#42. A Summary of ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley


‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley (Simon and Schuster; August 13, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. Comparing High School Students from Around the World: The PISA Test

  • a. The PISA Test
  • b. Why the PISA Test Matters: PISA Scores = Economic Success

2. What’s Wrong With America’s Education System?


3. The Korean School Day: From 8 O’clock in the Morning to 11 O’clock at Night (And Beyond)

  • a. The Korean School Day
  • b. When Korean Students Sleep

4. 1 Key to Korean Success: Private Hagwons

5. Korean Parents Vs. American Parents: The Coaching Approach vs. The Cheerleading Approach

  • a. Korean Parents: The Coaching Approach
  • b. American Parents: The Cheerleading Approach
  • c. When Coaching and Pushing Are Taken Too Far

6. Why South Korea Is So Obsessed With Education: The University Entrance Exam


7. Finnish Teachers’ Colleges Vs. American Teachers’ Colleges

  • a. Entrance Requirements
  • b. Teacher Training
  • c. The Impact on Outcomes, and Efforts at Reform in America


8. Poland’s Education Reforms

9. Raising Curriculum Standards

10. Standardized Testing and Added Professional Development for Teachers

  • a. Standardized Testing

i. Standardized Graduation Exams
ii. Standardized Testing at Lower Grades

  • b. Added Professional Development for Teachers

11. Delaying the Tracking of Students

12. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed.

All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Ripley focuses her attention on the education systems of 3 countries in particular: South Korea, Finland and Poland. South Korea and Finland are chosen due to their being on top of the world when it comes to academic results, while Poland is chosen since it has recently been able to improve academic outcomes greatly despite the fact that the country faces many of the same challenges as the US—including especially a high rate of child poverty.

When it comes to the author’s approach in the book, it is very much that of the investigative journalist: Ripley relies heavily on interviews with specific players in the education systems of the various countries at play (including students, teachers, principals, and politicians); and her main sources are 3 American exchange students (Eric, Kim and Tom) who spend a year immersed in the education systems of the respective countries (both Kim and Tom blogged their experiences [though Tim has since erased his blog]. Kim’s blog is here: http://kimsafsjourney.blogspot.ca/).

When it comes to South Korea, we find that this country’s edge in education has to do mainly with the very intense motivation and hard work on the part of the students. This is a culture where it is no exaggeration to say that most students spend every waking minute on school work: students spend all day at school, eat dinner at school, and then proceed from there to private tutoring schools (called hagwons), where they study right up until bed-time (and often beyond it). The reason for this intense focus on education is that there is very fierce competition to be accepted into one of the few best universities in the country, and only those who score in the top 2% on a single test at the end of high school are allowed in (a set of circumstances that most Koreans actually resent, but which they nonetheless feel compelled to play along with).

In Finland we find that academic outcomes are on par with those in South Korea, but that the students here have achieved these results without the same level of acute devotion displayed in South Korea. Indeed, Finland’s edge in education appears to derive not so much from excessive studying, but from its very high quality of teachers—which begins with Finland’s exceptional teachers’ colleges. Specifically, the country’s few accredited teachers’ colleges are very selective in terms of who they accept, and the teacher education programs in Finland are themselves very lengthy and rigorous.

In Poland we find that the country’s improvements in academic outcomes as of late may be attributed to a host of recent reforms. These include the ratcheting up of the country’s education curriculum and standards; the awarding of more funds to vocational schools and schools that under-perform in terms of academic outcomes; and the delaying of the streaming of students (i.e., separating students into academic and vocational classes).

Beyond their peculiarities, we find that there is one thing that all 3 countries have in common (which is also shared by all nations that perform well when it comes to academics); and that is that they all maintain very high educational expectations and standards, and these standards are consistently tested in a way that holds real consequences for the students and their future prospects.

Here is a trailer for the book:

What follows is a full executive summary of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley.


1. Comparing High School Students from Around the World: The PISA Test

a. The PISA Test

When it comes to comparing the education levels of high school students from different countries, the test that is currently used is known as the PISA (for Programme for International Student Assessment). It was developed by the OECD in the late 1990s, and was first administered in the year 2000 (in 43 participating countries) (loc. 235). Since that time, the PISA has been administered every 3 years (in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012)—to a sample of students in each of the participating countries (loc. 259).

Like the tests that came before it (of which there were many), the PISA evaluates students in 3 areas: reading, science and math. However, there is one important respect in which the PISA differs from its predecessors. And that is that instead of evaluating rote knowledge, the PISA is designed to test students’ ability to think critically. As Ripley explains, “other international tests had come before PISA, each with their own forgettable acronym, but they tended to assess what kids had memorized, or what their teachers had drilled into their heads in the classroom. Those tests usually quantified students’ preparedness for more schooling, not their preparedness for life. None measured teenagers’ ability to think critically and solve new problems in math, reading, and science. The promise of PISA was that it would reveal which countries were teaching kids to think for themselves” (loc. 246).

When it comes to the kinds of questions found on the PISA (and how they differ from the questions on tests that came before it), Ripley puts it this way: “instead of a typical test question, which might ask which combination of coins you needed to buy something, PISA asked you to design your own coins, right there in the test booklet” (loc. 238). More concretely, here is an actual example of a question on a past PISA test:

A TV reporter showed this graph and said: ‘The graph shows that there is a huge increase in the number of robberies from 1998 to 1999.’

Do you consider the reporter’s statement to be a reasonable interpretation of the graph? Give an explanation to support your answer” (loc. 335).

b. Why the PISA Test Matters: PISA Scores = Economic Success

The PISA was designed to test critical thinking skills on the idea that these are the very skills that are needed to thrive in today’s modern work environment and economy (loc. 242). And judging from the economic data, this idea appears to be spot on. For, as Ripley explains, “economists ha[ve] found an almost one-to-one match between PISA scores and a nation’s long-term economic growth” (loc. 345). In other words, what appears to be going on here is that critical thinking skills are translating directly into increased productivity—which redounds to the benefit of individuals, businesses and whole nations.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

2 thoughts on “#42. A Summary of ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley

  1. Hi,

    Huge fan of your site.
    Have a question regarding the annual subscription: does that provide access to upcoming summaries only (in 2014)? I read the ‘changes coming’ notice you sent out and I believe you indicated that past articles would not be included in the annual subscription but I just want to confirm that – or if the annual subscription does in fact allow access to all summaries both past and upcoming..

    Many Thanks.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. As for the annual subscriptions, they do indeed cover all of the material on the site; so all of the articles that have been published to date, plus all of those that will be published within 1 year of signing up for the subscription. Great value, isn’t it!!


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