The Smartest Kids in the World

Last week I read an immensely interesting and I think important book: “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley. The book looks at a comparison of educational systems in various countries (Finland, Korea, Poland and the US) through the eyes of American teenagers studying abroad as exchange students

Two conclusions stand out from reading this book. First, teacher quality is the primary determinant of how successful an educational system is. With very few exceptions, the US among them, most countries have national educational system with uniform curricula across all the schools. Therefore, the quality of the teachers is controlled nationally in these countries.

Control is achieved in various ways, but the one common thread is selectivity. To quote: “… all of Finland’s teacher-training colleges had similarly high standards, making them about as selective as Georgetown, or [U.C.] Berkeley in the United States. Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT.”  To put some numbers on this, in 2011 the Georgetown acceptance rate was about 18%, U.C. Berkeley about 25%, while MIT’s acceptance rate in 2011 was about 9%. I doubt very much that undergraduate admissions to colleges of education in the US approach these numbers.

Not only is the selectivity level high in these countries, but so is the training. Ripley mentions that teacher education in Finland means getting a master’s degree – the program is six years long – and that it entails doing original research. This is followed by a year of mentored teaching and the mentors’ criticisms are honest and unsparing.

The second conclusion is that the kids take school seriously, because they have to. Most nations have a matriculation exam at the end of the high school years that determines whether a student will go to the university. Here is a telling passage from the book. (Kim is the Oklahoma born and raised American exchange student in Finland).

“So, [Kim] collected her courage and blurted out the question that had been on her mind.

‘Why do you guys care so much?’

The girls looked at her, confused. Kim felt her cheeks flush, but she barreled ahead.

‘I mean, what makes you work hard in school?’

It was a hard question to answer she realized, but she had to ask. These girls went to parties; they texted in class and doodled in their notebooks. They were normal, in other words. Yet they seemed to respect the basic premise of school, and Kim wanted to know why.

Now the, both girls looked baffled, as if Kim had just asked them why they insisted on breathing so much.

‘It’s school,’ one of them said finally. ‘How else will I graduate and go to the university and get a good job?’ ”

Note the unspoken implications of this answer. University is not for every one – not all of us are going to go to college – only those who have passed a rigorous and comprehensive exam.  There are no alternative pathways – no junior colleges with transfer possibilities to 4 – year colleges. There are no remedial courses at these universities. Because of this, Finnish kids (and those in other high performing countries) have a significant stake in the results of their matriculation exam. In California, where I teach, passing or failing the state test has absolutely no consequence for the student – so why care about it? There is an additional implication to having an exam that really counts at the end of the high school years.  If the exam is rigorous and it matters so much, then the training of the kids must also be rigorous and demanding.  The author gives many examples showing that kids in these countries are about 1 – 2 years ahead (especially in math) of the same age kids in the US.

However, in the US, we are number one in excuses. I can hear some of them now: one exam to determine one’s future? What if my child is not feeling well on that day?  Or: A national exam? That undermines local control of education! Or: My child has time to mature academically in college – right now he has to have a full life, social and sports.

The author does a great job of showing how these excuses don’t hold water and how they damage the education of our kids.

Reflections of what can be done in this country, especially at a local level are for another blog and for the readers’ comments.


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