The Smartest Kids in the World: The Smartest Book on Education You Can Read

9781451654424It takes no expert to prove the education system in the United States is broken. Our children consistently graduate high school lacking the skills to keep America competitive in the world market. We’ve slipped in education, respect, and overall mission as a country. Author Amanda Ripley set off on an unprecedented journey to find out why.

Using an aggregate of data, the experiences of high school exchange students, and observation of some of the top-rated countries in the world, the answers became painfully visible.

The book followed three high school students throughout their journeys in top academically-performing countries, Tom, from Pennsylvania to Poland, Kim, from Oklahoma, who traveled to Finland, and Eric from Minnesota, who studied in South Korea.

The differences between the education system in any one of these countries and the US was stark. Most glaring was the countries’ insistence on academic rigor and resilience, rather than placating students and/or parents. Much less emphasis was placed on students’ self-esteem, because it essentially did not translate to increased success as a student or a member of society.

Poland, which overcame significant adversity to become one of the world’s education superpowers, offers a model that neither coddles students nor gives up on them. Finland chooses, educates, and pays its teachers equivalent to highly prestigious careers in the US, and South Korea’s almost unfailing (and anxiety-producing) culture (right or wrong) keeps the focus on education.

This book essentially blows all of our preconceptions about education and success in America out of the water, and almost mocks our emphasis on sports and technology, as neither have been found to positively contribute to learning. In standardized tests administered across the globe, the United States consistently underperforms.

The hypotheses that income, race, or spending per child are positive correlates to learning was proven false, as well as the idea that private education in America is superior to a public one.

Additionally, individuals who choose, or are funneled into, education programs in college are rarely academic top performers. Couple that with America’s dogged insistence on sports and extracurricular activities, and the fact that America’s teachers are woefully underpaid, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for disaster.

This book is eye-opening and should be spark for discussion in any school district. At the very least, this book should be used as a stick of dynamite at the base of this country’s most stolid bureaucracies. For our childrens’ sake.

I will leave you with a quote from  the book that referred to a high school in a western state that had just performed worse than students in 23 countries in math, yet was rated ‘A’ by its home state :

The parents at that school may never know about these results, but the students will find out, one way or another. If not as freshmen in college, when they are placed in remedial math or struggle to follow a basic physics lecture, then in the workforce, when they misinterpret a graph at the bank where they work or miscalculate a drug dosage at a hospital nursing station. This revelation – that they lack tools that have become essential in the modern economy – will in all likelihood arrive privately, a kind of sinking shame that they cannot entirely explain. They may experience it as a personal failing, though I hope they don’t.

I hope they experience it as an outrage instead. Maybe, unlike generations before them, these young Americans will decide that their own children, like children in Finland, deserve to be taught by the best-educated, best-trained professionals in the world. They might realize that if Korean kids can learn to fail and try again before leaving high school, so can their kids. Perhaps they will conclude that Poland is not the only place where change is possible.


This book is a must-read for anyone with ties to the education system in America, and that’s all of us. Pick up your copy (or e-copy) at Amazon or Barnes and Noble today.

Learn more about Amanda Ripley and The Smartest Kids in the World at her website and follow her on Twitter.

Please click here to watch a trailer of the book featuring the three exchange students whose journeys were chronicled in the book.


Want to win a copy? I am giving away three copies! Please enter using the Giveaway tab by March 31, 2014 at 12:00am ET at the Momma Be Thy Name Facebook page. Entry requires leaving a comment discussing the biggest weakness you see in the US education system. Feel free to leave that comment now! Visit the page for two extra entries!


I was provided a copy of The Smartest Kids in the World by Simon & Schuster in exchange for this review. All opinions expressed herein are my own. Please contact me at for further information or questions.

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The Smartest Kids in the World: The Smartest Book on Education

Mommies Drop Crumbs, Too

My parents never apologized much. Maybe it was the generation, or the world being a slightly different existential place, but when I was a child, adults seemed to me so distant, so far away that they cast very long shadows.

It was hard to imagine caregivers and adults were actually human. They rarely showed emotion, and they were always right. You didn’t ask why, and you didn’t talk back. It was the rule.

