A few weeks ago (somewhere between books 2 and 3 of GOT), I picked up Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids In The World. I had actually been pretty excited about this book for a while, but just never got around to reading it. Besides having been a student and having more than a couple friends who worked with Teach for America, I don't have any personal connection to education and was therefore pretty thrilled to have found a book with such good reviews that aimed to talk about countries that were really excelling in education (and why). I thought this would be an interesting introduction to the issues plaguing the public school system in the United States and how the rest of the world - Finland, Poland, and South Korea in the case of this book - were tackling these issues and purportedly succeeding where the U.S. was failing.
The book is short and I quickly fell into the story, reading from start to finish in an afternoon. Ripley follows three American teenagers from diverse backgrounds through their foreign exchange program experience. Kim, hailing from a small town in Oklahoma with a middling school system, travels to Finland. A recent graduate from a top high school in Minnesota, Eric heads off to spend a year in South Korea. The final student, Tom moves from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Poland. Eric's experience in South Korea was most memorable for me, particularly because of how profoundly negative it is (he ends up dropping out of his program but remaining in the country). Though I had the sense from pervading stereotypes that Asian schooling was intense, reading the specifics of it was a little mind-boggling. For example, in Busan, South Korea, where Eric was staying, most students attend school from 8am until 11pm, when they return home only because of mandatory curfews. Family life revolves around schooling and tutoring and most of these students existence seems to be defined by their scores on college entrance tests.
I was so caught up in each of the three stories that I quickly plowed from one cover to the next. It wasn't until after I put the book down that I realized some of the deficiencies. For one, Ripley's thesis about education and what countries produce "the smartest kids in the world" is based on the results of a single international exam. Furthermore, this book follows three students. Though they come from different backgrounds, their experiences can hardly be representative. Additionally, I felt as if Ripley's implied course of action, mimicking parts of successful school systems in other countries to better overall US public school education, failed to take into account many of the issues that American schools are facing - teacher's unions, for example.
If you had asked me while I was reading the book if I liked it, I would probably have recommended it. The writing was great and the story lines were compelling. In addition, I found myself learning about different school systems and reconsidering what it must have been like for some of my classmates entering college. However, having finished the book, I think I've realized that though I enjoyed it, it really is a fairly fluffy book. It was good for a few interesting facts and nice rainy day activity, but not much more beyond that.