The Mystery: An Excerpt from Amanda Ripley's New Book, "The Smartest Kids in the World"

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Amanda Ripley is an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation. This essay is excerpted from her forthcoming book, "The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way," published Aug. 13, 2013, by Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Ripley. 

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 country to the next. 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 international 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.

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 ranked eighteenth in math compared to their privileged peers around the world, scoring 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.

So 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?

To find out, 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. For one 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.

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. (Video interviews with my student sources can be found on the website for this book at www.Amanda Ripley.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. I 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.