The Smartest Kids in the World

by Amanda Ripley

Clock Icon 19 minute read

Prologue

The Mystery

For most of my career at Time and other magazines, I worked hard to avoid education stories. If my editors asked me to write about schools or tests, I countered with an idea about terrorism, plane crashes, or a pandemic flu. That usually worked.

I didn’t say so out loud, but education stories seemed, well, kind of soft. The articles tended to be headlined in chalkboard font and festooned with pencil doodles. They were brimming with good intentions but not much evidence. The people quoted were mostly adults; the kids just turned up in the photos, smiling and silent.

Then, an editor asked me to write about a controversial new leader of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. I didn’t know much about Michelle Rhee, except that she wore stiletto heels and tended to say “crap” a lot in interviews. So, I figured it would be a good story, even if it meant slipping into the fog of education.

But something unexpected happened in the fog. I spent months talking to kids, parents, and teachers, as well as people who have been creatively researching education in new ways. Pretty soon I realized that Rhee was interesting, but she was not the biggest mystery in the room.

The real mystery was this: Why were some kids learning so much—and others so very little?

Education was suddenly awash in data; we knew more than ever about what was happening—or failing to happen—from one neighborhood or classroom to the next. And it didn’t add up. Everywhere I went I saw nonsensical ups and downs in what kids knew: in rich neighborhoods and poor, white neighborhoods and black, public schools and private. The national data revealed the same peaks and valleys, like a sprawling, nauseating roller coaster. The dips and turns could be explained in part by the usual narratives of money, race, or ethnicity. But not entirely. Something else was going on, too.

Over the next few years, as I wrote more stories about education, I kept stumbling over this mystery. At Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C., I saw fifth graders literally begging their teacher to let them solve a long division problem on the chalkboard. If they got the answer right, they would pump their fists and whisper-shout, “Yes!” This was a neighborhood where someone got murdered just about every week, a place with 18 percent unemployment.

In other places, I saw kids bored out of their young minds, kids who looked up when a stranger like me walked into the room, watching to see if I would, please God, create some sort of distraction to save them from another hour of nothingness.

For a while, I told myself that this was the variation you’d expect from one neighborhood to the next, from one principal or teacher to another. Some kids got lucky, I supposed, but most of the differences that mattered had to do with money and privilege.

Then one day I saw this chart, and it blew my mind.

The United States might have remained basically flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath. And what was going on in Norway, right next door, which seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty? And there was Canada, careening up from mediocrity to the heights of Japan. If education was a function of culture, could culture change that dramatically—that fast?

Worldwide, children’s skills rose and fell in mysterious and hopeful ways, sometimes over short periods of time. The mystery I’d noticed in Washington, D.C., got far more interesting when viewed from outer space. The vast majority of countries did not manage to educate all their kids to high levels, not even all of their better-off kids. Compared to most countries, the United States was typical, not much better nor much worse. But, in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.

How to explain it? American kids were better off, on average, than the typical child in Japan, New Zealand, or South Korea, yet they knew far less math than those children. Our most privileged teenagers had highly educated parents and attended the richest schools in the world, yet they scored below privileged kids in twenty-seven other nations in math, well below affluent kids in New Zealand, Belgium, France, and Korea, among other places. The typical child in Beverly Hills performed below average, compared to all kids in Canada (not some other distant land, Canada!). A great education by the standards of suburban America looked, from afar, exceedingly average.

At first, I told myself to resist the hype. Did it really matter if we ranked number one in the world in education outcomes? Or even number ten? Our elementary students did fine on international tests, thank you very much, especially in reading. The problems arose in math and science, and they became most obvious when our kids grew into teenagers. That’s when American students scored twenty-sixth on a test of critical thinking in math, below average for the developed world. But, so what? Our teenagers had performed at or below average on international tests for as long as anyone had been counting. It had not mattered much to our economy so far; why should it matter in the future?

The United States was a big, diverse country. We had other advantages that overwhelmed our K-12 mediocrity, right? We still had world-class research universities, and we continued to invest more in research and development than any other nation. It was easier to start a business here than in most places on earth. The values of hard work and self-sufficiency coursed like electricity through the United States, just as they always had.