I wouldn’t label it all a lack of tenderness, because tenderness was certainly there when I needed it, but perhaps more of a deficiency in relatability, an absence of the touchy-feely, newfangled, 1990′s Full House brand of family communication. A little bit of that may have softened the rough edges.

I grew up with a pair of parents who were superegos with legs. If you remember your high school psychology, you’ll remember that the superego is the more zealous of the triad. Big Brother, if you will. The superego is essentially that voice in your head that points out you’re five minutes late, that you left some toothpaste on the counter, and that the dishes are still in the sink.

Thus, I grew up overly aware of every mistake, every perceived failing. I needed to be right all the time as well. Or ‘doing right’, at least. It was exhausting. And I was rarely either. Conversely, and because they never shared or showed theirs, it was hard to imagine they ever made mistakes.

I was rarely regaled with cautionary tales of their youth, of decisions good or bad. There were many ‘you should’s and ‘you need to’s, but there was little explanation why. The answer was always some permutation of ‘Because I said so’. I was basically on my own, afloat a homemade raft, in the Sea of Life. As a result, I learned a lot of things ‘the hard way’.

As I grew into an adult, I came to know better, the light began to permeate those dark corners. That shiny veneer that so often protects adult caregivers began to buckle around the edges, exposing weathered pieces of the flawed human beings they actually were. I began to see them as actual persons, and who they were beyond the label of ‘parents’. And as I learned more, I sought advice from anyone I could, about friends, about school, about life. I branched out to enhance my worldly education.

I’m not sure whether my upbringing was a result of any particular movement, or a societal shift, or some intergenerational miscommunication, but “Because that’s the way it is” just never did it for me. I needed more. I needed background. I always needed to know why. I wanted to feel like an equal to some degree, another person with whom to share the condition called life, someone worthy of talking to, but, as a child, I was just that – a child. I was a kid, eating at the kids’ table, sent to play outside while the adults talked. I knew my place.

When I had my children, I made a point not to hide that side of me, that fallible, human side. It was my hope that showing them who I was, as a whole person – flaws, stupid mistakes and all – would help them grow into whole people themselves, capable to assessing and negotiating situations on their own. I believed this would make them stronger, and not have to learn as much ‘the hard way’.

When I make a mistake in front of or related to my children, I always apologize. I explain why whatever happened did. I promise not to do it again to the extent that I am able, or explain why things need to be the way they are, even though they don’t like it. So they know I’m there, in body, mind, and heart. The offense can be as simple as my forgetting their juice on the counter, or making a decision not to go somewhere I promised we would. I talk to them. And, in turn, they talk to me.

I want them to feel and understand the consequences of less-than-stellar decision-making, and that I am accountable for my own behavior. I want them to see that Mom can’t be perfect all the time, and they don’t need to be, either.

I want them to see that there’s no man behind the curtain, that there’s no need for a curtain at all. I want to show them I’m simply a woman, a woman blessed with the awesome responsibility of raising three children, a woman who, at thirty-five, is still making mistakes.


This afternoon, I sat in the living room, at the end of the couch, eating an apple, while demanding the twins bring their sippy cups back to the kitchen. Because ‘we don’t eat in the living room’.

And then I dropped my apple on the floor.

And they helped me clean it up and bring it back to the kitchen.

Because mommies drop crumbs, too.

They do.


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Eight Lessons You Were Never Taught in School, But Needed to Learn

Dunce cap in the Victorian schoolroom at the M...

I don’t know about you, but I had Health class once a week, for an hour, in high school. I don’t even remember if I had Health every year. We had a memorable teacher, but I have to admit I was one of the majority who rarely paid attention. I had better things to do.

Education has come a long way over the years, progressive initiatives shimmying in and out of schools and programs, but I feel we have yet to get it fully right. Kids leave school (and enter college) woefully unprepared for real life, and leave college similarly unprepared. It’s only over the painful years that follow that we receive the education we should always have.

