The Smartest Kids in the World

I was thinking in the shower (the place where all great thinking happens), and it dawned on me that perhaps our schools aren’t challenging our kids.  I realized that my son’s only tough class was algebra.  One class out of the eight that he’s taking this semester.  And that’s because he’s taking 9th-grade algebra as a 7th grader. To confirm my hypothesis, I picked him up from school, got him Cold Stone ice cream, and asked what his hardest class was.  He replied automatically “algebra”.  I asked if he thought his algebra was too hard, and he said no.  I asked if he thought his other classes challenged him, and he said “well, sometimes LA is hard, but…”. My son is twelve, so I was happy just to get an answer and wasn’t disappointed that it wasn’t a complete answer.  But I was also perplexed.  What can we (his parents) do to make sure a tween boy (who doesn’t like being challenged) challenges himself academically?

And then my prayers were answered.  A few weeks later, I was listening to NPR and I heard a segment with Amanda Ripley discussing her new book “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way”.  In the book, Ripley follows three American students embedded in the schools of the world’s education superpower countries (Finland, South Korea, and Poland) for one year.  She combines their stories with interesting research to reveal her take on the three requirements that all education superpowers have: the best teachers and an elevated view of the teaching profession; parents who focus on things that actually matter to their child’s education, and kids who understand the importance of education.

And then I did a little research of my own, trying to find publications that supported her conclusions.  And I didn’t have to search too hard.

What the research says:

We expect too little from our kids

A study conducted by Leinwand et al. compared the rigor and complexity of mathematics curricula between Massachusetts and South Korea [1].  Their study was done to decipher why “Massachusetts, the highest scoring state on the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress, scored considerably below Hong Kong”, which “ranked highest among all countries on the Grade 4 mathematics component of the 2007 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study”. They found that South Korean mathematics problems were consistently “computationally more difficult and/or cognitively more complex than those in Massachusetts at the same, or in an earlier, grade”.  So, South Korean kids scored higher in aptitude tests because their educational curriculum set a higher standard. 

But we don’t need to compare our schools to other countries to realize that our children aren’t being challenged. A publication by the Center for American Progress summarized national survey data generated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an organization that provides the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas”. The results were startling. 

  • “29 percent of eighth-grade math students nationwide report that their math work is often or always too easy” [2].
  • “37 percent of fourth- grade students reported that their math work is often or always too easy” [2].
  • “21 percent of 12th graders said their math work was often or always too easy” [2].
  • “51 percent of eighth-grade civics students and 57 percent of eighth-grade history students report that their work is often or always too easy” [2].
  • 56 percent of 12th graders reported their civics work was too easy, and 55 percent reported that their U.S. history work was too easy [2]

So US students themselves often don’t feel challenged during school.  We should keep in mind, though, that this reports the perception of the students, and not the actual rigor of their academics.  But how do we reconcile the information above with the fact “in math only 40 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders are performing at grade level on the National Assessment of Education Progress” [2]?  The author poses several possible answers, including “that students do poorly on the National Assessment of Education Progress because they’re not challenged in school”. 

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”.  Ripley included that quote from Winston Churchill in her book because it perfectly embodies an important aspect of high expectations.  Expecting our kids to reach high helps them understand the value of failure, and their ability to overcome adversity. Similar to the growth-mindset mentality that has been discussed recently in learning circles.  There has been a wealth of research linking optimism and hope to overcoming challenges, alluding to the importance of overcoming challenges (academically and otherwise) in our kids’ lives.  So, when we don’t challenge our children academically, what are the implications for their long-term resilience in college or graduate school? More to come on that in a future blog post.

Chairing a PTA Bake-sale may not be the best way to help your child

Ripley highlighted research that found “volunteering in our children’s schools and attending school events seemed to have little effect on how much kids learned”.  In fact, some studies have found that volunteering at the school can be correlated with lower reading scores and reading comprehension [3].

Borgonovi et al. completed a study looking at the effects of parental involvement in children’s educational lives (both cognitively and non-cognitively) in countries around the world, and their findings “suggest that some forms of parental involvement are more strongly related to cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes than others” [3]. 

