The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley (2013)

downloadThough this book came out in 2013, it’s still relevant and important, and we’re still not doing enough with its message: RIGOR. Yes, some schools and some teachers are; but too many aren’t. Students in the US are performing “somewhere in the middle” on the PISA test–a test of critical thinking, reading, and math (the kind of advanced thinking required to succeed in today’s world)–as compared to about 40 other countries. Why?

Not easy to answer, but so many of the reasons we give (poverty, lack of educated parents, lack of home support) not only exist, but are more pronounced, in several countries that rank ahead of the US. While this test may not be the be-all, end-all for educational measurement, based on what I know and the questions I’ve seen, I think it’s better than any other measurement we have. From extensive research and data plus student “field agents” in the US, Poland, Finland, and South Korea, here are some interesting take-aways:

  • 3.6 million American teachers scored “below average” on their SAT.
  • The top scoring countries believe that school exists to help students master complex material. Nothing else–not sports, not fancy buildings, not technology–matters more than rigor.
  • Top performing countries have end of high school comprehensive exams that show what they know and can do; in Finland, it can total over 50 hours. But prior to that, they are not tested over and over and they are not constantly analyzing data.
  • In top performing countries teachers are at the top of their class and are highly respected because of their knowledge. They have far more autonomy than in the US because they know what to do–they are not constantly told what to do.
  • Top performing countries ignore shiny objects: the latest technology, the greatest buildings, the most impressive sports complexes. It’s all about smart teachers who get lots of training, who teach successfully, motivating their students and keeping rigorous standards.  High tech toys are not a replacement for these fundamentals in education.

This well-researched book (and highly credible author) is a must read for school administrators, parents, and teachers. If we’re going to prepare ALL of our students for the thinking they will need in today’s jobs, we have to do things differently. And yet..fewer and fewer college students are opting for a career in education. If that’s what’s happening, what are the chances that US classrooms will attract–and keep–the best and brightest?

Amanda Ripley’s 2 minute video overview of the book and its findings

NYT book review

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