How Do Smart Students Get That Way? – A Conversation with Amanda Ripley

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Thinking in Public 

Mohler:  This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time Magazine and The Atlantic. An Emerson Fellow with The New America Foundation, and a graduate of Cornell University, her work has appeared in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London. In addition to her writing, she has appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX News, and NPR. She has spoken at the Pentagon, the United States Senate, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as conferences on leadership, public policy, and education.

Her latest work is a New York Times Bestseller entitled, The Smartest Kids in The World and How They Got That Way, published by Simon and Schuster. Amanda Ripley, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Ripley:  Thanks so much for having me.

Mohler:  Now, where did this book come from? Just about everyone assumes there’s a crisis in education, but most people don’t decide to write a book about it. How did you make that decision?

Ripley:  You know, I kept hearing about these places, these countries we hear about on the news, Finland and South Korea, and how everyone is perfect and all the children are brilliant and I couldn’t quite see it. I couldn’t visualize it. It didn’t seem real. So I wanted to know two things: What is it like to be a kid in these countries? And how do these countries get so smart? Because they were not always so smart, not that long ago.

Mohler:  Now while we are talking about how smart the kids in these countries are, maybe it’d be good to talk about how we would measure such a thing. You take us back to about the year 2000 with a test called P-I-S-A or “PISA.”

Ripley:  That’s right. And you want to use multiple, different measures right? You don’t want to get two fixated on one measurement. So you want to look at things like high school graduation rates and college attainment rates and economic indicators. But one metric that I found very compelling was this PISA test that you mentioned. This is a test that was designed specifically to try to figure out whether kids were learning critical thinking skills, whether they were learning to solve problems they’d never seen before and to make an argument—those kinds of higher order skills, and math, reading and science, that we know are so valuable in the modern economy, but are of course harder to teach.

Mohler:  You know, when I looked at that test—and you introduce it by saying in the spring of 2000 a third of a million teenagers in 43 countries sat down for two hours and took a test unlike any they’d ever seen. Now, I’d have to say, I’m very interested in what came out of that. But as an educator, I’m mostly fascinated with the idea that you could get a third of a million teenagers to take the two hour test under any circumstance.

Ripley:  I know, pretty shocking.

Mohler:  But what really did that test reveal? There was a pattern so that it’s not just our intuitions or anecdotal evidence that there are distinguishing rates of educational attainment among these countries. But there is really something going on here

Ripley:  There were some shocking findings that came out of that first PISA given in 2000. It’s now given every three years—as you said, the half million fifteen year olds, and about seventy countries. But that first time, you know, everybody had ideas in their head about how they were going to do on these tests—each country’s education minister and leader. And, in fact, there were some surprises. One surprise was that Germany did very poorly. Worse, even, than the United States. Germany had thought it had the best schools in the world—it was, you know, very proud of its schools—and was thought the model for much of the world. And Finland, this tiny, frozen, Nordic country that had been very late to industrialize, came in at the very top of the rankings. And no one could believe this. Not even—not even the people in Finland. So it was fascinating to try to puzzle out why this could be. Of course, there was a period of denial, where people just, you know, blamed it on different things. But those results have been pretty consistent, especially for Finland over the years.

Mohler:  Now, in your book you decided to look at several societies in terms of the question of their educational attainment among teenagers. You looked at Germany, the United States, South Korea, Poland, and Finland. How’d you decide to go about this?

Ripley:  Well, I should say that I—I should explain how we did on the PISA and then that’ll help me explain why I chose the countries I did. We actually do relatively well in reading. We came in around 12th in the world in reading. And this is something—it’s easy to exaggerate how badly our education outcomes are, and they’re not actually that bad. They’re kind of average, you know. What’s surprising about that is that we are a pretty rich country and we spend more per pupil than almost all countries in the world on Kindergarten through 12th grade education. So we’re pretty average. Reading, we do much better than we do in science and math. We came in around 17th in science and 26th—which is a painful one—in math. You know, this is important. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you math is an incredibly important skill. It’s gaining in value every day. It is a great predictor of future income and college completion. And so, math and science are clearly our weak points. So that helped me figure out what places do we want to learn from.

And if you look around the world, Finland and South Korea are always at the very top of these rankings on math and science—and reading, actually—and high school graduation, and other things. So that was sort of obvious; but they’re two very different places. Finland is sort of the utopian model of education, where students do not do a ton of homework; they don’t have a ton of tests to take; they don’t go to after-school tutoring typically. And yet, they’re achieving these very high levels for virtually all their kids. You see almost no variation from school to school in Finland, which is amazing. I mean, imagine being able to live anywhere you wanted in the country and not even think twice really about the school. So that is one model, the utopian model. Then, South Korea is kind of the extreme version of the pressure-cooker model of Asia. You know, we always hear about where kids are studying night and day; and they take a lot of after-school tutoring and test prep; and test scores are very important. So this is sort of—they’re getting to the same place through very different paths. So I wanted to see both of those paths.

