a review by Edd Doerr
The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley, Simon & Schuster, 2013, 307 pp, $28.00.
Although reviewed favorably in the New York Times (8/25) and The Economist (8/17), this book by a veteran journalist is rather superficial, limited and overrated. The author compares American public education with schools in Finland, Poland and South Korea, largely through the eyes of three American high school students spending a year in school in the three countries. Though mildly interesting, it is of limited value because the three countries are very homogeneous and have rather different cultures and histories than ours. We do learn that South Korea's system is seriously flawed and that Finland's does have lessons we can learn in the US, such as Finland's having very few private schools, no tax aid whatever for private schools, and a very strong teacher union. One good thing in the book is that it shows that both American and foreign exchange students agree that US schools put altogether too much emphasis on sports.
Smartest Kids fails to deal with the most serious problems affecting US public schools, such as
inadequate and inequitably distributed funding; the continual slashing of school,budgets; our country's failure to get serious about the poverty afflicting 25% of our kids; the unending campaigns to privatize education through vouchers, charter schools and virtual or cyber education; the over-the-top testing mania; the incessant attacks on teachers and teacher unions; and the misuse of standardized testing to undermine the teaching profession. The author shows no evidence that she is familiar with veteran educator Diane Ravitch's important 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System or social scientists Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine's 2012 book Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education.
Ripley has little or nothing to say about the common sense steps we can take to improve public education, such as prenatal care for all pregnant women, high quality preschool education, enriched curricula, lower class sizes, a full range of wraparound medical and social services, elimination of high-stakes standardized tests, ending the school privatization drive, and maintenance of democratic control of public education (all recommendations in Diane Ravitch's new book [Sept 2013] Reign of Error, which I have reviewed in several venues).
Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty (arlinc.org)