Amanda Ripley

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Why I Wrote The Smartest Kids in the World

13th Aug 2013 posted in Education

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?

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...

Read the rest of this excerpt here at the New America Foundation's In the Tank.