And then, the last country that I focused most on was Poland. And Poland has not achieved the results of Finland or South Korea, yet. Poland has dramatically improved over the past 10 years, despite having a 15% child poverty rate, which is close to that of the United States. And so, in some ways, Poland is more comparable, because it is a big, complicated country with a lot of distrust for the central government and significant child poverty issues. So I wanted to see how they had done that, how they had seen these gains that we have not been able to get.

Mohler:  I have to tell you, Amanda, as I read your book, I was pleasantly surprised. I knew it was going to be interesting, but I really thought that it might be just another book pointing out how much better other societies are doing in terms of education, or on the other hand trying to offer an apology for the fact that Americans really aren’t doing all that badly after all. But you offer a far more sophisticated analysis. And I think the end of your book, to which we’ll turn eventually, really leads us to some very helpful patterns of thinking ourselves. We make civilizational choices, and you help to inform us about how we’re making those choices. But you did a massive research project, first of all, and through a pretty clever invention of your own as to how to do this. Talk about how you got there.

Ripley:  Well, I knew a trick, which is from my own reporting in the U.S.: the best way to make a story true and interesting and complicated is to talk to kids. It’s a story about education. And you very rarely ever see this. If you look at education stories in the daily papers and so forth, you don’t see a lot of students quoted. So, it’s a little competitive advantage that I’ve used over the years. I can easily make my story really good just by doing this one simple thing. So, don’t tell anyone, because this is a trade secret. And so I find that kids, students spend so much time in class. You forget as an adult how much time they spend contemplating their situation. They have strong opinions about what they think. They don’t always see the whole picture, of course, but they know their school profoundly. And they think about it, and they have thoughts they want to share, typically. So I needed kids if I was going to have any chance at all of glimpsing reality in these countries. But I didn’t want just any kids; I needed students who could see in their own narrow, but deep way, the water they were swimming in—if that makes sense: so students who could compare their school in Finland or Poland or Korea to a school in America. And luckily, there are 30,000 teenagers who every year go on study abroad programs for various reasons. They either come here to the U.S. and go to public school, or they leave the U.S. and go to another country. So I found three students who became my sort of field agents that I could follow and learn from. And they were my fixers, you know, on the ground, which every reporter needs, particularly in a foreign country.

Mohler:  Amanda, as you set out your case, you’re taking us into several different countries. But before getting there, let me just ask you—the PISA test and the documentation that set up your ability to do this, it kind of originates in Germany. And what your book told me—I really didn’t realize—is that America is not the only country worried and very self-conscious about its educational system. Germany, apparently, is too.

Ripley:  Right. Actually, Germany and these other countries are even more obsessed than we are with their international standings. And there’s something reassuring about this in a way. But Germany was an example of a place where they really thought that they had figured out the model for education. And they felt pretty good about their school system. And when the PISA test came out—you know there had been other tests, obviously, other international tests. And those typically tended to measure either younger students, or they looked specifically at knowledge you’d absorbed through your curriculum and less at your ability to take that knowledge and do something useful with it, which I think is really the ultimate goal, right? So when those first PISA results came out from the 2000 tests, the Germans were devastated. It was called a tragedy for German education, and Der Spiegel on its cover asked the question: are German students stupid?  And there was a real anxiety about these results. What they ended up doing after debating this and arguing about it for awhile, was really using the results to improve what they were doing, to learn from other countries. And they did improve. And actually, PISA entered the German vernacular and even inspired a prime time T.V. quiz program called the PISA show. And German education experts started making regular pilgrimages to Finland in search of redemption. So this was something that they did experience with a painful loss, but they did learn from it and improve.

Mohler:  Amanda, I’m 54, so I’m a product of the public schools of the 1950s in terms of grade school; and I am either a victor or a victim of that system and of that panic that set in during the Cold War. And I experienced it as a child, but I didn’t understand it until it became later that not only did JFK, President Kennedy, believe there was a missile gap, but Americans became convinced there was an education gap. Let me ask you, before we turn to your look at the present, do you think that was actually true?

Ripley:  It’s interesting, you know, in many ways the U.S. was outperforming much of the world on some measures of education at the time. You know, we were just educating more of our kids and we were getting more of them through high school. So, on a quantitative basis, we were actually doing pretty well. And what happened is we sort of stayed the same over time. You know, we’ve seen some slight increases in results for younger kids again, particularly in reading. But we haven’t changed much. Our education—probably the easiest thing to count, and even that’s complicated, is your high school graduation rate, and we’re around 78% at this point. And there’s now about 20 countries that have higher high school graduation rates than we do, and almost all of them spend significantly less per student than we do. So, you know, its not that we’ve gotten—that our system has gotten worse. It’s more that we stayed basically the same while other counties have dramatically improved around us.

Mohler:  You know, one memory came very much to mind as I read your book. When I was in I guess what you’d call now middle school—junior high school when I was going—we had this reading program called SRA. I think it was Scholastic Research Associates. And it was a product—I now realize in retrospect—of this panic over American education. And so you would read a text and you would answer questions about it, and then they would challenge you to do it faster next time, faster next time, faster next time. I think it actually gave me a lot of good reading and comprehension skills, but I later read that that was a Cold War program out of the panic that our kids were falling behind Russian kids. You know—so this is not a new panic. This is kind of an old panic.

