The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way (Ripley)

Ripley has an interesting premise. Some countries (Finland, for example) are in the news for the progress they’ve made with education. So what happens, she wonders, when she follows American students who elect to study in one of these countries for a year? How are there experiences similar? Different? Better?

There is, as is becoming increasingly well-known, much that is good about what is going on in Finland. For Ripley, it starts with the acceptance that academic rigor is necessary and that the Finns have grit to meet the standards. In South Korea, Ripley notes the obsessiveness (they have a police unit dedicated to shutting down the after school study programs by 10 pm) and is concerned about it. Still, she prefers it to the American system. And Poland (the surprise entry here, at least for me) is making impressive strides as well.

Ripley, with a kind of obvious bias against American public schools (sometimes with good reason), undersells the issue of the changing population in Finland. The teacher that she holds up as a model says some rather cringe-worthy things that Ripley applauds. I’m not suggesting that a child’s background is everything; it’s also not nothing as this teacher contends. Mr. Vuorinen, the teacher in question here, says of his students, “I want to think about them as all the same.” That does a disservice to all of them. He (and Ms. Ripley) obviously cannot hold two potentially conflicting thoughts in their head at the same time. Teachers canpay attention to a student’s background and still demand that the student meet rigorous expectations.

Here, as elsewhere, Ripley is too fond of either / or statements. Education is not that simple. She does raise some interesting talking points. If certain standardized tests are meant to check on how the school is doing, why is everyone tested? Why not a random sampling? Why aren’t the requirements for becoming a teacher more challenging? How should public schools be funded?

There are items ripe for conversation here, but they would be more useful if Ripley were less condescending and more nuanced.

In my search for her site, I was reminded that Ripley is a magazine writer. The book certainly reads that way – as a good, though much stretched, magazine article written for the general public not those of us who know better.

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