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As an educator, I enjoy learning about education systems in other countries in an effort to help my school get better.  As a father, I try to apply many of these same strategies to parenthood.  

The Smartest Kids in the World: and How they Got that Way by Amanda Ripley is an excellent book on world wide education systems that is full of wisdom we can apply to parenting as well.

I hope you enjoy my summary of the book and find it’s wisdom beneficial.

Summary Introduction

“Why were some kids learning so much and others so very little?”. This question has appeared and reappeared many times in the history of education.  Educational reformers pose this question nationally as well as internationally.  

All countries provide an education for their children, but the effectiveness of this education is vastly different from country to country.  It even varies significantly within the same country, especially here in the U.S. Ripley set out to discover reasons for the discrepancies.  

Why is education improving in some countries but getting worse in others?  Why is the performance of American students remaining flat while the performance of students in other countries is improving?

In an attempt to answer these questions, Ripley chronicled the life of three American students as they studied abroad as exchange students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.  She also surveyed hundreds of exchange students in an attempt to understand the differences in an American education and one received in another country.  

The results of the surveys and unique perspective of the three American exchange students studying abroad provided some enlightening, sometimes scary, yet hopeful insight into the state of education in America and around the world.  

This summary highlights some key differences observed following the exchange students around the world and addresses some possible implications for American education.

Around the World

Ripley followed three exchange students as they travelled to new countries and experienced a vastly different education system.  Kim escaped Oklahoma to study in Finland, Eric went from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom left Pennsylvania for Poland.  

All three of these countries are near the top of PISA rankings, but these exchange students experienced some of the same issues found in the American education system.

In Finland, Kim met “stoner” students and became friends with students who complained about school and teachers just like American students do.  In South Korea, Eric was amazed to see students sleeping through class. Shops even sell a specially designed pillow that slips over the wrist and provides a cushion so students can get better sleep on their desks.  In Poland, Tom hung out with students who smoked cigarettes and drank beer.  

Teachers and parents can find these same issues in communities all across the United States.  If the same problems exist in these other countries, why do their students perform better than American students do?  

The answer is complicated, but three common themes appear in each of these countries.  First, education is highly valued. Second, teachers are highly trained. Finally, students are required to complete rigorous and demanding work.


Finland, South Korea, and Poland do not follow the same recipe, but they achieve the same results.  The students in these countries possess the critical thinking skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the global economy of the 21st century.  What do these countries know about education that the rest of the world is missing?

For one thing, education is highly valued in these countries.  Students in Finland may complain about school and their teachers, but they show up to class, participate, and do quality work.  When asked why they try so hard, one student replied, “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job”.  

Students in South Korea spend so much time studying the government instituted a tutorial curfew.  Government officials even work secret patrols to catch those breaking the curfew. Students in these high performing countries take their education seriously and they believe doing well in school is the key to a better future.  As a result, they try hard to be successful.

American students could learn a lesson in effort from these students.

Not only do parents and students value education in these countries, governments do too.  Standardized policies are in place to ensure success.  

Becoming a teacher in these countries is hard and citizens respect teachers for completing the required certifications.  Finland’s teacher training programs accept only 20% of qualified applicants and once accepted, students complete a six-year program to become a certified teacher. Contrast that with the system in the United States, where almost anyone with a college degree can become a teacher, no matter the quality of his or her education.

Finally, countries like Finland, South Korea, and Poland expect students to complete rigorous and demanding work.  They fail if their work is not up to standard. Schools and teachers provide a great amount of assistance to struggling students, but they do not succeed based on effort.

Trying hard on an exam does not demonstrate mastery of the content.  These international students understand failing is part of the learning process. They truly believe without failure, there is no improvement.  

If the subject matter is always so easy that no one ever fails, no one improves.  The same is not true for American schools. At some time in American education, it became a bad thing for school to be hard.  It became worse for students to fail. Ripley’s surveys indicated “failure in American schools was demoralizing and to be avoided at all costs”. 

My Conclusion

American schools have many great things to offer our students, but if we want to continue to be a world leader, it is time for us to learn from what other, more successful countries are doing.