Rigor vs. Rigor Mortis Most great education systems rise on the stern foundation of challenge

The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way

Amanda Ripley (Simon & Schuster, 2013) 306 pages including endnotes, index and appendices

Books about education that instruct without drenching the reader in statistics and footnotes are hen’s tooth rare.

Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids In the World, qualifies—and then some. But before dismissing her class, she also treats her students with just enough studies and footnotes to back up her lesson.

Ripley is that rare scribe deft enough to move from personal anecdote, to policy, case study, and back again. And she has no qualms about going straight for the jugular by flexing some muscular contrast.

Visiting South Korea on the day high school seniors take their high-stakes college entrance exam, she paints a scene in which the Korea Electric Power Corp. crew spends hours checking lines so all the nation’s one thousand test locations are guaranteed uninterrupted electricity. The national stock market opens late this same day. Taxis nationwide offer test-stressed students free rides to the exam center. Airplanes are grounded. Police officers patrol every school’s perimeter so no car horns disturb students’ concentration. The exam over, students and their families delay dinner until they’ve instead consumed a special late-edition newspaper, published with a review of the exam’s questions and answers.

Education in South Korea is a national endeavor, in which everyone plays a willing part.

Now compare that laser-like focus on learning to a high school in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“At each football game, no less than four local reporters showed up. Both local newspapers devoted entire sections to high-school sports. Many games were broadcast on the radio. Student athletes had grueling schedules that left little time or energy for studying,” she writes.

It’s tempting to call the book’s catalogue of contrasts and comparisons between United States and three other nations—Finland, South Korea and Poland—a 238-page tour of Ripley’s educational “believe it, or not!”

But the message is clear. The sole regional example of one Pennsylvania high school stressing football above final exams may not speak to all the United States. Taken further, it’s doubtful the three American exchange students Ripley profiles in The Smartest Kids In the World constitute an effective stand-in for educational studies with a larger sample size. But does anyone doubt Ripley’s scathing example speaks for most of Texas and the Deep South, if not large swathes of the United States?

It’s tempting to call the book’s catalogue of contrasts and comparisons between United States and three other nations—Finland, South Korea and Poland—a 238-page tour of Ripley’s educational “believe it, or not!”

Through contrast of this kind, buttressed by analysis and the personal anecdotes of her three U.S. students abroad, Ripley builds a persuasive case that “expectations” and “rigor”—two words key to the book’s thesis they risk becoming redundant—are the foundation of achievement.

“Expectations” and “rigor” hover over every crucial question in the quality of education, Ripley maintains. Why do American students underperform? Put simply, because so little is expected of them. Touching a raw nerve, Ripley insists those same expectations be applied to teachers as well. If expectations are to be raised, only the best teachers chosen from top schools can deliver them.

“To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail,” Ripley states late in her book. “That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.”

Ranked by performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) U.S. kids take a walloping, ranking third from the bottom in a list of 15 developed nations. Since the publication of Ripley’s book last year, results have not improved.

The reason our nation persists in such poor performance, Ripley shows, is that parents, teachers and politicians have invested themselves deeply, and over decades, in excuses and partial solutions.

The Smartest Kids In The World shows how young American students respond to learning environments different from what the U.S. system has accustomed them to, even while tacitly admitting that no analogy between nations is perfect.

Critics would be justified in pointing out that no country has challenges comparable to the United States, given our country’s complicated and unhappy racial history. (All three of her student-exchange examples come from white families, although it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Ripley’s sole female student has divorced parents while another, from Minnesota, is a gay teen.) The same could be said for her dismissal of sports’ role in our public schools, which might instead be harnessed or institutionalized to advance certain educational goals rather than deleted altogether. All that aside, and true to her own standard of advancing new solutions rather than build measures around existing practices, Ripley is more interested in documenting the ways students respond to increased expectations.

There’s 17-year-old Tom, an arty, indie-music loving teen from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who thrills to the bohemian freedom of his school in Wroclaw, Poland. Kim, a 15-year-old girl from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, longs to escape the rural alienation of her high school for the Nordic romance and novelty she expects in Pietarsaari, Finland. Eric, a social and spirited 18-year-old, leaves his Minnesota school for Busan, South Korea. He also compares notes on culture and learning with Jenny, a Korean-American who’s bounced back and forth between her native and adopted countries. Ripley never engages clearly the question of how these three students navigated the complex languages, all far removed from the expected grammar rules of Germanic and romance languages common to English, of their adopted home countries. Readers are left to assume that Eric, Kim and Tom all merely jumped right in, managing as they went.

None of the three systems contrasted against that of the United States is perfect, although in the case of Finland it sure seems that way. Students there have for years ranked at the top of PISA scores. Finns are justly proud of selecting and grooming their teachers from the best and brightest of candidates.

“Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT,” Ripley writes. “To educate our [U.S.] children, we invite anyone—no matter how poorly educated they were—to give it a try. The irony was revealing, a bit like recruiting flight instructors who had never successfully landed a plan, then wondering why so many planes were crashing.”

Settling for only the best teachers creates a virtuous cycle. Students and parents acknowledge their teachers’ status and esteem. When the best teach, the best is expected.

Finnish teachers are granted generous autonomy in their lesson plans and teaching styles, a freedom Finnish student enjoy as well. Contrast that to the regimented style of U.S. education where students can feel warehoused, time is monitored, and the emphasis is on testing. Finnish high school students are treated more like young adults of great potential, where ours are often treated like big kids of constant risk and danger. There’s a slight, but emerging trend among so-called “Sudbury Schools” that student autonomy pays surprisingly high dividends not just in educational attainment, but student confidence and risk-taking.

Across the world in South Korea, ranked second below Finland in PISA scores, students spend much of their day sleeping through classes in order to save their energy for evening study at the “hagwons,” or private tutoring academies.

