The author follows three American kids who each spend a year studying in top-rated countries for education: Finland, South Korea and Poland. Their stories reveal truths about keys to educational success and how they might be replicated in the United States.


  • Amanda Ripley Author and investigative journalist.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley. Copyright © 2013 Amanda Ripley. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. International educational tests consistently rank American students in the bottom third for math and science. In reading, the U.S. fails to break the top ten, trailing Canada and Estonia among others. In her new book, investigative journalist, Amanda Ripley, follows the lives of three American exchange students in Finland, Poland, and South Korea, to find out why children in those countries achieve so much. Her new book is titled "The Smartest Kids in the World."

  • 11:07:37

    MS. DIANE REHMAmanda Ripley joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you would like to express your thoughts. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us an email to, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Amanda, it's good to meet you.

  • 11:08:02

    MS. AMANDA RIPLEYThank you for having me.

  • 11:08:03

    REHMMy pleasure. You know, it's interesting to me that you say for most of your years as an investigative reporter you sort of ignored educational issues. You found them too soft. What changed your mind?

  • 11:08:23

    RIPLEYWell, finally, I was asked by my bureau chief here in Washington to write a profile of Michelle Rhee who was running the schools here. And this was back in the beginning of her tenure, and I was nervous about doing it because it would be back in this world of education that seemed so hopeless and futile. But I knew that she was an interesting and strong personality, so that it would be an interesting story no matter what -- no matter what. And in the midst of doing that, I realize, yes, she was interesting, but the much more interesting thing was actually what was happening or not happening in these schools.

  • 11:08:57

    REHMAnd then you saw a chart on kids' academic performance. How did that move it?

  • 11:09:04

    RIPLEYYou know, if you look at how countries have changed over time, even just in the past 50 years, it's a remarkably hopeful, exciting picture. What you see is that change is actually the norm, and the U.S. has been fairly flat as far as progress in education now comes. But most countries have not, and you see these dramatic surges and lows all over the world, which to me was incredibly mysterious. How did this happen? How did countries change so dramatically in so little time?

  • 11:09:34

    REHMSo how did you manage to set up your investigative reporting?

  • 11:09:40

    RIPLEYWell, I read a lot about the international comparisons, and none of it really made sense to me. It didn't quite add up, and I couldn't quite picture what it was like to be a kid in these countries. So I knew from my reporting domestically that when you're in that situation, the best thing you can do is go hang out there and spend time with kids themselves, because students can tell you things about their school and their education system that adults never can. So it really helps fill in the blind spots.

  • 11:10:07

    RIPLEYTo do that, I was able to find exchange students who were coming from the U.S. and going to spend a year in these countries, so they had this, you know, not a scientific sample, but they had this ability to compare their schools back in Oklahoma or Minnesota to their schools in Korea and Finland.

  • 11:10:26

    REHMSo you had three students. Tell me about them.

  • 11:10:31

    RIPLEYThey are remarkable. These kids really became the protagonists of the book in a way that I didn't expect. One is named Kim, and she was 15 years old, living in rural Oklahoma, had never left the U.S., had a single mother who was a teacher, and she just really wanted to see the world. For whatever reason, she was very curious about the world and wanted to spend some time outside of her town where she never really felt like she fit in.

  • 11:10:57

    REHMWhere in Oklahoma?

  • 11:10:59

    RIPLEYSallisaw, Oklahoma.

  • 11:11:00


  • 11:11:01

    RIPLEYAnd -- right near the border of Arkansas. So she told her mom that she wanted to go live abroad, and her mom was not to keen on this idea as you might imagine.

  • 11:11:09

    REHMAt 15.

  • 11:11:11

    RIPLEYAnd so her mom kind of called her bluff and said, well, if you can raise the $10,000 that it takes to go spend a year in Finland or any of these countries, then go ahead, be my guest. Kim started researching countries, and she read that Finland had the smartest teenagers in the world, and she decided that's where she wanted to go.

  • 11:11:30

    REHMGood for her.

  • 11:11:32

    RIPLEYAnd then she sold beef jerky door to door, and she hawked her flute on Ebay and she did all these incredibly creative things, you know, that Americans are famous for, which is what I loved about her intrepid approach to this problem.

  • 11:11:46

    REHMDid she do any crowd sourcing or crowd funding?

  • 11:11:48

    RIPLEYYeah. She started up a blog and asked strangers for money. So she actually did not think she would succeed, no one did. And then she did raise, just by the skin of her teeth, she raised $10,000 and went off to Finland.

  • 11:12:02

    REHMAnd another child.