But everywhere I went as a reporter, I saw reminders that the world had changed. The 2,300 days that our kids spent in school before high-school graduation mattered more than ever before. In Oklahoma, the CEO of the company that makes McDonald’s apple pies told me she had trouble finding enough Americans to handle modern factory jobs—during a recession. The days of rolling out dough and packing pies in boxes were over. She needed people who could read, solve problems, and communicate what had happened on their shift, and there weren’t enough of them coming out of Oklahoma’s high schools and community colleges.

The head of Manpower, a staffing and recruiting firm with offices in eighty-two countries, said one of the hardest jobs to fill anywhere was the sales job. Once upon a time, a salesperson had to have thick skin and a good golf game. Over the years, however, products and financial markets had become wildly more complex, and information had become available to everyone, including the customer. Relationships were no longer everything. To succeed, salespeople had to understand the increasingly sophisticated and customizable products they were selling almost as well as the engineers who worked on them.

Rather suddenly, academic mediocrity had become a heavier legacy to bear. Without a high-school diploma, you couldn’t work as a garbage collector in New York City; you couldn’t join the Air Force. Yet a quarter of our kids still walked out of high school and never came back.

Not long ago, zero countries had a better high-school graduation rate than the United States; by 2011, about twenty countries did. In an era in which knowledge mattered more than ever, why did our kids know less than they should? How much of our problems could be blamed on diversity, poverty, or the vastness of the country? Were our weaknesses mostly failures of policy or of culture, of politicians or of parents?

We told ourselves that we were at least raising more creative children, the kind who might not excel in electrical engineering but who had the audacity to speak up, to invent, and to redefine what was possible. But was there a way to know if we were right?

 

The Mythical Nordic Robots

Education pundits had worked mightily to explain different countries’ wildly different results. They had visited faraway schools on choreographed junkets. They’d debriefed politicians and principals and generated PowerPoints for the folks back home. However, their conclusions were maddeningly abstract.

Take Finland, for example, which ranked at the top of the world. American educators described Finland as a silky paradise, a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved. They insisted that Finland had attained this bliss partly because it had very low rates of child poverty, while the United States had high rates. According to this line of reasoning, we could never fix our schools until we fixed poverty.

The poverty narrative made intuitive sense. The child poverty rate in the United States was about 20 percent, a national disgrace. Poor kids lived with the kind of grinding stress that children should not have had to manage. They learned less at home, on average, and needed more help at school.

The mystery was not so simply solved, however. If poverty was the main problem, then what to make of Norway? A Nordic welfare state with high taxes, universal health care, and abundant natural resources, Norway enjoyed, like Finland, less than 6 percent child poverty, one of the lowest rates in the world. Norway spent about as much as we did on education, which is to say, a fortune, relative to the rest of the world. And, yet, Norwegian kids performed just as unimpressively as our own kids on an international test of scientific literacy in 2009. Something was amiss in Norway, and it wasn’t poverty.

Meanwhile, the Finns themselves offered vague explanations for their success. Education, I was told, had always been valued in Finland, going back hundreds of years. That explained it. But, then, why did only 10 percent of children finish high school in Finland in the 1950s? Why were there huge gaps between what rural and urban kids knew and could do in Finland in the 1960s? Back then, Finland’s passion for education had seemed rather uneven. What had happened?

At the same time, President Barack Obama and his education secretary said that they envied the South Korean education system, lauding its highly respected teachers and its demanding parents. On the surface at least, Korea appeared to have nothing in common with Finland. The Korean system was driven by testing, and Korean teenagers spent more time studying than our kids spent awake.

Listening to this cacophony, I kept wondering what it would be like to actually be a kid in these mystical lands of high scores, zero dropouts, and college graduates. Were Finnish kids really the Nordic robots that I kept reading about? Did Korean kids think they were getting such a sweet deal? What about their parents? No one talked about them. Didn’t parents matter even more than teachers?

I decided to spend a year traveling around the world on a field trip to the smart-kid countries. I wanted to go see these little bots for myself. What were they doing at ten on a Tuesday morning? What did their parents say to them when they got home? Were they happy?