They found that volunteering in children’s schools did not have the most positive effect on the education.  What did have a positive effect?  Simply reading to children “every day or almost every day generated kids who performed much better in reading all over the world by the time the kids were fifteen” [11]. “Students whose parents read books to them as they entered primary school are more likely to have higher reading performance at age 15 in all countries and economies” [3].  So reading to your children is vital. 

But reading yourself is also important. The study found that “children of parents who consider reading a hobby, enjoy going to the library or bookstore and spend time reading for enjoyment at home are more likely to enjoy reading themselves” [3]. 

Talking may also be as important as reading. More specifically, talking with your child about current events, entertainment, social occurrences, and political issues.  “In all countries and economies, students whose parents discuss social or political issues with them are more likely to enjoy reading. Similarly, children whose parents discuss books, films or television program with them are more likely to enjoy reading” [3].

Did volunteering in school activities have a negative effect? Not necessarily.  But the benefits of parental volunteering in the school or participating with the PTA were not consistent, and were small when compared to those discussed above. In fact, the study concluded that:

The forms of involvement that are most beneficial are not necessarily those that require the most time or money by the part of parents; they are those that make salient the value of school and reading, as well as those that highlight the value of words and language in contexts, motivating children to chunk information and communicate about complex issues. [3]

The Importance of Teacher Quality

A major emphasis of the book is the importance of having experienced, knowledgeable and engaged teachers. The author advocates strongly for setting higher standards for those applying to teaching schools, requiring more in-class experience for those entering the teaching profession, and providing more professional development to those in the profession.  Not that I am diminishing the profession of teaching in any way. In fact, my mother, many of my aunts and my in-laws were all teachers, so I have great respect for teachers and the hard jobs that they have. I think that Ripley does as well, as her main goal is to create an environment where teachers garner respect.

Ripley points out the lack of prestige and respect the profession has in the US. When comparing our teachers to those in Finland, she talked to the students in Finish schools.  She found that the typical “Finish school fostered a great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students. This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure in their journeys to becoming educators.  The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were” [11].

Similarly, she found that “in Finland all education schools were selective.  Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the US” [11].  In contrast, she looked at the average college entrance-exam test scores of people in the teaching profession in the US. She found that “It was acceptable to perform below average for the country on a test of what you had learned throughout your education career if you aspired to dedicate your career to education” [11].

Her discussion of teacher quality concluded that “the reforms sweeping across the US had the equation backwards.  We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis.  It made sense to reward, train and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality”.  Ripley feels that a serious overhaul of the education system, and a return to prestige for the profession of teaching, must be accompanied by setting higher standards for those applying to teaching schools.

Parenting our Child by Coaching Them

Last, but not least, Ripley highlights the importance of parenting approach by comparing parents of European and Asian descent.  By comparing the outcomes of parents from different countries, she found the Asian parents generally had a “coaching” approach to parenting, and that this approach generally led to better outcomes educationally. Interestingly, several research studies have closely analyzed the concept of “coaching” parenting [6,7,9,10] and the results were intriguing. 

Parenting theories generally separate parenting styles in three ways: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. “According to these theories about parenting practices, Chinese Americans are expected to have lower academic achievement than European Americans because Chinese Americans are considered or self-reported to be more authoritarian” [9].  Surveys also show that “Chinese-American parents have higher levels of authoritarian parenting and strictness as compared to European Americans.

Contrary to the parenting theory, however, it is noteworthy that Chinese-American students perform better in school than European-American students on a whole” [9].  In fact, “a number of studies on Asian Americans have reported higher SAT scores, higher achievement test scores, higher grade point averages in both high school and college, more years of schooling completed, and higher scores on a number of standardized intelligence tests [6].  So why are the children of Asian Americans doing so well academically if they’re parenting style is usually associated with poor outcomes?