  • 11:12:06

    RIPLEYErik came from a very high-performing suburb of Minneapolis in Minnesota. Minnesota is one of our highest-performing states, and performs not at the level of Finland but, you know, close to Canada. And so he was coming from one of the best performing states in the country and going to one of the top countries in the world which was South Korea. So he went from -- Erik went from Minnesota to Busan, South Korea.

  • 11:12:31

    RIPLEYHe was just really curious to see what Asia was like. He kind of wanted a break from his high school, not realizing at that point that Korea's not a good place to go if you want a break from academics, but an incredibly insightful, curious kid, who loved Korea and ended up hating the education system.

  • 11:12:54

    REHMAnd how old was he?

  • 11:12:56

    RIPLEYHe was 17 when he left.

  • 11:12:58

    REHMSeventeen. So he was going into senior year?

  • 11:13:03

    RIPLEYYeah. And actually in his case, he's the only one who had actually finished high school already, just finished...

  • 11:13:06

    REHMI see.

  • 11:13:07

    RIPLEY...and decided to spend sort of a gap year in Korea going to high school as if he were a Korean high school student.

  • 11:13:14

    REHMNow, did he learn Korean before he left, or were they speaking English?

  • 11:13:21

    RIPLEYHe tried to learn some Korean. They were not speaking English in school so, you know, it took a while to ramp up, obviously. Very challenging.

  • 11:13:28


  • 11:13:29

    RIPLEYAnd same, you know, in Finland, more people spoke English, but school was in Finnish, so in all cases the kids took a while.

  • 11:13:37

    REHMAnd your third student?

  • 11:13:39

    RIPLEYThe third student is named Tom, and he was coming from Gettysburg, Pa. He was also 17. He was about to do his senior year of high school, so he had not graduated. And Tom, you know, he played the cello, he watched Woody Allen movies, he was just sort of, you know, into things that were not very popular in his rural Pennsylvania high school where football and sports were really the core of the culture. So he thought, you know, he spent a whole winter reading Chekhov.

  • 11:14:06

    RIPLEYHe was interested in Eastern European writers, and he thought it would romantic really, to go spend a year living and learning in Poland where he thought maybe more people might be interested in the things that he was interested in.

  • 11:14:20

    REHMHow did you find these kids?

  • 11:14:23

    RIPLEYYou know, there are these organizations that facilitate these exchange programs for kids, and so I got to know them, and then I knew which countries I wanted to focus on because of their data -- their performance results. And so that connected me with students and families who were interested in participating.

  • 11:14:41

    REHMThere's something about the performance ranking of these various countries. Where does Finland stand?

  • 11:14:53

    RIPLEYSo Finland and Korea are both at the top of the world, particularly -- I mean, they're different metrics, and you have to look at more than one, but one that is particularly useful at this moment is called the PISA test which is test that was specifically designed to look at how well kids can think critically in math, reading, and science. So it's not a measure of how much you've memorized. You have to actually write out longhand answers. There are no right answers to a lot of the questions.

  • 11:15:19

    RIPLEYAll the formulas are provided, the trick is to apply knowledge and solve problems you've never seen before. So that was a good metric to look at the skills that kids need now in this economy to make sense of information and apply knowledge rather than just, you know, memorizing it.

  • 11:15:37

    REHMSo beginning with Finland, which I happen to have visited with people who know it well, who live there, and they rave about that country's educational system. What is it that Finland is doing so well?

  • 11:15:59

    RIPLEYOne of the exciting things about Finland is that it wasn't always so smart. Actually, none of these countries were always so smart. In the 1950s, only 10 percent of Finnish students completed high school. So what you see is this remarkable trajectory over the past few decades, and that's exciting because it suggests there's hope for the rest of us, right? People in Finland will tell you, oh, we just really value education, and that's probably true, but it wasn't -- you didn't see those results in the 1950s when the U.S. would have trounced Finland on these tests for sure.

  • 11:16:30

    RIPLEYSo, you know, it's interesting to see how that changes over time, and it's exciting, and one thing that happened in Finland for sure is that they were up against an economic existential crisis where they were either going to become more like Russia or more like Sweden, and they wanted to be more like Sweden, and they invested heavily in their education system. Not just economically, financially, but also in -- with their teachers.

  • 11:16:56

    RIPLEYSo they did something that no state in the U.S. has done, which is they shut down all their teacher training colleges and reopened them in the most elite universities in the country which was controversial at the time, but had a lot of effects, some of them unintended, that helped make all the other changes more impactful.