 

Field Agents

To meet the Nordic robots, I needed sources on the inside: kids who could see and do things that I could never do on my own. So, I recruited a team of young experts to help.

During the 2010–11 school year, I followed three remarkable American teenagers as they experienced smarter countries in real life. These kids volunteered to be part of this project as they headed off for year-long foreign-exchange adventures, far from their families. I visited them in their foreign posts, and we kept in close touch.

Their names were Kim, Eric, and Tom, and they served as my escorts through borrowed homes and adopted cafeterias, volunteer fixers in a foreign land. Kim traveled from Oklahoma to Finland, Eric from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania to Poland. They came from different parts of America, and they left for different reasons. I met Kim, Eric, and Tom with the help of AFS, Youth for Understanding, and the Rotary Clubs, outfits that run exchange programs around the world.

I chose these Americans as advisers, but they turned out to be straight-up protagonists. They did not stand for all American kids, and their experiences could not reflect the millions of realities in their host countries. But, in their stories, I found the life that was missing from the policy briefings.

Kim, Eric, and Tom kept me honest. They didn’t want to talk about tenure policies or Tiger Moms; unburdened by the hang-ups of adults, they talked a lot about other kids, the most powerful influences in teenagers’ lives. All day long, they contemplated the full arc of their new lives, from their host families’ kitchens to their high-school bathrooms. They had much to say.

In each country, my American field agents introduced me to other kids, parents, and teachers, who became co-conspirators in this quest. In Korea, for example, Eric sent me to his friend Jenny, a teenager who had spent half her childhood in America and the other half in Korea. Jenny, an accidental expert on education, patiently answered questions that Eric could not. (Video interviews with my student sources can be found on the website for this book at www.AmandaRipley.com.)

To put the conclusions of these informants in context, I surveyed hundreds of other exchange students about their experiences in the United States and abroad. Unlike almost everyone else who proffers an opinion about education in other countries, these young people had first-hand experience. I asked them about their parents, schools, and lives in both places. Their answers changed the way I thought about our problems and our strengths. They knew what distinguished an American education, for better and for worse, and they did not mind telling.

When I finally came back to the United States, I felt more optimistic, not less. It was obvious that we’d been wasting a lot of time and money on things that didn’t matter; our schools and families seemed confused, more than anything else, lacking the clarity of purpose I saw in Finland, Korea, and Poland. Yet I also didn’t see anything anywhere that I didn’t think our parents, kids, and teachers could do just as well or better one day.

What I did see were whole generations of kids getting the kind of education all children deserve. They didn’t always get it gracefully, but they got it. Despite politics, bureaucracy, antiquated union contracts and parental blind spots—the surprisingly universal plagues of all education systems everywhere—it could be done. And other countries could help show us the way.

 

Chapter 1

The Treasure Map

Andreas Schleicher sat down quietly toward the back of the room, trying not to attract attention. He did this sometimes; wandering into classes he had no intention of taking. It was the mid-1980s and, officially speaking, he was studying physics at the University of Hamburg, one of Germany’s most elite universities. In his free time, however, he drifted into lectures the way other people watched television.

This class was taught by Thomas Neville Postlethwaite, who called himself an “educational scientist.” Schleicher found the title curious. His father was an education professor at the university and had always talked about education as a kind of mystical art, like yoga. “You cannot measure what counts in education—the human qualities,” his father liked to say. From what Schleicher could tell, there was nothing scientific about education, which was why he preferred physics.

But this British fellow whose last name Schleicher could not pronounce seemed to think otherwise. Postlethwaite was part of a new, obscure group of researchers who were trying to analyze a soft subject in a hard way, much like a physicist might study education if he could.

Schleicher listened carefully to the debate about statistics and sampling, his pale blue eyes focused and intense. He knew that his father would not approve. But, in his mind, he started imagining what might happen if one really could compare what kids knew around the world, while controlling for the effect of things like race or poverty. He found himself raising his hand and joining the discussion.

In his experience, German schools had not been as exceptional as German educators seemed to think. As a boy, he’d felt bored much of the time and earned mediocre grades. But, as a teenager, several teachers had encouraged his fascination with science and numbers, and his grades had improved. In high school, he’d won a national science prize, which meant he was more or less guaranteed a well-paying job in the private sector after college. And, until he stepped into Postlethwaite’s lecture, that was exactly what he’d planned to do.

