The Smartest Kids in the World : And How They Got That Way  |  Amanda Ripley  |  Nonfiction, Education  |  2013

Exhaustive summary

This book examines the differences and effectiveness of various educational systems in countries across the globe.  The relevant test chosen to compare these schools is the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment, developed by Schleicher) which tests critical thinking, communication, math, science, and reading in a unique way.  The top student performers are from Finland and Korea, while the United States (Ripley’s homeland) ranks much lower.

Ripley visited the top performing countries to see how they handled education differently.  She followed three American students on their international exchange adventures to gain better insight into the education system at the student level.  The three students each went to a different country: Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

Readers find out that in Finland, education is taken very seriously by the citizens and teachers are required to meet exceedingly high standards before being placed in a school.  The profession is highly respected and the students work hard.  There is also a required matriculation exam that the students must pass before graduation.

In South Korea, the students endure long hours of studying that include mandatory day school followed by optional night school (Hagwons).  All South Korean students must take an examination near the end of high school and are ranked across the country.  The students are encouraged by their parents to complete many hours of study so they can place well and get into one of the top three universities.  The pressure is very high and the system is disliked by many, but South Koreans can’t seem to break out of this routine.

Poland, in comparison, started from the bottom but has risen dramatically due to implemented measures to improve teacher selection.  Children take school seriously and dress in their nice, formal clothes on testing day.

It is the opinion of those who were surveyed that American schools were easier and lacked the certain standards that other educational systems upheld.  There is also value in different areas such as sports and physical fitness as opposed to math.  Ripley concluded that if she had to choose between South Korea’s schooling system and the U.S.’s, she would choose South Korea’s.  It is important for students to have rigor, which many U.S. students lack in relation.


I thought this book was very thought-provoking and interesting.  The content is organized in a segmented, nonlinear fashion that hops back and forth between the different countries being studied.  I liked that Ripley included a lot of personal experience from the three exchange students that studied abroad.  In addition to keeping up with all three students, Ripley interviewed the teachers or headmasters that belonged to the schools the three students attended.

Although Finland and Korea have higher average PISA scores than the U.S., education in the States is highly divided and far from standardized.  According to Ripley there are a handful of schools in the U.S. that fantastically outperform the average student from Finland or Korea.  The division between education quality in the U.S. is great, and I believe it is important to help raise the standards and give all students an equal chance at success.

Something I found noteworthy was the detrimental effects of advanced placement (AP) programs.  AP courses are designed to help propel students who are excelling to new heights, but the separation of AP students from the non-AP students only seems to widen the gap, as lower expectations begets lower performance results.  I was personally in AP courses during my school years, and it motivated me to work harder.  However, I can understand that had I been placed in a remedial class, perhaps I would have felt embarrassed and not tried as hard.

Is it for you?

This book extended my awareness of the differences in education in countries around the world, as well as in the country itself.  I enjoyed reading this book and liked how the content was presented.  I would recommend this book to anyone who desires a ‘bigger picture’ view on education.