Left Behind

Why the World Is Smarter Than Us

Why does the U.S. lag behind our peers when it comes to educating our students? Dana Goldstein on a new book that looks at school systems across the globe to come away with a startling conclusion: they value the intellect more than we do.

08.09.13 8:45 AM ET

For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else—something cultural, something nearly intangible—is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

“A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference,” he wrote, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.”

It would be comforting to think that since Hofstadter’s time a string of national reform initiatives—A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core—has addressed these issues. And though there has been some progress on the margins, journalist Amanda Ripley is here with a riveting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, to show us exactly why, compared with many of their peers in Europe and Asia, American students are still performing below the mark. According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

An entire education reform industry has been built off anxiety about numbers like these. And an entire body of literature exists calling these international rankings into question; for example, arguing that the OECD’s tests over-sample the United States’ poorest, least academically proficient students. Ripley steers mostly clear of this stale debate and instead tells the stories of three American teenagers who opt to spend a year studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, three countries that do well in the OECD rankings. There the American kids encounter high schools that are deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism.

In the U.S., most teachers earned about average grades and test scores when they were in high school and college. But in Finland, it is as competitive to become a public school teacher as it is to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university. There are no shortcuts into the classroom—prospective teachers must earn a master’s degree, write a research-driven thesis, and spend a full year in a teaching residency, observing master educators at work and practicing lessons and classroom management.

While few of us would want to subject our children to South Korea’s insane levels of testing stress, that nation at least shows kids that academic achievement is valued. On the morning of the national college entrance exam, the stock market opens an hour late, to clear the roads for 600,000 nervous students. Younger kids line up outside schools to cheer as their peers enter to take the nine-hour test. The scene, Ripley observes, is “like boxers entering a ring for a fight.”

In the U.S., federal incentives have created huge new business for corporate test makers, with annual standardized testing in reading and math, and a new generation of yearly exams in science, social studies, and even art and music. The quality of these tests varies greatly from district to district and state to state. They have few consequences for students, since they are intended mostly to collect data for evaluating teachers and administrators. In Poland, however, another country intent on creating a more accountable school system, children are tested only three times: at the end of elementary school, middle school, and high school. The tests are created by the national government and are identical for every student who takes them.

In all of these nations, sports have little or nothing to do with public schooling. If kids want to play hockey or basketball, they organize pick-up games, join a community program, or take private lessons. Children are held to high academic expectations and allowed to fail, so they come to understand the importance of school.

Ripley believes that compared with their counterparts abroad, too many American educators rely on poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. Indeed, a large body of research shows that teachers who hold high expectations for all children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, get better results. At a Finnish school, Ripley interviews a teacher who articulates this way of thinking. “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them,” he says of his immigrant students, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

While this is sound pedagogy, Ripley may be paying short shrift to the fact that countries like Finland, with functional, affordable health care, and housing programs, free teachers to spend a lot less time doing social work and more time focusing on academics. If The Smartest Kids in the World has a weakness, it is that the students it profiles are all broadly middle-class or affluent, so readers don’t get much of a sense of the very real effects that poverty and inequality can have on academic achievement across the world. The most successful countries, like Finland, have sought to close those gaps through a comprehensive social-services approach that reaches children both in and outside of the classroom.

“The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley. 320 pages. Simon & Schuster; $28.

Yet Ripley’s policy recommendations are sensible and strong. High-performing nations have shut down sub-par teacher training programs at non-elite colleges, and there is little doubt the United States should do the same—especially because we are producing an over-supply of teachers. Academically, American schools are too easy, with surveys of students showing pervasive boredom and low expectations. Our curriculum needs a booster shot, and not just in reading and math, the two subjects covered by the new Common Core national standards, but in every area, including technical and career education. Standardized testing is a blunt instrument, although every nation uses it to some degree. The real improvement happens when great teachers are given the autonomy to create engaging lessons. And we should stop throwing tax dollars at school sports programs and at gadgets like interactive white boards and iPads for every child. International comparisons show that the best schools are usually low-tech and focused on academics.

The American school reform debate has been desperately in need of such no-nonsense advice, which firmly puts matters of the intellect back at the center of education where they belong.