  • 11:17:13

    REHMSo you're saying back in the fifties, those teacher colleges were totally separate from universities, and so they closed all those down, put them into the university. Why did that make such a big difference?

  • 11:17:34

    RIPLEYWell, it was -- before then, in the -- see, they did this in the late sixties. Before then, it looked a lot like our education college system where we had, you know, way more colleges than we need that have education majors. We educate twice as many teachers as we need in the U.S. Most countries do this by the way. And we make it pretty easy to get into those programs by and large, and the training isn't very rigorous, and as a result there's not a lot of prestige attached to the profession because you know that almost anyone can study it.

  • 11:18:02

    RIPLEYSo one of the things that they did was they had these sort of middling education colleges of different quality depending on where they were, and as part of a broader reform of higher education, they consolidated them into these elite universities where you had to score in the top 10 to 20 percent of your class.

  • 11:18:18

    REHMTo make it.

  • 11:18:19

    RIPLEYTo even get in, yeah, to those colleges.

  • 11:18:22

    REHMAmanda Ripley, her new book is titled "The Smartest Kids in the World." Short break here, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley has a new book out. It's titled, "The Smartest Kids in the World." It talks about three exchanges students who went to Finland, South Korea and what was the third?

  • 11:20:28


  • 11:20:29

    REHMAnd Poland. And how those school structures differed from what we see here in the U.S., not only at how those three students faired but how those teaching systems in those countries are different from those here in this country and what we might be able to learn. What you're saying, Amanda, is that by closing down those teaching institutions and putting prospective teachers into universities, those teachers were being shown that they were being valued more. Is that correct?

  • 11:21:23

    RIPLEYRight. So not only did you end up with the best educated citizens becoming teachers, which makes it easier to train them rigorously, right? Because you don't have to do remedial math and kind of, you know, spend a lot of time going over things that they should've learned in high school. So they have a fluency with the subjects they're teaching, which is obviously important but not enough.

  • 11:21:42

    RIPLEYNot only did you have that but what you have is it sends a signal to everybody else -- parents, politicians, and especially students -- that you're really serious about education, right? If you're only admitting 10 percent of the applicants to even study to become a teacher from the beginning, you have a level of rigor and seriousness, which countries do not approach. And I think that actually trickles down to kids in ways that I did not expect.

  • 11:22:06

    REHMWhat do you mean?

  • 11:22:08

    RIPLEYWell, one of the finish -- I ended up surveying hundreds of exchange students in addition to the students I followed. And one of the Americans who had gone to Finland, just on her own in the survey just wrote back in one of the open responses. She said, you know, the students that I went to school with in Finland were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were. And there was sort of respect.

  • 11:22:28


  • 11:22:29

    RIPLEYBuilt in there that...

  • 11:22:30

    REHMWhat about money?

  • 11:22:31

    RIPLEYYeah. Well, that also makes it easier to justify paying teachers more and giving them more freedom in the classroom, right? Because from the beginning it's very serious, difficult, competitive profession. What you find is that teachers in Finland are paid more than teachers in the U.S., particularly compared to other educated professional workforces. At the same time, they're not paid a huge amount.

  • 11:22:54

    RIPLEYThey're paid partly through prestige, right? So the best teachers typically don't get into it for money in any country. And part of the compensation is the sense of being involved in something important and serious. What you actually see worldwide is that beyond a certain baseline, salaries for teachers don't actually predict education outcomes. So Spain has the highest paid teachers in the world but sort of pretty unimpressive education results.

  • 11:23:20

    REHMWhat about standardized testing?

  • 11:23:24

    RIPLEYI'm glad you asked about that. This is something that. Eric in particular coming from Minnesota, you know, he felt like we did way too much testing in the U.S. and, you know, he's bored by a lot of it, understandably and that there's too much pressure on kids and teachers. And he gets to Korea and he finds out there's another level of pressure, above what he had understood in his affluent suburb of Minnesota.

  • 11:23:50

    RIPLEYAnd he discovers that kids can work and will work much, much harder than he thought possible, that pressure is a relative term. And that while he wishes to this day that the test he took in high school are more interesting, he has a slightly more nuanced take on the value of tests and the definition of pressure, I think.

  • 11:24:14

    REHMWhat does working harder mean as far as South Korean students?

  • 11:24:20

    RIPLEYYou know, Korea is really the pressure cooker of the world. It's an extreme case of what you see in much of Asia and other parts of the world where students are working and studying more hours than our students are awake. And this is not necessarily a good thing. I don't mean to suggest that it is. In fact, everyone I met in Korea complained about this system. What happened is most kids, including Eric who I followed, would go to school around 8:00 or 9:00 am.

