Smartest Kids in the World

This book was recommended by my friend Grace Burley who has known me for about 13 years. We work in the same field but have very different political leanings so I was grateful she trusted me with her recommendation. The kicker is that the author also wrote a wonderful book, Unthinkable, about why some people survive disasters and others don’t. Tackling this was going to to exhibit some serious range on her part.

The book is an extremely readable work on what seems to be the root causes of kids who excel scholastically and those that don’t. Amanda is an exceptional writer who could have easily let her political leaning interfere with her conclusions but she is to be commended for just following the facts. There are things here that will upset and inspire both sides of the aisle, but it is compellingly documented through the life experiences of three actual kids who studied overseas.

You should definitely read the book to get her in depth conclusions, but one key point is that academic excellence is really not about how much money school districts spend on kids. It’s really about the culture of academic achievement that is set by governments, communities and families. For example, there are many bright, engaging people who pursue an Education major, but many times it is a major of last resort. These schools are not generally academically challenging and so they get lots of mediocre students who have not loved learning. Ironically, they become teachers of others and pass on their ambivalence to learning. Teachers are not well respected or highly compensated so the cycle continues with an abundance of mediocre talent pursuing teaching jobs. This is in stark contrast to the situation elsewhere in the world where teaching colleges are difficult to get into and teachers are among the most respected professions in the country. It’s fundamentally a culture issue. If the culture valued education like it valued sports or leisure, things would be very different.

The interesting thing about the book is that it followed three very different American exchange students to three very different cultures that outperform the US academically. It helps put a spotlight on some of the dysfunctional elements of these other nations but also helps to synthesize American cultural issues inhibiting education. It’s is a highly recommended read.