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What Makes The 'Smartest Kids In The World'?


It's often said that great teachers should be paid more than great athletes. Well, in South Korea, one rock star teacher acting as a free agent makes $4 million. But do highly paid teachers really make kids smarter? Author Amanda Ripley crisscrossed the world to find out. In her new book, "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way," she tags along with American school kids who left home on exchange programs and landed in classrooms from South Korea to Finland. And she joins us to share what's working and what's not in classrooms around the world. Amanda Ripley, thank you for coming in.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: To begin, why don't you remind us where American kids stand with respect to kids in all other parts of the world in terms of how well educated we are?

RIPLEY: American 15-year-olds perform about 26th in the world in a test of critical thinking in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading. And our high school graduation rate is now below that of about 20 other nations.

LYDEN: So it means it's something that we need to address, obviously.

RIPLEY: Yeah. And I think we've tried to address it, in our defense. So many years we've tried and tried, and it starts to feel hopeless. But what's exciting is if you look around the world, you see wild improvement and change. And so we haven't really changed much, but other countries have changed a lot.

LYDEN: You went around the world to look at how well kids were doing. Tell me a little bit about the premise of this. What were you looking for?

RIPLEY: I kept hearing about these countries, you know, that you hear about on the headlines - Finland, Korea - they were outperforming us in education year after year. But I couldn't quite imagine what it was like to be a kid there. What is it actually like, and how do these countries get that way?

LYDEN: Let's start with Korea. You follow a young man to Korea, and you say there were two models that you were looking at. One was the enlightenment model, but Korea was the model of what is grueling.

RIPLEY: Right. That's exactly right. It's kind of an extreme version of the pressure cooker model of education that you see all over Asia where kids go to school all day long, and then they go to tutoring academies all night long, and they study so many hours that they're exhausted when they get to class again in the morning. That is one way to get to the top of the world. I don't think anyone, including everyone I met in Korea, would argue that it's the best way. Eric. Eric had gone from Minnesota, which is one of the highest-performing states in the U.S., to Busan, South Korea. So he thought he knew what pressure and high-stakes testing were, but he did not know, he realized, that there was a whole other league. And it was shocking, really, how hard these kids were working.

LYDEN: What is the hagwon?

RIPLEY: Hagwons are the Korean word for after-school tutoring academy. Tutoring is actually, I think, understating it because it sounds kind of homespun. In fact, this industry is bigger than the public school industry in Korea. It is huge. It is traded on the stock exchange. There's investments for major American banks in this industry because 70 percent of Korean teenagers participate in this world in some manner.

LYDEN: And you focus in your book on a teacher there called Kim Ki-hoon. Tell us more about him.

RIPLEY: This was unlike any teacher I'd ever interviewed in the U.S. First of all, his office was in a luxury sky - high-rise in Seoul, and he had 30 employees. And he makes about $4 million a year. The way he's making that money is through this hagwon industry. He gives a few in-person lectures and then puts them on the Internet and kids pay, like, $4 an hour to see his lectures online. And that's how he's making this money. And he himself is critical of this because it requires some amount of money in order to participate, unlike public school.

LYDEN: Let's contrast that with other kids that you followed. One of them, Kim, from Oklahoma, decides to go to Finland. Why did the Oklahoman want to go there?

RIPLEY: She wanted to see the world. She was curious. She'd never left the United States. She had a single mother who was a teacher in rural Oklahoma where she was born. And she read that Finland had the smartest kids in the world and that they liked heavy metal music and strong coffee and had a good sense of humor. And she said: I want to go there because...

LYDEN: She was 15 at the time.

RIPLEY: She was 15 at the time. She gets placed in rural Finland and ends up in high school there living in - with a host family for one year.

LYDEN: How good were her teachers?

RIPLEY: There were some who were stronger than others. But all of them, she felt like, really wanted to be there. In Finland, getting into teacher training college is as hard as getting into MIT here. It's literally the top 10 percent of applicants are even accepted to begin the process, which is a really critical piece of this. I think the key to Finland's success is that they really went long on quality over quantity. So we educate twice as many teachers as we need. Finland, in the late 1960s, shut down all of its varying quality teacher colleges and moved them into the most elite universities. So right from the beginning, you had the best educated people becoming teachers, which led to all these other great things that we don't always even think about, notably the signal it sent to kids.

LYDEN: What else can we emulate from these examples that would make the American experience better and also make us not 26th in math, 17th in science and 12th in everything else?

RIPLEY: You know, I think it's actually not that complicated, believe it or not. What we want to do is fewer things better. So fewer tests that are smarter, less homework that is more challenging makes kids have to think, even less parental involvement that's more targeted at things that actually lead to learning. I mean, American parents actually do a lot compared to parents in other countries. But those things that they do and the things, by the way, that schools ask them to do are typically not strongly related to raising a kid who's able to think critically and solve problems and make an argument. So you do see that parents are a piece of the solution here, and it doesn't often get talked about. We just say, oh, our parents aren't involved. Well, I think they're involved, just in ways that aren't particularly impactful.

LYDEN: Amanda Ripley is the author of "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way." Amanda Ripley, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.

RIPLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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