  • 11:24:44

    RIPLEYAnd then after school ended around 4:00, they would go to tutoring classes. So the after-school tutoring academy in Korea is bigger than the public education system. It's...

  • 11:24:57

    REHMSo does everybody go to these tutoring classes?

  • 11:25:02

    RIPLEYEverybody does some kind of after-school study, particularly by high school in some form or another. The problem with it is that, you know, it's expensive. So the kids who can most afford the best one-on-one tutoring are the richest kids. So this is a huge problem in Korea and many countries around the world. We do not have anything approaching that even though we do have SAT prep obviously and some tutoring.

  • 11:25:26

    RIPLEYAbut about 15 percent of our after-school tutoring compared to 70 percent in Korea. So there is a risk of that developing further in the U.S. and it's very redundant, either repeating everything they learned during the day in these private tutoring academies.

  • 11:25:44

    REHMWell, there are lots of kids who don't get it in these big classrooms and who do need that individualized coaching, if you will. But what about the teachers. How do they react to the kinds of test that they have to do in either Finland or Poland or Korea?

  • 11:26:12

    RIPLEYEvery country I went to, teachers complain about tests. And there are different ways in which the tests affect their lives and their jobs and their kids. And Finland is famous for not having very many standardized tests, and it is certainly a strength of the country. There are many, many classroom tests, though, in Finland. And in fact, when Finnish kids are surveyed in high school, one of the things they complain about is the number of tests that they take.

  • 11:26:36

    RIPLEYThese are tests, you know, written by their teachers. And at the end of Finnish high school, like, most high-performing countries of the world, the students take an end-of-school exam that's very rigorous. It takes about 60 hours all in and requires a lot of writing and thinking and it is really on another level from what our kids do here. So we seem to have a lot, a lot, a lot of standardized testing.

  • 11:27:02

    RIPLEYTests that are not very smart and don't often have consequences for kids' lives.

  • 11:27:09

    REHMDo the high schools in Poland, Korea and Finland prepare those students for college in ways that our high schools do not?

  • 11:27:24

    RIPLEYAnytime you are teaching higher order thinking in math, reading and science to virtually all kids, you're preparing kids for not only college but vocations in the modern age that require a sort of fluency in math and reading and science that they didn't before, right? So Finland has more kids who go to vocational school, but those schools are pretty prestigious. In fact, the academic schools are having a hard time keeping their students from going to the vocational schools.

  • 11:27:52

    REHMWhat kinds of vocational schools?

  • 11:27:56

    RIPLEYSo some of them are engineering, some of them are design schools. There's a whole range of them. In Korea, there's a Samsung School, high school. There's, you know, schools that really focus on high tech jobs or on even plumbing.

  • 11:28:12

    REHMSeoul do have a percentage, for example, in Finland that high school students who do go on college and those who go to vocational schools.

  • 11:28:26

    RIPLEYSure. It does seem like in Korea you have vast majority of kids going to college. In Finland, you have still more students going and completing college that you do in the U.S. But what you see is that they're all getting some kind of training one way or another. So even if they're not going to a four-year university, they're going to some kind of career training institute that leads to a job.

  • 11:28:49

    RIPLEYYou see much lower drop-out rates from high school than you see in the U.S., which again wasn't always true in these countries. Korea had, you know, very low literacy rate in the 1950s. And they...

  • 11:29:02

    REHMAnd what happened there?

  • 11:29:04

    RIPLEYKorea also was up against in economic crisis. And that is usually what focuses the mind for people when you're about to become economically irrelevant. That is really powerful and it makes people get serious about education, not always.

  • 11:29:19

    REHMThere are people in this country who are now worried about whether 40 years from now, 20 years from now we will have enough educated people to0 continue an economically viable country.

  • 11:29:37

    RIPLEYExactly. I mean, countries reach these crossroads at different times. And some go in one direction and some go in another. Some of that's accidental, some of it depends on the leadership. But in the case of Korea, they too shutdown a lot of their lower-performing teacher training colleges, among other changes. And now only the top 5 percent of the applicants are admitted into...

  • 11:29:59

    REHMFive percent.

  • 11:30:00

    RIPLEYParticularly for elementary school teachers in Korea. It's less rigorous for high school. But for elementary schools, it's pretty serious.

  • 11:30:08

    REHMAnd what about in Poland? What happened there?

  • 11:30:12

    RIPLEYPoland is exciting. People are always surprised that I chose Poland. You don't see it coming the way you see Korea and Finland coming. But Poland is exciting because it's dramatically improved its education outcomes in the last 10 years despite having significant levels of child poverty like we do. And it's a big, sprawling country with a lot of distrust for the central government like the U.S.

