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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way’

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THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY
By Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster, $28, 238 pages

Amanda Ripley has written articles on children and learning for Time magazine and The Atlantic. In "The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way," she recounts her quest to learn how it came to be that while the "vast majority of countries did not manage to educate all their children to high levels," in a "handful of eclectic nations," most children "were learning critical-thinking skills in math, science and reading." The result is an interesting and informative book, which readers concerned about the state of our schools will find valuable in assessing not only policy proposals, but also the performance of teachers and principals.

The timeliness of this book is underscored by a Dec. 3 report in The Wall Street Journal on global rankings resulting from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). U.S. teenagers, it seems, have "slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading." The PISA exams were first administered in 2000. Since that time, American results have been at best "stagnant," and have hovered around the international average, except in math, where the United States is well "behind the curve."

Ms. Ripley discusses the development of the PISA testing program in laying the foundation for her analysis of the education systems in Finland, Poland and South Korea. These three very different countries have in common PISA results that have improved significantly over time, and are far superior to the results obtained by U.S. students.

Ms. Ripley explains why these results are of concern: The PISA test is designed not merely to assess knowledge, but to measure the ability of students to apply what they have learned to real-life problems. PISA's goal has been to reveal which countries are "teaching children to think for themselves." In a world where employers now more than ever need people who can "read, solve problems and communicate" effectively with colleagues and supervisors, the author notes, economists have "found an almost one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation's long-term economic growth."

To her great credit, Ms. Ripley obviously strives to approach her analysis with an open mind. Unlike many "experts," including some of the usual suspects quoted in The Wall Street Journal article mentioned above, Ms. Ripley does not seek to shoehorn her observations into arguments in support of a preconceived agenda. This is truly refreshing and welcome, and in my view gives her findings added weight.

For example, Ms. Ripley hammers the point that higher spending on education does not "make children smarter." Indeed, in 2009, the United States "ranked second in the world in just one thing, spending per pupil" — trailing only Luxembourg, which has "fewer people than Nashville, Tennessee." In Oklahoma, the state "more than doubled the amount of money it spends per student in constant dollars" so that by 2011 "over half the state budget went to education," yet "most ... children still could not demonstrate competency in math." Beyond "a certain baseline level," she finds, "money does not translate into quality in education anywhere."

Likewise, Ms. Ripley makes the case that socioeconomic status is not outcome-determinative. She is critical of the "diversity narrative in the United States — the one that blamed our mediocrity on children's backgrounds and neighborhoods." Its effect has been "toxic," creating an environment in which black children are "more likely to encounter inferior teaching and lower expectations in school." Each school day, sadly, many are given the subtle but consistent message, "Your time is not precious, and your odds are not good."

In contrast to agenda-driven American "experts," who insist that "our problem is poverty, not schools," Ms. Ripley introduces us to Finnish teachers, in urban schools with ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged students, who say, "Wealth doesn't mean a thing." Heikki Vuorinen, who teaches sixth-grade in a school where one-third of the children are immigrants, resists labeling his students. He does not "want to think about their backgrounds too much," for fear that empathy for their circumstances could "strip the rigor" from his classroom.

Ms. Ripley comments that she "never heard a U.S. teacher talk that way." Yet, in each of the three countries she tours in her excellent book, there has emerged a "consensus about rigor" that "changed everything else."

Rigor in teacher education and qualification overcomes the potentially pernicious effects of union rules that make it impossible to fire teachers. For students, "a culture of rigor" is critical because "children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world." That can only be done "by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools."

Ms. Ripley's elaboration on this theme, including her commentary on what makes parents, teachers and principals most effective, is persuasive and deserves acceptance across our educational institutions.

Ray V. Hartwell III is a trustee emeritus of Washington and Lee University and is a senior fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute.

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