Reviews for Smartest Kids in the World : And How They Got That Way


BookPage Reviews 2013 August
Finding what works in the classroom

From New York to Los Angeles and from the White House’s backyard to classrooms across the country, education is weighing on the minds of many Americans. Four new books tackle some of the key challenges that continue to stir debate. Confronting the effects of standardized testing, racial disparity, child poverty, teacher morale and quality teaching, these books offer no-holds-barred accounts of the state of education.

NEVER GIVE UP

Rafe Esquith—who has spent 30-plus years teaching fifth and sixth graders at Los Angeles’ impoverished Hobart Boulevard Elementary School and is known for transforming his students through Shakespearean performances (as depicted in the documentary film The Hobart Shakespeareans)—returns with his signature wit and wisdom in Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!” Esquith’s focus in his fourth book is more on morale than teaching tips. Dividing the book into sections for new teachers, mid-career teachers and classroom veterans, Esquith keeps it real, indeed, as he begins with his best advice: “You are going to have bad days.” Using humorous and memorable anecdotes from his own time in the classroom, he recognizes the isolation, exhaustion, jealousy, blame and guilt that come with teaching and encourages teachers not to give up. Whether discussing out-of-touch administrators, confrontational parents, apathetic students or the current era of high-stakes testing, the best-selling author reminds teachers to choose their character over their reputation and find balance in their professional and personal lives. Ever inspirational, Esquith shows educators that the best teaching is a journey, not a race to the top.

Respect for teachers and higher expectations for students are among the keys to success.

ONE SCHOOL’S PROUD PAST

Once touted as “The Greatest Negro High School in the World” by the NAACP, Dunbar High School of Washington, D.C., was recently categorized as a failing school. Inspired by her parents (both Dunbar graduates), award-winning journalist Alison Stewart traces the school’s path from prestige to decline in First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. Upon its opening, Dunbar became synonymous with academic rigor, graduating such notable alums as Eva Dykes, the first African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree, and Edward Brooke, the first African American popularly elected to the Senate, as well as prominent scientists, artists, musicians, playwrights and civil rights activists. Its faculty included some of the most highly educated black teachers of the era, since Jim Crow laws barred them from working at other institutions. But as the neighborhoods surrounding Dunbar suffered economic and social woes, so, too, did the high school. When the author visited Dunbar, she was staggered to discover the faded glory of a building in disrepair and low-performing students with few dreams of college. Her detailed account of the school’s history firmly situates Dunbar in the broader context of the country’s educational reform and struggle for racial equality. As Dunbar looks to rebuild itself with a new building, new teachers and new students, Stewart sees a hopeful future.

A YEAR ON THE FRONT LINES

Formerly a senior vice president in publishing, John Owens traded a comfy office for a classroom in one of New York City’s tough South Bronx neighborhoods because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people. Based on an article he wrote for Salon.com, which immediately went viral, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education recounts Owens’ first—and only—year in a high school he calls Latinate. He explains how, within days, he became a victim of his “crazed visionary manager” (aka the principal he refers to as Ms. P.) who set unattainable school-wide goals, terrorized teachers with threats of “unsatisfactory” rankings and filled folders with hard-working teachers’ presumed misdeeds. Owens uses vignettes from his teaching experience to introduce problems in the American educational system, most notably how teachers are blamed for today’s failing public schools and how the “witch-hunt” for bad teachers is destroying classrooms. He also emphatically addresses how the data-driven school reform movement leaves principals with all the power (even turning some into cheating “Bernie Madoffs of test scores”) and teachers with ineffective evaluations. His concluding lessons are a heartfelt call to action.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES

When the U.S. scored 26th in critical thinking in math, below the average for the developed world, acclaimed journalist Amanda Ripley wondered why some students learned more and others less than their global counterparts. The result is The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, in which the author follows three teens in different parts of the world through a year of high school. She purposely selected Finland, South Korea and Poland, nations that recently ranked much lower among their developed peers but now rank well above the U.S. In Finland, Ripley found teacher preparation programs as selective as those for U.S. medical schools. In Korea, parents acted as coaches to their children, compared to American parents who act more like cheerleaders. While poverty has been cited as a factor in America’s failing schools, Poland, with an even higher poverty rate than the U.S., delayed tracking students until the end of their school careers. Although Ripley observed three different approaches, she also observed commonality and perhaps the key to success: respect for teachers and higher expectations for students.