  • 11:30:34

    RIPLEYIt's a place with a lot of trouble still. If you think about the history of Poland, it's a complicated place.

  • 11:30:41

    REHMOf course, yeah.

  • 11:30:43

    RIPLEYSo I really like that idea of not just looking at a snapshot of where Finland and Korea and these education super powers are today, but looking at how they got there. And Poland is more recently on that trajectory, so it's a great way to see how that happened in a relatively short period of time.

  • 11:31:01

    REHMSo through all your research, do you begin to question the road that the U.S. has taken in education reform?

  • 11:31:16

    RIPLEYYes, in one way in particular. We seem to have gotten very fixated on evaluating teachers to get rid of the worst ones and make the other ones better. We really obsess over the algorithms that we'll use and value-added data and there's big fights about this, as you know, with teachers unions. I think that's all well and good, but it makes a lot more sense from an efficiency and elegance point of view to engineer a high-performing teaching force from the beginning.

  • 11:31:45

    RIPLEYSo instead of educating twice as many teachers as we need in 1,400 schools of education, maybe we could try in at least one state getting very serious about that profession from the beginning, which would then extend a lot of prestige and respect to it as well, which obviously teachers want and deserve. So it seems a little bit painful to reverse engineer a great teaching force the way we are trying to do.

  • 11:32:09

    RIPLEYAnd it's surprising to me that we haven't in any state tried to do this from the beginning the way these countries have. That said, one thing I am very hopeful about coming back here is the common core state standards, which 45 states have signed on to adopt which are rolling out now in many places and do require more thinking and rigorous work from kids starting from a very young age. And this for the U.S. is a pretty big deal, you know.

  • 11:32:39

    RIPLEYWe have not been able to elevate what our expectations are for kids in this way and scale ever. And we may yet unwind this one. But we'll see.

  • 11:32:50

    REHMAmanda Ripley, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The new book is titled, "The Smartest Kids in the World." It has on its cover a very clever Rubik cube with, let's see, the Brits, the French, the Canadians, I don't recognize any of the other.

  • 11:33:19

    RIPLEYWe got Finland, Korea, Poland.

  • 11:33:22

    REHMTerrific Rubik cube. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Dustin in Ann Arbor, MI. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:39

    DUSTINHi. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:33:40


  • 11:33:41

    DUSTINI used to live in Europe and I basically have a first-hand account as to the reason why test scores might be lower in the United States. This goes with math. Over there, they don't use calculators in any of their math classes where I used to live. So in the United States, it's my opinion that they're teaching computations instead of actual mathematics. I just was wondering if Amanda would comment on that.

  • 11:34:07

    REHMWhat an interesting question, Amanda.

  • 11:34:10

    RIPLEYYeah, that's a great point. And in fact, if you look closely at the data, the U.S. really has a math problem, not so much a reading problem. I mean, our kids perform 12th in the world in math and reading by the time they're 15 and 26th in the world in math. So you're right, it is a problem that starts very early and has to do with mathematics and science particular. The kids that I followed all did notice that in these countries they did not see kids using calculators the way that we do.

  • 11:34:37


  • 11:34:37

    RIPLEYSo there is a kind of fluency with numbers. It's like a language math, like a language of logic. And if you think about any language, you need to have be sort of automatic in your head to reach a certain point. One of the things that Eric really liked about Korea despite the stress and pressure of the place was how they taught math, because trigonometry, calculus, algebra are all woven together, which is really the way a language should be taught.

  • 11:35:08

    RIPLEYYou don't just learn verbs one year and nouns the next year. And he found it much, much more interesting and elegant.

  • 11:35:15

    REHMBut there is that question of why kids care so much in these other countries, whereas here you see or hear kids say, do I have to go to school?

  • 11:35:35

    RIPLEYI think that is at the heart of the matter. And that is changeable. I think that is something that we could do better at connecting the dots for kids, between what they're doing in school and how interesting their lives will be. This is something that really Kim when she went from Oklahoma to Finland. She ended up in rural Finland as well. Also living with a single mother again. And one of the things she noticed watching her classmates is, you know, plenty of them were texting when they're supposed to be listening.

  • 11:36:02

    RIPLEYOr they would go to parties, they didn't like their teacher. I mean, they were normal kids just like the kids back in Oklahoma. The difference seem to be that they cared more about school. They seem to buy into it on a level that she didn't see even in her honor's classes in Oklahoma. And this is -- there's a lot of reasons for that but I suspect that one reason kids take school more seriously in Finland is because it is more serious. So the teaching...