These are things I know I was not taught in school or anywhere else, and things I will make a priority of teaching my children. Here are the eight I’ve identified:


Budgeting - Unless you took a Personal Finance class in high school (which I’m not sure even exists, since I just made it up), you probably wandered out into the harsh sunlight of the world with little clue how to manage your personal affairs. You may or may not have opened a small personal account, and carried a few twenties around with you on the weekends. Raise your hand, though, if you found yourself flat broke anytime before, during, or after college.


Self-Worth/Self-Concept - Behold the most worthwhile lesson ever to teach a child – the lesson of getting to know and love the person he or she is. And what better place to learn such a concept than a treacherous snakepit like a high school? Better yet, how about an elementary or middle school? I know that funds are allocated for math and science, and there are private and alternative schools that actually do address the self, but this issue is so, so important in the life of a young adult. The biggest problem kids face today is bullying. Imagine programs, actual school programs, built and centered around acceptance of self and others. It could make a huge difference.


Moderation -  Growing up in a college town really illuminated the stupidity of college students. Overfilled porches collapsed, kids plummeted to their deaths. Students semi-regularly died of alcohol poisoning. I know that it’s difficult to get through to teenagers (trust me, I was one of them), especially about topics like drinking and partying, but there’s got to be a way that works. We could find it and save lives.


Credit, Debt, and Investing - When I was twenty, I became giddy when I saw the neatly dressed Citibank representative at the end of a ramp leading to the quad. I was squealing inside with delight. They were giving out credit cards with your picture on them?!? And what’s more tempting to a twenty-year-old than a picture ID? Funny thing was, as I admired my smiling mug in my card, I didn’t have a clue what the APR was, and decided it was perfectly acceptable to purchase my lunch (three breadsticks or a six-inch Roasted Chicken Breast sub with cheese, pickles, and light mayonnaise) with it every day. I didn’t realize that store cards offered a twenty-percent discount, but charged twenty-five for the money.

In seventh grade, with little explanation, we played a round of The Stock Market Game. I picked three stocks (with zero actual knowledge of what the companies were) and watched myself plummet to dead last by the end of the game. Why? Because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what a stock was. No one had ever taught me. To this day, I still have only a vague idea what an IRA is. Suze Ormon, unfortunately, is my primary advisor. Money is something we all need to live. Why aren’t we taught how to use it properly?


How to Cook - I laughed at the prospect of taking a Home Economics class in middle school, but somehow found myself in the class. I baked a cake. All the way through. But may I tell you just how many of my friends and colleagues don’t know how to cook? Further, are you aware how many of your compatriots are not aware of what’s in the food they’re eating? Or where their food is coming from? Or how to grow a vegetable? Or what unspeakable acts occurred to get that chicken on the table? We all need to eat, and eat responsibly. There’s just so much that must be learned.


Identifying Unhealthy Relationships - I’ve seen so, so many friends stuck in pits of despair in relationships with incompatible mates. Likewise, I’ve seen friends flat-out torture their significant others. I’ve seen friends endure domestic violence and even spiral into addiction at the hands of those they love. School does not teach you about good or bad people, manipulators, liars, con artists, or sociopaths. Nor does it teach you how to effectively deal with said people or to protect yourself. Further, there’s no class in school that teaches you how to wriggle out from under the thumb of an unscrupulous boss or coworker, or how to deal with passive-aggressive teammates. You could even use classmates as examples.


Grammar! - Okay, fine. I was taught grammar. You were probably taught grammar. But what about our kids? They seem to only speak Text. This needs to stop. Let’s bring back cursive, bring back the handwritten essays (and that bump on your middle finger), and resuscitate this beautiful language. Literature will thank you.


Common Sense - I’ve heard people say time and time again, half-jokingly, they wished there were a class for common sense in school.  Common Sense class would cover topics like changing a tire, using a blinker, and saying ‘excuse me’. Very remedial. One of my favorite comedians, Gabriel Iglesias, illustrated this idea best, during a routine where he discussed his teenage stepson’s sudden aversion to personal hygiene:


Calculus is great. I can’t deny that. But we need this stuff. And our kids need this stuff. So, why aren’t we teaching it?

