the smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way by Amanda Ripley

1. The Treasure Map

  • Amanda started with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which generates the scores most often used to compare countries and states. She met with Andreas Schleicher, one of the test’s creators who maintains that PISA isn’t perfect, but was none the less the best instrument of its kind. To gain a better understanding of the test, Amanda took one. She found that for the most part, PISA is a test of your ability to do something with facts rather than just memorize facts. It demands fluency in problem solving and communicating. She came away convinced that it did a good job measuring critical thinking. Using the PISA scores as a treasure map, she settled on Finland, South Korea, and Poland as they were developed democracies that had to tolerate the vagaries of politics and the dull plod of compromise.

2. Leaving

  • This chapter tells the story of how Kim from a small town in Oklahoma became an exchange student to a small town in Finland. To raise the $10,000 she needed for the program she sold baked goods, did other chores, worked to gain scholarships, and finally relied on money from her grandparents. Oklahoma’s PISA scores would rank the state near the bottom with countries like Turkey and Croatia, and Kim’s school was certainly no standout in this low performing state. For some reason Kim wanted more from life, which explains why she worked hard in school and out so she could see at least one other part of the world.

3. The Pressure Cooker

  • Here we meet Eric who leaves high school in suburban Minneapolis for a year in Busan, South Korea. Eric’s high school was among the top ranked in the US, and Minnesota ranked second in the US to Massachusetts. He was also enrolled in the intense International Baccalaureate (IB) program. During his first class in Korea he was surprised to see how many students were sleeping openly as the class went on. The reason was that in addition to after school programs, most students attended private tutoring academies called hagwans until late in the evening. For Korean students, school never stopped.
  • In America, Eric felt that schools did too much standardized testing and put too much pressure on kids and teachers. While America’s tests were high-stakes for teachers and principals, they weren’t so for the students. Kids tend to see these tests as unsophisticated and irrelevant. As for the PISA scores, if Korea was number one, he had no desire to match their efforts. The system is brutal and even the Koreans aren’t happy with it. While the Korean government spends half as much per student as the US, Korean families make up the difference. In Minnesota kids participated in sports and musicals while the kids in Korea studied and studied some more. Like Finland, Korean teachers came from the top five percent of college applicants. Both countires believe that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
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