide: young people, like big organizations, will like up – or live down – to whatever expectations you set for them.

3.     There needs to be a national ethos regarding the importance of education (as opposed to, say, high school football).


As I write these points, I’m realizing that there’s another reason this book might be very powerful: it focuses on things that folks like Ravitch and me might (I hope you’re sitting down) actually agree on.


2) So much of the book is a must-read and I underlined and starred so many pages that I had trouble narrowing down what to share. I scanned 27 pairs of pages and posted them at: (the file was too large to attach, sorry). Here’s a rough table of contents (using my page numbers since the book’s page numbers were cut off by my scanner):


a)     Page 1: a chart that shows how different countries have done on the PISA test since the 1960s – note the US stagnation, Korea and Finland soaring (and, lest you think all rich, homogeneous countries do well, Norway crashing).

b)     Pages 2-3: Korea rising from the ashes of the Korean War

c)     Page 4: our startling (and horrifying) math deficiency

d)     Pages 5-11: if you read anything, read this section, called A Tale of Two Teachers, which compares how Finland and the US recruit and train teachers.

e)     Page 12: Finnish students answer the American student’s question: “Why do you guys care [about school] so much?”

f)      Pages 12-13: A Finnish student comes to the US and can’t believe how dumbed down our standards and expectations are.

g)     Pages 14-15: traits of good parents (authoritarian vs. authoritative; cheerleader vs. coach)

h)     Page 16: Summary of what top countries are doing (“everything was more demanding”)

i)      Page 17: Our glorification of sports (at the expense of academics)

j)      Pages 18-20: The Poland case study

k)     Page 21: Inequalities in our system (but not in top countries)

l)      Page 22: The complaints and obstacles to change are similar around the world

m)   Page 23: How we make excuses for poor kids – but top countries don’t. (A Finnish teacher said: “Wealth doesn’t mean a thing. It’s your brain that counts. These kids know that from very young. We are all the same.”)

n)     Page 24: The one test in the U.S. that’s highly rigorous, which schools and students treat seriously: the Presidential Fitness Test.

o)     Pages 24-25: Summary of what top countries are doing.

p)     Page 26: A top teacher in a low-performing DC public school “discovers the airless void where the rigor should have been.”

q)     Page 27: Summary of what good parents should be doing.


3) Here’s a 5-min video of Ripley presenting her work at a Stand for Children event:


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