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Finding The Smartest Kids in the World: Q&A with Amanda Ripley

February 5, 2014  • Institute Contributor


Amanda Ripley On Feb. 6, investigative journalist Amanda Ripley joins the Institute in Washington to discuss her New York Times best-seller The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way in the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series. We spoke with the author about the future of the US education system, and whether American parents should be worried about their children’s educations. Watch the live stream of her talk with Walter Isaacson tomorrow at 12:10PM to find out how the nation can address its own challenges. 

 Was there a particular moment when you realized the American education system was your next book subject? How did you come to the realization that the US was doing it wrong?

 A few years ago, as a journalist covering education in the US, I kept hearing about these countries that were supposedly doing an exceptional job educating virtually all their kids. And it nagged at me. I couldn’t quite imagine what it was like to be a kid in these places; what it looked and felt like, and what we could learn from these faraway lands.

Then one day I saw a chart (put together by Stanford’s Rick Hanushek and colleagues) that traced countries’ education results over time, going back 50 years. The US looked mostly flat, with some very modest progress, as you might expect. 

But the rest of the world looked nothing like the US! All around us, countries were changing, rocketing upwards or slip-sliding down, sometimes dramatically. That chart gave me hope. It was proof that change is possible — even in countries like Canada with significant levels of child poverty. That’s when I knew I had to go see these places for myself — and try to figure out what we could learn.

 Your book follows three American students as they study abroad for a year. How did you find these students and what, if anything, surprised you about their experiences?

 I knew that if I was going to have any chance of glimpsing reality in these countries, I needed to talk to kids. Most education stories don’t include any student voices, which is one reason many of those stories are so boring. Kids are experts in education. They spend hundreds of hours contemplating their situation, considering what could be better. So it’s a mistake not to rely on them as sources, along with teachers and parents and all the other adults in the mix.

But it’s hard to compare what you are seeing in a given school or home if you have never seen anything else. Ideally, I needed kids who could see the water they swam in—who could compare, in a very narrow but deep way, what education looked like in different countries. 

Luckily, there are tens of thousands of teenagers who gamely leave their families each year to attend high school and live with host families abroad. These exchange students are amateur anthropologists, and most of them are wonderfully curious, open-minded, and bold. 

I reached out to some of the organizations that arrange these study-abroad programs (including AFS, Youth for Understanding, and the Rotary Clubs), and I asked them if they could find kids who were headed out to Finland, South Korea and Poland. I’d chosen these countries because each told a different story about how countries can get smarter over time.

Through these organizations, I met Eric, Tom, and Kim. I talked to them regularly to follow their progress—and then I visited each of them in their foreign outposts.

These three young Americans changed the way I looked at education—here or anywhere. They were patient, thoughtful, honest and utterly unaffected by ideology or partisanship. Without them, I would have written an insufferable book, weighed down by the same old dull debates adults love to have about education.

But Eric, Tom, and Kim kept me focused on what actually mattered to them in the real world, the kinds of things adults have long forgotten. They talked a lot about other kids, for example, the most powerful force in any teenager’s daily life. They also talked about their host parents, about their teachers, and about the cafeteria food, among other things. They had strong opinions, and their insight filled in some of the blind spots that the research cannot begin to reach. 

I ended up surveying hundreds of exchange students to see if there were patterns in what they told me, and there were. Nine out of 10 international exchange students told me that their US classes were easier than their classes back home, for example (and seven out of 10 American exchange students agreed). All of these students have stories to tell. I am grateful to have had a chance to spend time with some of them.

 There are many proposed solutions to fix education in the US — from charter schools to Teach For America — is there a specific movement or innovation that you think could be the answer?

 I’ve come to think that the structure of schools and teacher preparation programs is less important than the seriousness of them, if that makes sense. The most important thing we can do is to inject rigor into every part of our education system — building more serious teacher colleges, demanding more focus from school leaders, deputizing parents as force multipliers for our teachers, and getting behind the Common Core State Standards (or, if that proves politically impossible, some other common set of coherent, challenging standards for what kids should know — as almost all education superpowers have done). The world’s education superpowers are very different places, but they all share this seriousness about the importance of rigorous work worth doing.

I don’t have “the answer” for how to build that consensus in America; I suspect it begins with demanding that our education colleges become radically more selective and effective, as countries like Finland have done. Once those gateways to teaching are more serious, it will be easier to build trust in our schools — and give teachers the kind of autonomy, working conditions, and support they need to do an exceptionally demanding job of national importance.

One way or another, it’s pretty clear that we need to catch up to the realities of the modern economy — which rewards deeper learning, advanced skills, the ability to solve problems, make connections, and communicate ideas. Those are the skills that a few countries (not most) have managed to cultivate in most of their kids — even their low-income kids. Which is wonderful news for us, because it means this can be done.

What strikes me when I travel around the world is how similar kids are, and how universal some of the challenges of education seem to be. I did not see anything anywhere that I didn’t think we could do just as well — or better in some cases.

 It may be startling for parents of children in the US education system to hear about your book’s findings. What’s your advice to parents to stop them from feeling overwhelmed? Or should they be overwhelmed?

So glad you asked! As a parent myself, this lesson changed my life — and left me feeling much less overwhelmed. It turns out that much of what American parents do to support their children’s education has little connection to education. We tend to spend an inordinate amount of time volunteering, fundraising, and helping out with extracurricular activities; that’s all well and good, but it does not lead to learning. You don’t see parents doing these kinds of things at anything close to the same frequency in Finland and Korea.

In a study of 13 different countries and regions, the more time parents spent volunteering in the PTA or other activities, the worse their children did on a test of critical thinking in reading at age 15. But wait, here’s the good news! In every time zone, the more time parents spent talking to their kids — reading to them when they were small, talking to them about movies, the news, or their day as they got older — the better kids did on that same test of critical thinking in reading. Even when you control for other factors like socio-economic background, those effects still remain.

To be totally clear: holding school auctions, selling cookies, coaching basketball, and chaperoning field trips are worthy projects that help build a strong school community. But given that school is first and foremost about learning, and given that we are not achieving world-class results (especially in math and science, at every socio-economic level), it makes sense to prioritize the activities that actually do lead to learning. Focus matters whenever you are doing something hard, and it may be the one thing that American schools (and parents) need more than anything else.