Researchers then realized that this discrepancy was due to a previously unidentified type of parenting, which they called “coaching parenting”.  This new paradigm of “coaching parent” has unique attributes, and is now associated with positive academic outcomes.  This approach, which is often compared to the parenting approach of European American parents, is unique in several ways.

Coaching parents “wanted more well-performing children, whereas European American mothers wanted more well-rounded children, stressing both social skills and self-esteem in the children” [6].

Coaching parents felt that “academics is a family thing”, and mothers have “a very significant role in ensuring their children’s school success”.  In contrast, European American mothers felt that “their children’s school performance should not be the focus of their parenting” [6].

Coaching parents felt that “learning is achieved through effort and hard work”.  To facilitate this, they felt “they needed to provide direct teaching or tutoring by checking over their children’s homework, having them redo homework, assigning them to extra supplementary work, and hiring tutors or having their children attend study groups”.  European American mothers, on the other hand, “wanted their children to feel that learning is fun and exciting, not something you work at” [6].

We know from a previous blog post that mindset of those European American mothers is consistent with a fixed mindset; a mindset where children would believe learning is not something they should work at; where they are born with a fixed IQ or a fixed amount of aptitude so you’re consequently either good at something or you’re not.  For those with a fixed mindset, you shouldn’t need to work at something that you’re good at.  Alternatively, the coaching parenting style is consistent with the growth mindset, which fosters the belief that aptitude and ability can grow through experience and effort. 

The higher aptitude scores that are achieved by children of coaching parents support the notion of promoting a growth mindset with our children, and the importance of acclimating our kids to hard work and high expectations. 

What does this all mean?

I found Ripley’s book to be an intriguing and compelling read.  However, I was left feeling a little helpless when I put it down.  What can I do to elevate the quality of teachers in the schools, or to make my children’s teachers expect more from them? But then I realized that I had it wrong.  Ripley had armed me with the knowledge of what constituted a great education and how I could best support my kids academically.  I can help them expect more of themselves and keep my expectations of them high.  I can support their teachers whenever possible and make sure my children respect them and their profession.  And I’ll continue to read great books in front of them and take them to the library. 

And with that, I’m off to the library to find another great book.


  1. Measuring Up: How the highest performing state (Massachusetts) compares to the highest performing country (Hong Kong) in Grade 3 Mathematics”.  Steven Leinwand and Alan Ginsburg.  U.S. Department of Education and the Urban Institute. 2009
  2. Do Schools Challenge Our Students? What student surveys tell us about the state of education in the United States”.  Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal.  Center for American Progress, July 2012.
  3. Parental Involvement in Selected PISA Countries and Economies”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 73, OECD Publishing.
  4. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement”.  Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp.  National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools. 2002
  5. Back to School: How parent involvement affects student achievement”.  Chuck Dervarics and Eileen O’Brien.  The Center for Public Education. 2011.
  6. Chinese and European American Mothers' Beliefs about the Role of Parenting in Children's School Success”.  Ruth Chao.  Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology July 1996 vol. 27 no. 4 403-423.
  7. Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training”. Chao RK. Child Dev. 1994 Aug;65(4):1111-9.
  8. Parental Involvement in Children's Schooling: Different Meanings in Different Cultures”. Huntsinger, Carol S.; Krieg, Dana Balsink; Jose, Paul E.  Early Childhood Research Quarterly  Volume 24, Issue 4, 4th Quarter 2009, Pages 398–410
  9. What Accounts for Chinese-American Children's High Academic Performance: A Literature Review Of Parental Influences And Home Environment”.  Wenzhong (Eric) Yang* and Wenying Zhou.  Gifted Education International January 2008 vol. 24 no. 1 88-104
  10. Mathematics, Vocabulary, and Reading Development in Chinese American and European American Children over the Primary School Years”. Huntsinger, Carol S.; Jose, Paul E.; Larson, Shari L.; Krieg, Dana Balsink; Shaligram, Chitra Journal of Educational Psychology, v92 n4 p745-60 Dec 2000
  11. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way”.  Amanda Ripley. Published by Simon and Shuster, August 2013.