Ripley’s stirring investigation debunks many tenets of current education reform—but are U.S. leaders listening?

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

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Choice Reviews 2014 May
Few books are this impressive and depressing, and few authors have assessed and evaluated US education as thoroughly as Ripley. After several trips to Europe and a number of schools in the US, the author reports on the many ways that US schools fall below (often far below) international standards of public education. Following three American public school students studying in Europe and their teachers, the author points out the many ways that their general performance is clearly, categorically deficient (although primarily in mathematics). How these American students adjusted to local standards clearly calls into question the educational backgrounds they arrived with. The hows and whys of their deficiencies are discussed throughout the book. They clearly concern the author and should concern every US reader of the book. Ripley does not specifically address the deficient conditions of US schools, but she does address many of the reasons these conditions exist. Everyone associated with US education, from school board members and teachers to parents and interested members of the public, should read this book, and everyone concerned about US education should address and alter this reality. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers, graduate students, and above. General Readers; Graduate Students; Researchers/Faculty; Professionals/Practitioners. G. A. Clark emeritus, Indiana University Copyright 2014 American Library Association.

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Kirkus Reviews 2013 June #2
Chronicle of a journalist's global travels to visit schools, interviewing educators and talking with students and their families in order to answer the question, "Why were some kids learning so much--and others so very little?" Ripley (The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, 2008) examines why there is a disparity in performance on tests of mathematical and scientific competence between American students and their global counterparts, even when factors such as poverty and discrimination are taken into account. She explains that America's poor showing translates into lost jobs for Americans, who cannot compete with foreign labor even in semiskilled jobs. Many of the arguments about American education fail to address the real issues behind the competitive failure of American schools compared to Finnish and South Korean schools (where students are in the top tier on international tests), as well as Poland, where the rate of improvement is remarkable. Ripley builds her narrative around the experience of three American teenagers, each of whom spent a year abroad as exchange students--in Finland, South Korea and Poland, respectively. The author describes a political consensus in each of the three countries that nearly guarantees the creation and maintenance of a highly educated workforce, from top to bottom. The importance of education is a reflection of national consensus on the respect for teachers. A large portion of their education budgets go to teachers' salaries, and the instructors are chosen from the top third of their graduating classes and must meet high professional standards on a par with engineers. Per capita, America spends more money on education, but the money is allocated differently--e.g., to sports teams and programs that provide students with laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards. A compelling, instructive account regarding education in America, where the arguments have become "so nasty, provincial, and redundant that they no longer lead anywhere worth going." Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 July #3

Though the U.S. spends more to educate its students than almost any other country, its teenagers rank 26th in math, below Finland (third), Korea (second), and Poland (19th). Yet in "a handful of eclectic nations... virtually all kids learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading." Setting out to discover how this happened, veteran journalist Ripley (The Unthinkable) recounts the experiences of three American teens studying abroad for a year in the education superpowers. Fifteen-year-old Kim raises $10,000 so she can go to high school in Finland; Eric, 18, trades a leafy suburb in Minnesota for a "city stacked on top of a city" in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves Gettysburg, Pa., for Poland. In addition to these three teenagers, Ripley interviews educators, students, reform-minded education ministers, and others. In riveting prose, Ripley's cross-cultural research shows how the education superpowers value rigor above all else; the "unholy alliance" between sports and academics in the U.S.; why math eludes the average American teenager; what parents in the educationally successful countries do; and how the child poverty rate doesn't necessarily affect educational outcomes. This timely and inspiring book offers many insights into how to improve America's mediocre school system. Agent: Esmond Harmsworth, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (Aug.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC

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