  • 11:36:29

    REHMMore serious and they're thinking about their futures.

  • 11:36:34

    RIPLEYYeah. But it's easier to do that when, you know, when the work is rigorous and there is real learning happening and there are high expectations, you know, then you kind of buy into the premise of education potentially in a way that you don't when, you know, you've got some classes that are great and things are happening in other classes where you're just copying information into a notebook and your teacher's on, you know,

  • 11:37:00

    RIPLEYAnd there's a huge variance from classroom to classroom here that you don't see in a place like Finland.

  • 11:37:04

    REHMWell, I -- when we come back -- would like to know what you think we can take from your investigative reporting and these kids in these countries and apply it to what happens here in a way of education. Short break. My guest is Amanda Ripley. Her book is titled, "The Smartest Kids in the World."

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Amanda Ripley is with me. She's done a lot of work trying to find out the differences when kids from this country go to other countries for their junior and senior years of high school. She chose three, one who went to Finland, another who went to South Korea and the third who went to Poland. A number of our listeners, Amanda, want to know about poverty and diversity. Here's a Tweet from Leon. "is it significant that Finland and Korea contain among the least diverse populations in the world?" And another Tweet from Paul, "If you don't look at poverty, you aren't really looking at the problem."

  • 11:41:18

    RIPLEYCertainly poverty is an important piece of this puzzle. So I'm glad that we have a moment to talk about that. I think that child poverty rates in the U.S. are dramatically higher than they are in Finland in particular. And that makes everything harder for the students, for the teachers, for the parents for sure. It is striking to me that not a single state in the U.S., even very white affluent states like tiny New Hampshire for example, which is 96 percent white and has the highest median income in the country, not even those states have teenagers performing at the levels of kids in Finland or even Canada.

  • 11:41:59

    RIPLEYWe spend significantly more per student, particularly in those kids' schools -- in more affluent kids' schools than almost every country in the world. So what is happening there? Poverty is certainly part of it. Diversity is certainly part of it but there's more going on than just that. And I think one of the biggest mysteries that got me interested in this was Norway. Norway shares a border with Finland. It's a Nordic welfare state with high taxes, universal health care and abundant natural resources. Has less than 6 percent child poverty, one of the lowest figures in the world along with Finland.

  • 11:42:33

    RIPLEYAnd yet -- and they spend more than we do on education, which is extremely rare. And yet Norwegian teenagers perform just as unimpressively as our own kids on an international test of scientific literacy. You do not see Norwegian kids performing anywhere near the level of kids next door in Finland. So this is not to say that poverty doesn't matter, but that it's interacting with other things. And that those things matter too because education, as we all know, is the most effective antipoverty policy there is. So these things are related.

  • 11:43:05

    REHMHow do you compare the amount of money that Finland spends per student to what the U.S. spends per student?

  • 11:43:18

    RIPLEYThe U.S. spends more per student than all but three countries in the world. Those three countries are Luxemburg, Norway and Switzerland. And this is spending on K through 12. So we're not talking about college at this point, which obviously would take us off the charts. But what's interesting is, the spending is not as equitable as you would see in a place like Finland or Korea or Poland.

  • 11:43:42

    REHMWhat do you mean?

  • 11:43:43

    RIPLEYSo in most developed countries that perform pretty well in education, at this point they all distribute resources according to need. So the poorest neighborhood schools get more money and better teachers. What you see in the U.S., partly because of our tax system, but also because of the way we assign teachers based on seniority, the most experienced teachers often choose to be in the nicer schools, nicer neighborhoods.

  • 11:44:11

    RIPLEYAnd I don't blame them for that. But you end up with -- even if you try to have an equitable distribution of resources, which many states do not even try to do in the U.S. -- but more states and districts are trying to do that -- and even if you try to do that, you end with a de facto disparity because more experienced teachers have no incentive to go to the worst, most challenged schools.

  • 11:44:36

    REHMWhat about Teach for America? How do you think that program is working?

  • 11:44:44

    RIPLEYYou know, the independent studies that have been done of the performance of Teach for America show that those teachers are typically doing as well, and in some cases better than teachers who have education degrees. Now, they are placed in very challenging schools, as we know.

  • 11:45:01


  • 11:45:02

    RIPLEYAnd I will see that, you know, it is the only -- it's interesting that it's the only program that has dramatically improved the prestige of the teaching profession is this profession that so many teachers distrust and resent, this organization Teach for America. It is the only organization that has managed to make teaching more prestigious. When people have Teach for America on their resume people say, oh wow, that's impressive. It's extremely difficult to get into, much like teacher college in Finland, right. It's extremely difficult to get into.

