It takes no expert to prove the education system in the United States is broken. Our children consistently graduate high school lacking the skills to keep America competitive in the world market. We’ve slipped in education, respect, and overall mission as a country. Author Amanda Ripley set off on an unprecedented journey to find out why.
Using an aggregate of data, the experiences of high school exchange students, and observation of some of the top-rated countries in the world, the answers became painfully visible.
The book followed three high school students throughout their journeys in top academically-performing countries, Tom, from Pennsylvania to Poland, Kim, from Oklahoma, who traveled to Finland, and Eric from Minnesota, who studied in South Korea.
The differences between the education system in any one of these countries and the US was stark. Most glaring was the countries’ insistence on academic rigor and resilience, rather than placating students and/or parents. Much less emphasis was placed on students’ self-esteem, because it essentially did not translate to increased success as a student or a member of society.
Poland, which overcame significant adversity to become one of the world’s education superpowers, offers a model that neither coddles students nor gives up on them. Finland chooses, educates, and pays its teachers equivalent to highly prestigious careers in the US, and South Korea’s almost unfailing (and anxiety-producing) culture (right or wrong) keeps the focus on education.
This book essentially blows all of our preconceptions about education and success in America out of the water, and almost mocks our emphasis on sports and technology, as neither have been found to positively contribute to learning. In standardized tests administered across the globe, the United States consistently underperforms.
The hypotheses that income, race, or spending per child are positive correlates to learning was proven false, as well as the idea that private education in America is superior to a public one.
Additionally, individuals who choose, or are funneled into, education programs in college are rarely academic top performers. Couple that with America’s dogged insistence on sports and extracurricular activities, and the fact that America’s teachers are woefully underpaid, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for disaster.
This book is eye-opening and should be spark for discussion in any school district. At the very least, this book should be used as a stick of dynamite at the base of this country’s most stolid bureaucracies. For our childrens’ sake.
I will leave you with a quote from the book that referred to a high school in a western state that had just performed worse than students in 23 countries in math, yet was rated ‘A’ by its home state :
The parents at that school may never know about these results, but the students will find out, one way or another. If not as freshmen in college, when they are placed in remedial math or struggle to follow a basic physics lecture, then in the workforce, when they misinterpret a graph at the bank where they work or miscalculate a drug dosage at a hospital nursing station. This revelation – that they lack tools that have become essential in the modern economy – will in all likelihood arrive privately, a kind of sinking shame that they cannot entirely explain. They may experience it as a personal failing, though I hope they don’t.
I hope they experience it as an outrage instead. Maybe, unlike generations before them, these young Americans will decide that their own children, like children in Finland, deserve to be taught by the best-educated, best-trained professionals in the world. They might realize that if Korean kids can learn to fail and try again before leaving high school, so can their kids. Perhaps they will conclude that Poland is not the only place where change is possible.
Please click here to watch a trailer of the book featuring the three exchange students whose journeys were chronicled in the book.
I was provided a copy of The Smartest Kids in the World by Simon & Schuster in exchange for this review. All opinions expressed herein are my own.