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The Cure for Social Media Misery: Communicating in Person

Social Media rules, right? It rules our every day. It’s the foundation of our daily routine. We’re never logged out. And, that being the case, we don’t, we can’t, seem to unplug ourselves from the idiosyncratic patterns of our fellow man.

Sure, we tolerate it with our families, and some friends, but from acquaintances? It’s downright annoying.

There’s something about the written word that seems to carry more weight – its display, its permanence – that tends to hasten the solidification of anger – or envy, or plain old disgust. And I don’t like it.

Mild-mannered human beings with whom we used to cry, laugh, and perhaps rollerskate, have grown into intolerable monsters we must destroy.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again - we should not be in other people’s heads all the time. Further, the contents of those heads shouldn’t be perpetually spilling over onto your granite countertop.

Imagine with me, if you would, a world in which, all day long, anxieties and inner hopes and dreams leaked out of every human being – your coworkers, your family, the cashier at your favorite coffee shop . Imagine a world where people lift up their lunches until someone takes notice. A world where enthusiastic athletes loudly ticked off the miles they’ve run, the squats they’ve performed, and the steps that they’ve taken.

What would you do if you heard all this, well, noise? And would you even be able to hear it over your own prideful declarations?

People would, without reservation, tell you to shut the bleep up. Murder rates would soar.

So, why do we accept this online? Why is this okay? 

Because it’s silentAnd remote. And the offender is often separated from his offenses.

As an individual with a background in psychology, I can tell you, with assurance, that human beings are guided by social behavioral cues. As much as I loathed living in a cluster development, you could bet your sweet ass my trashcan didn’t lay on the sidewalk all week and the leaves were always cleared from my lawn.

It’s the people who live alone in the woods who develop the penchant for collecting rusty trailers and broken-down boats that eventually discontinue functioning successfully within mainstream society.

Think about it: Would you have ever considered taking pictures of your bare breasts, bringing them to Woolworth’s to be developed – in triplicate – and then handing them out to all of your friends and acquaintances? These are decisions made in the absence of other people.

Maybe we’re not as bright on our own. Maybe our frontal cortexes do not function as efficiently when starved of human interaction. Maybe we need someone around us to say, “Dude. That’s not right.”

Let’s say you run into your best friend from high school and begin chatting. How long would you imagine it might take you to get into the fact that you fear you’ll be alone forever, that no one will ever love you for the kind and generous woman you are? How long would it take you to divulge your life-long fantasy of having a ménage-à-trois with Ricki Lake and Ryan Seacrest? It would probably take a while, because you wouldn’t want them to throw up their hands and run away. And, barring the presence of a significant mental disorder, you couldn’t cram all this information into a chance meeting at a warehouse store.

People need others to maintain the intricate set of human checks and balances. Primitive man did not live in caves alone, covering the openings with antennae made from tinfoil. They lived with other men. They shared, they comforted, they raised children, they told stories. They healed their sick. They built extraordinary monuments.

In Ancient art, there were no selfies.

As much as we try to claim not to like other people, we need them. And they need you.

Most devious acts are performed in secret. Granted, the Salem Witch Trials and the formation of the Tea Party were group efforts, but I guess you can’t win them all. In general, more good seems to come from collaborative living than from broadcasting remotely.

Plus, your friends are less likely to disown you over a hushed confession during dinner or an intimate phone call than for spreading a huge bucket of cray all over the Internet. Someone might be there to say, “Hey, you might want to stop posing on all fours, backwards, in front of that mirror, with your iPhone.”

The eyerolls and groans would be significantly diminished if you simply stopped tempting people to bludgeon you with the carrot sticks arranged neatly around your roasted garlic hummus.  You might find out that person with “such a blessed life” is just as miserable as you.

Only good things.

So, shake it off, friends. Go outside. Breathe in some fresh air. Pick up a phone and make a date with some friends. (Speak into the phone. You can do it.) Sit down to dinner. Delight in the warmth of laughter and  breaking bread with those you love.

It will do your heart good.

And the world will be a better place. I promise.


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