At the end of class, the professor asked Schleicher to stay behind. He could tell that there was something different about this rail-thin young man who spoke in in a voice just above a whisper.

“Would you like to help me with this research?”

Schleicher stared back at him, startled. “I know nothing about education.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Postlethwaite said, smiling.

After that, the two men began to collaborate, eventually creating the first international reading test. It was a primitive test, which was largely ignored by members of the education establishment, including Schleicher’s father. But the young physicist believed in the data, and he would follow it wherever it took him.

 

The Geography of Smart

In the spring of 2000, a third of a million teenagers in forty-three countries sat down for two hours and took a test unlike any they had ever seen. This strange new test was called PISA, which stood for the Program for International Student Assessment. Instead of a typical test question, which might ask which combination of coins you needed to buy something, PISA asked you to design your own coins, right there in the test booklet.

PISA was developed by a kind of think tank for the developed world, called the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the scientist at the center of the experiment was Andreas Schleicher. It had been over a decade since Schleicher had wandered into Postlethwaite’s class. He’d worked on many more tests since then, usually in obscurity. The experience had convinced him that the world needed an even smarter test, one that could measure the kind of advanced thinking and communication skills that people needed to thrive in the modern world.

Other international tests had come before PISA, each with its own forgettable acronym, but they tended to assess what kids had memorized, or what their teachers had drilled into their heads in the classroom. Those tests usually quantified students’ preparedness for more schooling, not their preparedness for life. None measured teenagers’ ability to think critically and solve new problems in math, reading, and science. The promise of PISA was that it would reveal which countries were teaching kids to think for themselves.

By December 4, 2001, the results were ready. The OECD called a press conference at the Château de la Muette, the grand Rothschild mansion that served as its headquarters in Paris. Standing before a small group of reporters, Schleicher and his team tried to explain the nuances of PISA.

“We were not looking for answers to equations or to multiple choice questions,” he said. “We were looking for the ability to think creatively.”

The reporters stirred, restless for a ranking. Eventually he gave them what they wanted. The number-one country in the world was . . . Finland. There was a pause. Schleicher was himself a bit puzzled by this outcome, but he didn’t let it show. “In Finland, everyone does well,” he said, “and social background has little impact.”

Finland? Perhaps there had been some kind of mistake, whispered education experts, including the ones who lived in Finland.

Participating countries held their own press conferences to detail the results, and the Finnish announcement took place fifteen hundred miles away, in Helsinki. The education minister strode into the room, expecting to issue a generic statement to the same clutch of Finnish journalists she always encountered, and was astonished to find the room packed with photographers and reporters from all over the world. She stammered her way through the statement and retreated to her office.

Afterward, outside the Ministry of Education, foreign TV crews interviewed bewildered education officials in below-freezing December temperatures, their jackets flapping in the sea breezes off the Gulf of Finland. They had spent their careers looking to others—the Americans or the Germans—for advice on education. No one had ever looked back at them.

The Germans, meanwhile, were devastated. The chair of the education committee in the Bundestag called the results “a tragedy for German education.” The Germans had believed their system among the best in the world, but their kids had performed below average for the developed world in reading, math, and science—even worse than the Americans (the Americans!)

“Are German Students Stupid?” wondered Der Spiegel on its cover. “Dummkopf!” declared the Economist. Educators from every country, including Germany, had helped Schleicher and his colleagues write the test questions, so they couldn’t dismiss the results outright. Instead, some commentators blamed the teachers; others blamed video games. PISA entered the German vernacular, even inspiring a prime-time TV quiz program, The PISA Show. Education experts began making regular pilgrimages to Finland in search of redemption. Even Schleicher’s father came around, reading through the results and debating them with his son.

Across the ocean, the United States rang in somewhere above Greece and below Canada, a middling performance that would be repeated in every subsequent round. U.S. teenagers did better in reading, but that was only mildly comforting, since math skills tended to better predict future earnings.