Ripley singles out South Korea as perhaps the best example of what happens when education is left to market forces of supply and demand. No other nation boasts tutors who earn millions on par with professional athletes. But there’s a downside. Pressure is so intense, with so many hours in the day spent studying, that students inevitably reach the point of diminishing returns. South Korean officials have even attempted to shut down evening libraries and study halls where students commune.

Critics have taken the high-pressure, test-stressing education systems common to many Asian school systems to task, noting it results in high suicide rates and low self-esteem among students. Ripley cites evidence that the teen suicide rates in the United States, Poland and Finland are, in reality, higher than in South Korea. (The frightening news story of a South Korean student who murdered his parents due to the stress of his studies is not omitted, however; Ripley also admits the country is not immune to frequent cheating scandals.)

Unlike South Korea, where every student studies to the test, the perils of a “test-centric” education system are fewer in number than here in the United States. As more than one U.S. critic as pointed out academic tests tend to replace the favoritism they pretend to supplant when students “study to the test” to become more effective test-takers than curious, engaged students.

But Ripley believes South Korea’s seeming weakness is a perverse strength. So she twists the knife even further into the U.S. education system. Where many U.S. high schools select math teachers based on their dual abilities to also coach an athletic team, no such allowances are made in competing countries, she reports. In South Korea, math teachers are judged by how deftly they integrate lessons on geometry into trigonometry, and trigonometry into calculus.

Policy questions aside, the difference between achievement in the United States and the same idea in South Korea is stark. For South Korean students, goals and achievements are earned by hard work. In the United States, they’re seen as bestowed or inborn, hence the frequent term “gifted student.” Asian cultures, Ripley points out, find such a notion absurd. If skills were inborn, study and work would be a waste of time. Clearly, they’re not. It’s in cultures where talent is considered built-in that student effort atrophies, and even dies. “In the United States, math was, for some reason, considered more of an innate ability, like being double-jointed,” she writes.

Poland is singled out not so much for its first-tier PISA scores, but for the way education policy leaders improved those scores by leaps and bounds over a period of just six years. With child poverty levels and crime on par with those of the United States, Poland is also Ripley’s example of all that can be accomplished with so-called “at risk” populations.

In a brisk turn away from her student examples, Ripley consulted Poland’s renowned minister of education, Miroslaw Handke, a mustachioed chemist who instituted four key reforms: clearly stated fundamental goals and increased training for teachers to accomplish them, accountability through testing, raised expectations that often required whole classes of students be held back an extra grade level and, fourth, increased teacher autonomy that also demanded accountability.

Ripley cites the third reform as “the most important.” But it doesn’t escape her attention, either, that the fourth reform means Poland shares a key link with the Finnish system: the link between autonomy and accountability that can lead to greater achievement. In fact, Ripley notes, that key link is a trait “in every high-performing organization, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Apple Inc.”

Poland’s reforms worked also because of a national character trait Ripley hints was cultivated during that nation’s alternating eras of oppression under German and Russian rule. It’s a sense of persistence and tenacity valuable to all academic success. She calls it “conscientiousness” in the Polish context. The Finnish call their most famous national trait “sisu,” a “compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity.”

The Smartest Kids in The World embarks a short-lived attempt to find the source of this valuable character trait, and how it might be cultivated in American students. Ripley never brings her enquiry to a satisfying end, but other education writers and researchers have in various studies on “grit.”

It’s in implementing and fostering these same reforms in the U.S. system that the book falls somewhat short.

How might American students endure a high-school graduation exam similar to the 50-hour regiment of tests and essays Finnish students take over three weeks? From parents afraid of seeing their children fail to teachers afraid of harming their students’ perceived fragile self-esteem, Ripley acknowledges the bulwark of forces holding students and schools behind. Rather than lament the “moon-bounce” of a U.S. education system in which status quo has “calcified” into low expectations, though, it would have been nice to read recommendations or steps to reform at home every bit as bracing as her findings abroad. Believing in the power of higher expectations isn’t the same as formulating ways to put that belief into concrete practice.

Still, even as Ripley exhausts her thesis that expectations are key, she’s never less than fascinating in squeezing it for maximum insight.

In exploring the treatment of minority and poor students against their whiter and richer peers, diminished expectations can do real and lasting damage. Empathy has its place, but not in the classroom. Raising teacher consciousness of students’ background, be it race or socio-economic class, too often suppresses standards of achievement. It’s self-fulfilling for the teachers and self-defeating for the students. An equal expectation of all students is, in effect, an equal right.

“There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong,” Ripley writes. “The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. … But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students.”

To her credit, Ripley at least takes us down the path of reforms that more than likely won’t work.

The United States’ educational malaise isn’t for lack of money, she points out. We rank second in the world behind Luxembourg on spending per pupil, with almost nothing to show for the expense.

Busting unions won’t do the trick, either. Finland’s teachers are fully unionized and fight for the best in benefits and wages. Then again, compared to U.S. teachers who would rather coach sports than teach calculus, Ripley makes it clear that some union rights are more deserved than others.

At the same time, Ripley acknowledges well-known concerns shared by other education reformers. Namely, our bizarre practice of funding schools through property-tax receipts that too often limits students’ academic destinies to neighborhood boundaries. Alas, only one page of the book cites this problem before Ripley returns to her pet words of “rigor” and “expectations.”

Specialists in problem-solving are often quick to tell us that in confronting almost any problem, the quickest route to action, be it at the collective or individual level, is to persuade your audience that the solution is more simple than complicated.

Ripley lays out a solution more simple than simple-minded, but even simple solutions can be complex in implementing. The Smartest Kids in The World isn’t precise enough in its recommendations to move our cumbersome education system to a better place, but if more people read—and heed—its message, the needle might budge.