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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley 

Published in August 2013.

If you want to depress yourself, really get yourself down, read Amanda Ripley's new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

You will be depressed by:

  • How badly our high schools are preparing U.S. kids are for 21st century jobs when compared to schools in South Korea, Poland, or Finland (the school systems that Ripley investigates).
  • How U.S. high schools have failed to insist that math skills are learnable by all students, not only those kids that are innately "good at math".
  • How much of a cost the U.S. will pay in productivity and competitiveness for our comparatively poor schools, underpaid teachers, and lax standards.
  • How little as a parent you have done to help your kids compete with kids from Finland, Poland, and South Korea.

Don't let the fact that the Smartest Kids in the World will depress you stop you from reading this fine book.  

Ripley does an amazing job of helping us understand how high school works in these countries.  Her method is to closely follow three U.S. exchange students as they each spend a year in these three countries.  

Countries that utterly destroy the U.S. on standardized international tests.  

Countries whose kids score much higher standardized math and science tests than even U.S. kids from wealthy school districts.  

Countries that spend much less per-student educating their children, but getter much better results.

If you happen to work in educational technology you will also be depressed by how poorly our field comes across in The Smartest Kids in the World.  

Ripley makes point that compared to other countries, U.S. schools are incredibly technology rich.  

In all her travels in Poland, Finland and South Korea that she never sees a classroom full of iPads, SmartBoards, or laptops.

What is Poland, Finland and South Korea spending their money on if not school technology?  Well....mostly teachers.  

In all these countries becoming a teacher is a high status and relatively highly compensated career choice.  Teachers are amongst the best and brightest, and are compensated and respected accordingly.

The fact that technology cannot overcome under-investment in teachers should come as no surprise.  

Anyone who works in educational technology will tell you that the technology is only as useful as the person using the technology to teach.  

Technology is never a substitute for the educator.  Technology can, at best, serve as one of the tools that an educator has in her toolbox to educate.  

Ripley seems content to make the point that technology does not matter all that much in determining educational outcomes.  I kept wondering what will happen when technologies become available to the teachers in South Korea, Poland, and Finland.  

Will we see another jump in educational outcomes in these countries?  

What will happen when well-compensated and highly motivated teaching is paired with appropriate learning technologies?  

Could we see the gap between the U.S. and these countries expand even further?

What lessons can we learn from about higher ed from The Smartest Kids in the World?

What are you reading?

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