Lessons from the Smartest Kids in the World

Journalist Amanda Ripley examines what other developed countries are doing right in education.

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Education reforms come and go, but students in the United States still rank about average in achievement compared to their peers in other developed countries. In her new book, "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way," journalist Amanda Ripley examines what some of these other nations seem to be doing right. Ripley, a Time contributor and an Emerson senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, followed three American teenagers studying abroad in schools in three higher-achieving countries: Finland, South Korea and Poland. She recently spoke with U.S. News about what she learned and how parents, teachers and policymakers can work together to tackle reform. Excerpts:

Where does the United States stand in terms of achievement?

It's easy to get hyperbolic about this because it's important and it's complicated, but in fact we are about average for the developed world in terms of what our kids can do by the time they're teenagers. We are doing better in reading and much worse in math and science. This problem seems to start early when it comes to math and to get worse each year. We haven't changed a huge amount over the past several decades despite doubling what we spend per student on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. The two areas that I would really prioritize that seem to be most worrisome are math and the wild variation in what kids know and can do from state to state and from income level to income level.

What makes these other countries rise above?

None of these countries is perfect. And they have big debates in their countries as well. I do think that there is a consensus in these countries that developed fairly recently about the importance of all kids doing rigorous academic work, and that consensus leads to all kinds of great policy changes. These countries were facing economic irrelevance in the mid-1900s and they had to change or else they were going to be doing the jobs no one else wanted. And so that kind of economic peril focuses the mind.

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How do we change U.S. educational culture?

I don't think this is as hard as it feels. It does take political will. But one thing that these countries did is that they made it very hard to become a teacher. Finland, like the U.S., used to educate far more teachers than it needed in education colleges of wildly varying quality and selectivity. In the late 1960s, they shut down those ed schools and reopened them in the country's most elite universities, so right from the beginning you had to be highly educated yourself to even contemplate becoming a teacher. I think kids know when becoming a teacher is like getting into MIT in the U.S. There is a signal that that sends – that level of selectivity and rigor of training – to everyone else, including politicians and parents.

What might help address achievement gaps in math and science?

I'm actually encouraged by the Common Core State Standards, which 45 states and D.C. have now adopted. I realize that they might not be here to stay, thanks to the tea party and others who are worried about these changes, but I can say that none of these countries got to where they are without first agreeing on a higher set of common standards for what kids should know and be able to do. I haven't seen a place that's really raised the bar and raised the level of support and not found that kids will rise to that challenge. And there are schools within the U.S. doing this.

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What are the most important lessons you learned from the other countries?

One is that kids notice if school is serious, if teachers are highly educated and well-trained. If kids take school more seriously … then everything becomes easier for everyone else. That student drive is really important and thinking about how to cultivate it is a good use of time. In most of the top-performing countries in the world, kids fail in some way almost every day in school. You can't really learn at a high level without making mistakes. So we should think about teaching our kids about failure and recovery before they're 18.