Even in reading, a gulf of more than ninety points separated America’s most-advantaged kids from their least-advantaged peers. By comparison, only thirty-three points separated Korea’s most-privileged and least-privileged students, and almost all of them scored higher than their American counterparts.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige lamented the results. “Average is not good enough for American kids,” he said. He vowed (wrongly, as it would turn out) that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s new accountability-based reform law, would improve America’s standing.

Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results. In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.

A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country. Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.

In most countries, attending some kind of early childhood program (i.e., preschool or prekindergarten) led to real and lasting benefits. On average, kids who did so for more than a year scored much higher in math by age fifteen (more than a year ahead of other students). But in the United States, kids’ economic backgrounds overwhelmed this advantage. The quality of the early childhood program seemed to matter more than the quantity.

In essence, PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: that spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything—everything—depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments. As in all other large organizations, from GE to the Marines, excellence depended on execution, the hardest thing to get right.

Kids around the world took the PISA again in 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012. More countries had signed on, so, by 2012, the test booklet came in more than forty different languages. Each time, the results chipped away at the stereotypes: Not all the smart kids lived in Asia, for one thing. For another, U.S. kids did not have a monopoly on creativity. PISA required creativity, and many other countries delivered.

Money did not lead to more learning, either. Taxpayers in the smartest countries in the world spent dramatically less per pupil on education than taxpayers did in the United States. Parental involvement was complex, too. In the education superpowers, parents were not necessarily more involved in their children’s education, just differently involved. And, most encouragingly, the smart kids had not always been so smart.

Historical test results showed that Finnish kids were not born smart; they had gotten that way fairly recently. Change, it turned out, could come within a single generation.

As new rounds of data spooled out of the OECD, Schleicher became a celebrity wonk. He testified before Congress and advised prime ministers. “Nobody understands the global issues better than he does,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “And he tells me the truth—what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.” U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove called him “the most important man in English education,” never mind that Schleicher was German and lived in France.

On every continent, PISA attracted critics. Some said that the test was culturally biased, or that too much was lost in translation. Others said the U.S. sample size of 5,233 students in 165 schools was too small or skewed in one direction or another. Many said that Schleicher and his colleagues should just collect test scores and stop speculating about what might be leading to high or low scores.

For the most part, Schleicher deflected his critics. PISA was not perfect, he conceded, but it was better than any other option, and it got better each year. Like a Bible salesman, he carried his PowerPoint slides from country to country, mesmerizing audiences with animated scatter plots of PISA scores over time and across oceans. His last slide read, in a continuously scrolling ticker, “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion . . . Without data, you are just another person with an opinion . . .”

 

Test Pilot

I met Schleicher for the first time in April 2010 in Washington, D.C., just after the cherry trees had blossomed on the National Mall. We spoke in the lobby of an office building next to the U.S. Capitol, during his only break in a whirlwind day of meetings. By then, Schleicher had white hair and a brown Alex Trebek mustache. He was pleasant but focused, and we got right down to business.

I told him I was impressed by PISA, but skeptical. By the time of my quest, the United States had wasted more time and treasure on testing than any other country. We had huge data sets from which we had learned precious little. Was PISA really different from the bubble tests our kids had to zombie walk through each spring?

Without bothering to sit down, he took each of my questions in turn, quietly rattling off statistics and caveats, like C-3PO with a slight German accent.

“PISA is not a traditional school test,” he said. “It’s actually challenging, because you have to think.”

No test can measure everything, I countered.

Schleicher nodded. “PISA is not measuring every success that counts for your life. I think that’s true.”

I felt vindicated. Even Schleicher had admitted that data had its limitations. But he went on, and I realized I’d misunderstood.

“I do think PISA needs to evolve and capture a broader range of metrics. There is a lot of work going on to assess collaborative problem-solving skills, for example. We are working on that.”

I got the sense that there was almost nothing, in his mind, that PISA could not measure. If not now, then, one day. Already, he insisted, PISA was radically different from any other test I’d ever taken.

We shook hands, and he headed back inside for his next meeting. As I left, I thought about what he had said. Schleicher, of all people, was a man to be taken literally. If PISA was really different from any test I’d ever taken, there was only one way to know if he was right.

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