A Must Read If You Care About America’s Future…….

When I first picked up Amanda Ripley’s newest book at the library, yes, I actually use the public library often, I didn’t know that I was in for such an enlightening read! Although some of the information is not a surprise to me as an educator and an avid reader, I believe this book offers some highly valuable points that could positively influence teachers, parents, students, administrators, and politicians.

In “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way,” Ripley, an author and Time magazine journalist, focuses on what it’s like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers: Korea, Finland, and Poland. She follows three Americans who live in these countries for a year. The amazing part is that none of these countries had the “smartest” kids a few decades ago, but they have increased the rigor in the classroom and parents have focused on the things that matter. In short, students are learning to think, design arguments, and problem- solve in order to thrive in a global economy.

Below are some of the ideas that I found most interesting!



  • In America if students blame their failure on a math test on the test itself or their lack of innate ability whereas in Korea students see the failure as a result of not working hard enough.  Performance is believed to be a product of hard work.
  • In Korea, only the top 2% of students get into one of Korea’s 3 prestigious universities.
  • School’s only purpose is to master academic material and expectations are very high.


Research relating to Math

  • The US is ranked 26th in the world in math. Affluence is not a factor. Korea ranked 2nd. Finland ranked 3rd and Poland ranked 19th.
  • Mastery in math predicted kids’ future more than race or income.
  • Other countries focused more on problem solving and math was taught in a more fluid way rather than each math class being separate from the next.
  • In Poland, calculators were not allowed so kids would have to learn mental tricks to manipulate numbers.
  • In other countries, math is viewed more as a language to be taught just as a foreign language. The earlier the better.
  • In the US, math was viewed as more an innate ability, you are either good at it naturally or you are not.


Finland and Teacher Hiring

  • All education schools were highly selective.
  • Getting into teacher training was as prestigious as getting into med school in the US.
  • All teachers earn Master’s degrees and are trained in public schools with three mentor teachers watching their classes carefully.
  • In many American high schools, teachers do not even have to major in the subject.
  • The class size in Finland, Korea, and Poland was greater than the US, but the teacher salaries were higher.

Different Parenting Styles that Lead to Raising Smarter Children

  • “Korean parents saw themselves as coaches, while American parents tended to act more like cheerleaders” (107).
  • They held high expectations for their children at home and in schools and saw education as their jobs.
  • They would read to them nightly and quiz them on math at a young age.
  • Parents who read to their young children daily performed better all around.
  • Volunteering in the child’s school did not increase student performance at all.


How Education Superpower Countries Viewed Education

  • In Korea and Finland, parents, kids and teachers see education as a serious quest more important than sports or self-esteem.
  • The US focused more on sports in school than any other country, but most kids in the US didn’t participate in high school sports so the beneficial skills of leadership and persistence only benefited a few while draining focus and resources from academics from all  (118)
  • Teachers had more autonomy and chose rigorous material.
  • Kids had the freedom to fail and didn’t take a lot of standardized tests, but took one major one at the end of high school that held real implications for their future.
  • Teens were expected to manage their time!
  • US parents gave children less freedom.
  • “Important distinctions were not about spending, local control or curriculum, but more about the purpose of school, which was for students to master complex academic material. Nothing else mattered much. (117)
  • Differences in diligence mattered a lot and were the single best predictor of performance.
  • High expectations were most important.


How to Spot a World Class Education

  • Student engagement is the number one factor that increases student learning. Not class size, the amount of money spent per student nor test scores.
  • Students know the purpose of what they are doing and can communicate this when asked. They are paying attention and interested in what they are doing and working hard.
  • Parent involvement in PTA’s, raising money, and going to sports games did not correlate with raising smarter kids. The real work is done at home with reading every night when the child is young and talking about their day and the news in the world as they mature.
  • Allowing them to make mistakes and get back to work is also important.
  • Little data suggests that more technology raises smarter kids. In most high performing classrooms, technology was not present in classrooms around the world. The “smartest” countries had higher teacher pay and equity by channeling more resources into the classrooms with the neediest students.
  • Professional development should be customized to strengths and weaknesses of the individual teacher NOT feature hundreds of teachers sitting through a lecture. No countries do this but in Finland teachers watch each other more during training and while teaching



In all countries, teens played video games, tested in class and watch TV. The main difference was how seriously they took education. In Finland, Korea, and Poland all children had to learn higher order thinking in order to thrive in the world. “There was a big important contest at the end and the score counted. Their teachers were more highly educated, trained, and carefully chosen” (191)

In light of the Common Core Standards, I believe the US is taking steps toward improving our education system, but we have a lot more to learn from other countries in regards to providing the highest quality education as well as instilling the intrinsic motivation needed for our students to succeed.