smartest kids“The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” by Amanda Ripley (Simon and Schuster; 320 pages: $28)

Journalist Ripley tours the world in her new book, attempting to divine the operational secrets of the world’s best educational systems and to discern where and why America’s students continue to fall further and further behind the world’s best. Her answers are not surprising: in successful cultures, the students work harder and take academics more seriously than Americans. Schools are focused on a single mission: “help students master complex academic material,” not churn out winning football teams or coddling students’ self-esteem. Money does not seem to be an overriding factor, many successful programs are run without the fancy classrooms or high tech gadgets Americans seem to find essential. Rather, teachers are held in high regard and treated as authority figures worthy of respect and admiration.

In turn, students are held to high standards: “Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed…When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion.” Ripley speaks of the danger of allowing academic mediocrity to be blamed on neighborhoods and backgrounds, with a culture of low standards and even lower expectations creating a corrosive victim mentality and an excuse oriented culture leading to a sad, self fulfilling prophecy.

Not all academic “success stories” are worthy of emulation: Ripley labels the long hours required by South Korea’s practice of public school during the day followed by private schools in the afternoon and evening as “educational masochism.”

In a nutshell, the “secret” is to as a society, as parents, as students:

– Work hard
– Take it seriously
– Respect teachers as professionals (most are, a few aren’t, get rid of the unions that won’t let you fire bad apples)
– Set high standards, make them give you all they got, don’t settle for anything less then the best they have to give
– Have great expectations, believe in them and don’t take excuses