9781451654424It 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.


This book is a must-read for anyone with ties to the education system in America, and that’s all of us. Pick up your copy (or e-copy) at Amazon or Barnes and Noble today.

Learn more about Amanda Ripley and The Smartest Kids in the World at her website and follow her on Twitter.

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. 

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  1. As a public school teacher for 16 years, I agree with a lot of the ideas you touch on here (or that Amanda must discuss in her book, since I haven’t read it). There is (in my opinion) too much emphasis placed on sports achievement, although one could argue that for some kids, athletic success provides them with scholarship money to attend institutes of higher learning in the first place. But at what cost? Are they sacrificing learning for the sake of ‘education’?

    In defense of American schools, we face challenges that countries like Poland, Finland and South Korea do not: we are a population of GREAT diversity that takes on the obligation of teaching everyone no matter his/her language, disability, socieo-economic status (at least theoretically – I realize we are hardly successful in this endeavor). As an aside, you mentioned Poland overcoming great ‘diversity’ but I think you mean ‘adversity’ – as their population is not actually diverse.

    In my opinion, No Child Left Behind was a disaster and I am not a fan of our current focus on standardized testing. Unfortunately, I don’t pretend to know a solution to the seemingly insurmountable problems we face. I can say only that it is difficult to compare the US system with other countries that do not share our demographics.

    I’m definitely interested in reading what Amanda has to say. Thanks for bringing her book to my attention – it’s a subject that is dear to my heart.

  2. I can’t wait to read this! I’m working at the preschool level and I’m worried about how much pressure is placed on kids to help them prepare for the next grade. Why can’t they just enjoy being kids?

  3. I can’t wait to read this book. I work at the preschool level because I did not like much pressure was being placed at the elementary level and beyond. We spend so much time preparing for children for the next grade level and worrying about tests that we forget how to just “teach” kids and let them learn on their own.

  4. The biggest problem with the educational system is charter schools and voucher programs designed to ruin public education with teaching stupidity and even complete lies.

  5. I think the biggest problem is that it is such a huge system, it is virtually impossible to change! It takes so long. I think we should go back and look at what we were doing when we were close to being in the top tier of education superpowers. I think it goes back to family values – and by that I mean a value on education as a priority for every student. Students should be held to rigorous standards, and parents should support teachers in this endeavor. Many teachers today are frustrated because their hands have been tied due to underperforming schools/districts. All the teachers have been punished. I have already read the book, and I believe that she is correct in stating that education must start with better prepared teachers (and do away with a belief that teaching is easy and for everyone). I was definitely frustrated by the end of the book with the lack of progress we have been making in ensuring that all kids get the wonderful education they deserve. I was definitely not a fan of the Korean model – who wants their kids to spend their whole childhood sun up to sun down studying!

  6. I am very intrigued by the topics in this book as someone who has taught birth through collage I am continuously looking for opportunities to advocate for a rich education program in the United States. I know that winning this book would help give me the backing I need to continue the argument.

  7. This is so difficult for me. I loved school, became a teacher and was utterly heartbroken when I left. I only made it 3-4 years total. So much is broken, from the disparity of funding to the circles and hoops they make teachers jump through. I love the schools here in the Netherlands, and that was one of our top 3 reasons for extending 3 more years. I really dread going back and navigating those waters for the boys. Honestly- there is so much wrong and broken in the system I don’t even know where to begin with pinpointing a problem. The US is distracted with too many things that are unimportant- money isn’t going where it should. Teachers are not trained adequately to deal with the REAL issues in the classrooms. Parents aren’t fully on board and it’s more of an us vs. them relationship- instead of a partnership. It saddens me.

  8. I will be reading this book (hopefully FREE!) I think that education just is not a family priority…that is where it needs to start. When parents emphasize education and it’s value there is so much more value placed on it by their kiddos.

  9. just one problem? so many as far as I’m concerned from learning they’re not teaching cursive writing to not even taking the time to read during class time, no longer having the arts or PE for our grade schools

  10. The biggest problem with the American education system is its focus on achievement rather than nurturing the love of learning. The two are mutually exclusive. If you teach a child to learn and develop their interest in learning, they will be boundless. We are too focused on testing and achievement, which will come naturally to a child who is curious enough to learn. Nurture the curiosity and the rest will happen. Though having master teachers (similar to what Finland has) doesn’t hurt, either.

  11. As a student, the biggest problem I see in public school is the lack of creative opportunities for teenagers. Life is not all about algebra and the evolution of dolphins. I believe there should be more “school within a school” types of programs, where kids can learn arts like music, theater, visual art, and multimedia art that is incorporated into their usual curriculum of generally science, math, English, and history. Letting teens paint a portrait or build a website from scratch instead of writing a 3 page essay or 10 minute presentation on a historical figure or classic literature would keep teens interested and engaged in their schooling which everyone knows is a problem right now too.

  12. I think we are a dangerous point when we have destroyed our teachers, and just turned them into babysitters, and not people who get the chance to love and educate the children that they have devoted so much to. I’m not sure how to fix it, and I’m terribly worried for the children I have now. Time to start making decisions though as we have a kid who will be starting school soon…

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