No longer the smartest kids

Published August 29, 2013

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, executive producer and moderator of NC SPIN, August 29, 2013.

Not too many years ago American schools were the best in the world and our kids were the smartest. But that’s not true today.

A new book, The Smartest kids in the world, and how they got that way, explores global education outcomes. Using results from forty-three countries, the PISA test ranks us in the bottom third in math and science, twelfth in reading and in the middle overall, behind Finland, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Netherlands and others, including the U.K. and France.

Author Amanda Ripley asks why, discovering these countries passed us after making concerted education reforms. Using test data, interviews with exchange students and educators, Ripley goes into the classroom, where the action is, to learn what the top nations are doing.

The U.S. spends more than all but three countries, dispelling the notion more money equals better outcomes. We explain our lower performance by citing significant poor and diverse student populations, but other nations, also having high percentages of poor and diverse students, outperform us significantly, distributing resources according to need; giving the lowest income students more money and better teachers. To prove the point, compare just the state of New Hampshire, 96 percent white and highly affluent, with other nations and it doesn’t measure up.

Our fixation with evaluating teachers demands re-engineering. In the top nations only the very smartest students are accepted for teacher training. They eliminated all but the best teacher training schools and the course of study is extremely rigorous. We educate twice as many teachers as we need, most anyone can get in and the curriculum isn’t rigorous enough. Raising the bar for entry ensures students and parents know only the best and brightest become teachers. They respect them almost as much as doctors.

Class sizes are larger in the best nations, requiring fewer teachers, so teachers in top countries earn a bit more than in America, but not significantly more. The increased admiration and respect, they say is almost as important as money. Since parents and students usually know the best teachers some nations allow parents to select their teachers, with performance evaluations and pay based on how many sign up for their classes, test score growth and satisfaction surveys.

Rigor is important. U.S. curriculums simply aren’t rigorous enough, a reason why so many kids say they’re bored in our schools. Better teachers, tougher coursework and higher expectations result in better outcomes. Top performers do not track students until later grades and provide excellent vocational training for those not going to university.

Parental involvement doesn’t include volunteering in schools, baking cupcakes, raising money or chaperoning trips. In other nations parents understand their role is at home, reading to children, engaging them in discussion, quizzing them about what they learned, even helping with reading, writing and math. Most have more homework and less technology than our children.

It’s also not enough just to memorize math or science equations or historical dates. Top performers understand their role is to teach children how to think critically in math, reading and science, using those skills to solve problems and change to adapting circumstances they will face.

To be sure other nations aren’t perfect, but if we genuinely want the best schools and smartest students there is much we can learn from those nations outperforming us.

August 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm
dj anderson says:

Great & timely blog! I question a bit:

The US has not been at the top since the mid-60s, and probably not before that. I'm not saying that we've not slipped, or that others have gained. I'm just saying we've never been the best.


"... behind Finland, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Netherlands and others, including the U.K. and France." - blog

Excepting Canada, I think we can't model in every area of instruction because students/homes (attitudes) vary so much. In fact, our US scores are increased at times by some of the foreign students who immigrate.

The USA still has high ranking in the top students, and great strides (innovation/invention) are made by those top students not so much from the lower half. That, we seem to have.

September 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm
TP Wohlford says:

I defy the author to cite, with evidence, this golden era of American education. I know we discussed the relative weakness of American education back in the 70's. And the 1958-59 NFL national debate topic was, "Resolved: That the United States should adopt the essential feature of the British system of education", implying that it was a hot topic back then. Heck, for most of the 19th century, we borrowed ideas from the Germans -- "Kindergarten" is a German word as I recall.


Educational outcome is a function of local culture. That is why the small town Mormons in Utah get top-5 results on bottom-5 money using throwback old-school techniques. This is why DC spends top-5 money, had world class educational opportunities, and gets bottom-5 results. Anything that either side (Liberal/Conservative, or GOP/Dem) proposes that doesn't change local culture is just political posturing.

September 3, 2013 at 9:32 am
Ron Woodard says:


Good points indeed on education. I was in Germany recently and they have a great program for vocational students who don't go to college, but wish a career. We would do well to learn from Germany in that regard. Also companies in the USA had reduced drastically the training they earlier provided to their employees. They need to be part of the solution as well, not just government paying all the costs.