“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World, may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”
The appeal of these books, which include French Women Don’t Get Fat and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing — and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We’re Americans, after all. We’re not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way, superior as they may be.
But Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic, has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.
For her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.
This is the first hint of how Finland does it: Rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is initiated: Better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.
Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”
Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired — they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.
Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, “the US$4 million teacher,” who makes a fortune as one of South Korea’s most in-demand hagwon instructors, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10pm study curfew. Academic pressure is out of control, and government officials know it — but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a prosperous life.
Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: “In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved.” Still, if she had to choose between “the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States,” she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence.” Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the skill to compete in the global economy.
The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom from Pennsylvania and finds another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and US schools. In Tom’s hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were “the core culture.” In Wroclaw, “sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for.” It’s in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is if the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.