  • 11:45:34

    RIPLEYThat said, it's not enough, right. And I think anyone from Teach for America would be the first to tell you that they would like to do much, much better than they are. And I wonder if those kids had five years to study teaching the way kids -- you know, young adults do in Finland, it would be amazing what they could potentially accomplish,

  • 11:45:53

    REHMLet's go to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Trudy.

  • 11:45:59

    TRUDYThank you for taking my call, Diane.

  • 11:46:00


  • 11:46:02

    TRUDYI enjoy your program.

  • 11:46:03

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:46:04

    TRUDYNow, I would like to tell your guest, I grew up in former East Germany. And former East Germany had the number one educational system in the world. This was taken over then by Finland because your guest is always speaking about Finland. Now, you know, our tests came from the government. The government -- former East German government supported very much education. And, you know, you couldn't make a test twice. Either you finished your exams -- and if you didn't make it you had to go into a different direction. So they were tough.

  • 11:46:45

    TRUDYNow my husband is from here. I compare his education. He went to the University of Rochester and I work there too. I mean, there's no comparison what we had already in grammar school. We had languages, we had economics in grammar school. Actually we were under a lot of stress. But today I'm an older person. I'm so happy that I'm educated. Sometimes I hear questions, does Germany have universities? Now, that's pretty low.

  • 11:47:21

    RIPLEYYeah, you know, it's interesting. Germany is a great example, obviously a big and complicated place as well. But when this peeza (sp?) test, the one that really studies critical thinking, was first administered in 2000, Germany was the most -- Germans were the most surprised by the results. And your caller eluded to this. The Germans had believed their system among the best in the world. But that first year their kids performed below average for the developed world in reading, math and science, even worse than Americans, which was a great shock to the system in Germany.

  • 11:47:52

    RIPLEYAnd they have really gone about trying to improve their system with a very keen eye towards what other countries are doing. One of the -- it's certainly true that many, many countries have focused more on math and science. And you see that in what your caller was saying. At the same time, one of Germany's challenges and the challenge in the U.S. is the tendency to track children in their system very early and divided them up into kids who might be able to go to university and kids who won't. And you see that all around the world, the earlier you do that to kids, the worst everyone does typically.

  • 11:48:29

    REHMMarshal in Florida writes, "I recently read an article stating that school children in Finland go outside for breaks from the classroom as often as every 45 minutes with a local teacher crediting the frequent recesses for helping the students stay interested in lessons throughout the day. Is that true?

  • 11:49:03

    RIPLEYYou know, it's hard to get research that isolates for recess. I wish there was but I hear that. I've seen that to some degree. I think there are other countries that have more kids playing outside more often that don't have Finland's results. There are a lot of things interacting. Where I think that does matter is something that the kids I followed really picked up on, and that is the kids in Finland just have more autonomy in general. So you see young kids walking to school alone. You see -- in high school you're allowed, when you have a free period, to just walk out and go to a coffee shop in the village or whatever.

  • 11:49:39

    RIPLEYThere's a lot more freedom, a lot less fear about what could happen to your child partly because there is lower rates of violent crime. And partly because the culture is one that really prioritizes resilience and self sufficiency.

  • 11:49:57

    REHMHere's an email from Bill in Arkansas who says, "Comparing a big shaggy country like the U.S. with a tiny country like Finland is an apples-and-oranges exercise. We have more poor people. We have more immigrants. We speak 100 different languages." Fair point?

  • 11:50:24

    RIPLEYVery good point, and I love that shaggy analogy, like a big shaggy dog. We are shaggy, aren't we? I think it makes much more sense to compare states to countries. States and locals run education in the U.S. That's where the funding mostly comes from. And if you look at the United States and pretend that every state is a country and compare the performance of teenagers to the performance of kids around the world, you see that not one state, not even these very white homogonous affluent states like New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine, not one of them is performing in the top league of the world.

  • 11:50:58

    REHMI see. Talk about the classrooms and Obama's internet access push.

  • 11:51:09

    RIPLEYYeah, one of the biggest surprises for me was that the kids I followed, they all noticed their very first day of school in these countries that there's no technology really to speak of in the classroom, very little. Nothing like they had in their American schools, where they had laptops for everyone and fancy digital whiteboards. I mean, I've been in some very poor low-performing schools in the U.S. which every classroom has a digital whiteboard that costs $4,000 on the wall.

