Learning From the ‘Smartest Kids in the World’

South Korean families spend almost as much on after school tutoring as American families spend on video games.

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In this Friday, July 15, 2011 photo shows teacher Yeon Eun-jung, right, helps student Jeong Ho-seok study on a tablet PC during a lesson at Sosu Elementary School in Gwesan, South Korea. The country is taking a $2 billion gamble that its students are ready to ditch paper textbooks in favor of tablet PCs as part of a vast digital scholastic network.

Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is being published this week. I heard her speak recently at our annual National Charter School Conference and if her talk is any indication, the book should be one of the most welcome additions to the education reform debate in a long time.

At a moment when the U.S. grapples with increased spending on education but mediocre-to-average outcomes on just about every international test, Ripley sets out to discover what distinguishes the students from countries who consistently outperform U.S. students. Her reporting involved tracking American students who spent a year studying in one of these high-performing countries. She found several characteristics in these countries' schools that may explain why U.S. performance has been lagging for so long.

First, most of these countries are "old school" in their approach to education. While discussions in the U.S. hover around the need for more Internet connectivity, adding Smart Boards in classrooms and the merits of differentiated learning through one-to-one online instruction, Ripley's exchange students found that none of the high-performing countries have invested in these newfound tools. As Success Academy's Eva Moskowitz aptly put it at a recent conference, our obsession with technology in education is akin to worrying about adding TV screens in airplanes while we have yet to build the plane on which the TVs will be mounted.

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Second, these countries spend a considerable amount for pre-service training to prepare teachers for the classroom. Rigorous standards determine qualifications to be a teacher and the job is not for the faint of heart. By contrast, as a recent report by the National Center on Teacher Quality shows, U.S. teacher training schools are nowhere near where they need to be in preparing teachers for the challenges they will face in the classroom. 

Third, students in high-performing countries are much more serious about education than their American counterparts. As movies like "Two Million Minutes" demonstrate, the opportunities bestowed upon U.S. students through a robust and abundant higher education system may have inadvertently distracted attention from the importance of focusing on education in elementary, middle and high school.

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Here's my favorite take-away from Ripley's work: Parents in these countries are more involved in their children's education. Unlike the U.S., where parental involvement often means the number of times you attend parent teacher conferences, raise money for your school, volunteer at your school or attend sporting events (think "Friday Night Lights"), in high-performing countries parents spend time (and money) after school to supplement their child's education. As Ripley pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, South Korean families invest $14 billion per year on after-school tutoring, while U.S. families spend $15 billion per year on video games.

The Smartest Kids in the World should be on the back-to-school reading list of every parent, educator and policymaker interested in understanding why students in other countries outperform U.S. students on international tests.

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