Book review: ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley

Sep 22, 2013 by

Jay Mathews –

One of the more intriguing moments in Amanda Ripley’s fine book is the introduction of a Minnesota teenager named Eric to the South Korean public school system. That country has some of the highest average test scores in the world. Eric assumed that every high school class would be flying high, all eyes on the teacher, no nonsense. Instead, during his first day in sociology class, attention was minimal. About a third of the students were asleep.

They were recovering from their evening tutoring academies called “hagwons.” South Korea’s glittering international reputation for academics began to look to Eric more corrosive than inspiring.

“The kids had acted like they lived in the classroom because they essentially did,” Ripley writes. “They spent more than twelve hours there every weekday — and they already went to school almost two months longer than kids back in Minnesota. His classmates slept in their classes for one primal reason: because they were exhausted.”

Ripley is a talented writer who has done wide-ranging pieces on education and other topics for Time and the Atlantic. “The Smartest Kids in the World” may not please everyone in the education-geek world I inhabit, full of people who have been arguing for decades about class size and test validity, but it has the most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.

There have been several books on education overseas. Works like “Surpassing Shanghai,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Marc S. Tucker, provide all the wonky data and arguments about what lessons we might learn from Asia and Europe. But such writing can be dull. Ripley brings the topic to life by leading us into classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea, all of which have high international test scores and give their teachers rigorous training. She follows three American students who for various reasons got a year abroad that included time in high schools.

via Book review: ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley – The Washington Post.

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