  • 11:51:36

    RIPLEYSo we -- they noticed anecdotally that we seem to have more tricked out classrooms when it came to technology. And so I asked hundreds of exchange students the same question in the survey. And in seven out of ten of them said that U.S. classrooms had more technology than their classrooms abroad.

  • 11:51:52


  • 11:51:52

    RIPLEYSo there does seem to be -- I mean, obviously having broadband internet access is important but spending 4 to $6 billion on it is -- and calling it one of the biggest, you know, initiatives of your administration's tenure does suggest to me as sort of exuberance for technology that the U.S. has had for a long time. And we have no evidence that that exuberance and that spending has translated into learning.

  • 11:52:16

    REHMAll right. To Norman, Okla. Hi, Alice.

  • 11:52:22

    ALICEGood morning.

  • 11:52:22


  • 11:52:23

    ALICEThe U.S. has recently cut funding to preschool Head Start type of programs. What kinds of preschool programs are present in these countries that the author has investigated, particularly Poland? And does that make a difference in the performance of students in high school?

  • 11:52:42

    RIPLEYThat's a great question. We know that investing in early learning pays off in remarkable ways, but as with so many of these things on the international data, it's more a function of the quality of that learning than the quantity. So people often ask me, well you know, is it because we have such a short school year here in the U.S.? And, you know, that's probably part of the puzzle but what you see is that the length of the school year is less important than the quality of the learning. And the same is true for early childhood education.

  • 11:53:11

    RIPLEYSo, you know, obviously these cuts due to the sequester in Head Start, that's a step in the wrong direction. But you also want to focus on, you know, the quality of that education above the quantity.

  • 11:53:24

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Durham, N.C. David, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:36


  • 11:53:37

    REHMHi there.

  • 11:53:38

    DAVIDSo we raised our son in China. He was born -- when he was four weeks old we moved to China. We put him in an American school -- international school right away. He wasn't learning Chinese so we pulled him out and we put him in public school. And that's where he learned -- went through elementary school. And he was in the Shanghai International High School elementary school, which is a rather extraordinary one but everything was at the highest standard there.

  • 11:54:03

    DAVIDWhen we moved back to the U.S. he was used to -- in the third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, he was used to doing three or four hours of homework every day. He came back here and finds that it's the most extraordinarily boring school that he could find. And he's going into the ninth grade now and he's in a gifted senior math program. And he's already learned that stuff.

  • 11:54:32

    DAVIDSo I just thought that the kids coming from Asia to the United States, in the college they learn creativity. But when they come to a public high school -- and he goes to the number one rated high school in North Carolina -- they find it a terribly depressing sight.

  • 11:54:53

    RIPLEYYou know, it's sobering, isn't it? I mean, Shanghai in particular is a great example. Shanghai ranked at the top of the world in the last administration of the peeza test in 2009. Shanghai is not representative of much of China, as I don't need to tell your caller. It's a sort of extraordinary place. but it does seem to be true -- even if you ask American kids, only half of American kids in high school say they are always or almost always learning in math class. And, you know, they report from an early age that they're often bored. And they are not even -- they don't even have the advantage of being able to compare it to Shanghai International school.

  • 11:55:29

    REHMAnd one thing you do talk about is sports.

  • 11:55:34

    RIPLEYYes. You know, this was another thing that came up a lot in spending time with kids in these countries. They were really struck by the fact that in the U.S. sports is a really big part of high school. And that is not true in much of the world. Kids play sports, sure, and they'll play through their community rec center or pick-up soccer games or what have you, organizations, you know, that parents run. But it's not part of the mission of high school or any school. And that, I think, speaks to a broader kind of confusion about what school is for in the U.S. and a lack of clarity of purpose.

  • 11:56:10

    RIPLEYThere are obviously great things about that, and when you talk to kids who come from Asia in particular to the U.S., they're delighted that they can spend so much time doing things other than academics in school.

  • 11:56:20

    REHMSo the one point you would say -- you would take from your experience that could be applied here, what would it be?

  • 11:56:34

    RIPLEYI think rigor matters. It matters in every conceivable form. It matters in how you select and train and support your teachers. It matters how you parent. We know that American parents are extremely involved in their kids' schools but less involved at home in their kids' education. And that's a very important distinction where you see that kids are spending -- parents are spending, and kids are spending, a lot of mental energy and time on things that don't lead to learning. So that clarify of purpose is something we really could learn from.

  • 11:57:06

    REHMAmanda Ripley. Her new book is titled "The Smartest Kids in the World." Thank you for your work.

  • 11:57:17

    RIPLEYThank you for having me.

  • 11:57:18

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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