Ripley:  Right. The anxiety of, you know, foreign takeovers goes very deep in many counties; and, you know, I think it’s easy to get hyperbolic. It’s easy to panic, as you said. It’s also important to take a careful look, a deep breath, and try to—try to learn from these places. There are really very few counties—I mean, let me be real clear here—there are very few countries that have managed to pull this off at the scale of Finland and Korea. It’s not that everyone is surpassing the United States; it’s more that a few countries have managed to educate virtually all their kids to higher order thinking skills. And so that’s something we could learn from. I see it, actually, as something that is very hopeful, you know, because once you see the movements that have happened all over the world, and you visit these countries and you see that, you know, they have their own problems, they have their own debates, they don’t have everything figured out, and yet they have pulled this off, it makes you realize, you know, we could too. And so it’s really an encouraging one and I hope provokes more hope and optimism than anxiety, although I realize the book does both of those things.

Mohler:  That is a very interesting assessment.

[Commentary break begins]

Mohler:  Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, skyrocketed to The New York Times Bestseller list very shortly after its release. If nothing else, I think that tells us something about the anxiety here in the United States about our kids and education. Anxiety present among politicians and policy makers, educators, and, of course, American parents. But in order to find out why our kids are not the smartest kids in the world, at least by some statistical measures, she followed three kids as they went out into the world, and she tells us what they found in order that we might understand as well.

[Commentary break ends]

Mohler:  Let me now ask you to turn to those three countries of your central research: South Korea, Poland, and Finland. And just taking them one by one, let me ask you: where are they and what did you learn? First of all, South Korea. What’s going on there?

Ripley:  South Korea is a fascinating laboratory for what can happen when you create a culture in which the most important thing is to get into a great college and get a great test score that will get you in there, and you combine that mentality—and we have that mentality in talk around the U.S.; it’s not like that’s foreign to us—but you combine that mentality with something else, which is a mindset that if you are not doing well, if you are not doing well academically, it is simply because you are not working hard enough and you need more help. So there is this kind of ferocious belief that hard work, practice, and help can lead all kids to greatness if they just try again and again and again. That mindset, a kind of “gross mindset,” as Carol Dweck would call it, is really powerful, you know, when you get it, when you spread it across a whole society, because it tells kids that their performance in school is not a matter of whether they’re good at math as sort of their innate talent or their background, but really a matter of what they do. And it may not always be true, let me be clear. But it is an incredibly empowering mindset that can lead to—that can lead to great stress and also great achievement.

So to answer your question specifically, the student I followed was from a suburb of Minneapolis in Minnesota, which is one of the top performing states in our country, really a standout in all subjects. Still not performing at the level of Korea or Finland, but very respectable outcomes. This student, Eric, went to a suburban high school—had beautiful facilities; far better than most schools in Korea or Finland by the way—and he followed the international baccalaureate track at his school; he worked very hard; he did theater; he did other things. And, you know, he had a sort of unusual but quintessential experience in the American system, you know, really at the top of what we can offer the kids. So then he decides, wrongly as it turns out, that he would like a break from this. You know, he’s kind of burned out from how hard he’s been working in high school. So he decides he wants to go on one of these foreign exchange programs before he goes to college, and he decides that South Korea is a really captivating place—which it is—and that this would be a really exciting place to take a break and go study for a year. And, turns out, he realizes on his first day in high school in Busan, South Korea—a big booming city on the coast—he realizes that he is not going to get a break, that actually the students at this high school are working on an entirely different plane from the students of his school back in Minnesota. And that, in fact, they’re overworked and they’re exhausted and he spends much of the rest of the year debating whether or not he should drop out of high school because he loves Korea but he finds school to be pretty oppressive

Mohler:  You describe this really well; in your book, you describe a particular transitional scene in Eric’s life. You writ: “Lying on his bed back at the host family’s apartment, Eric thought more about what the boy had told him, ‘Korean kids essentially went to school twice every weekday.’ He found one possible explanation for Korea’s PISA scores and it was depressing. Kids learned a lot, but they spent a ridiculous amount of time doing so. They had math classes at school and math classes at hagwons”—that means after school, as you explained—“He was astounded by the efficiency of it all. In Korea, school never stopped.”

Ripley:  That’s right, and he would see—and I saw when I visited him in Korea—students, you’d walk by a classroom and a third of the kids would be asleep. You know, not nodding off, but flat out sleeping with their face on the desk because they were so tired from staying up so late studying at their test prep cram schools that they all go to after school, which is crazy and everyone there will tell you, “This is crazy.” Nobody thinks that it’s a good system. They all would like to be more like Finland or more like the U.S. in some cases. But the demand, the anxiety—speaking of anxiety—is so high that it’s hard to disrupt that cycle.

Mohler:  Well, you present a picture in the classroom in which, during the school day—that is the actual public school, what we would call a high school—you have teachers walking around tapping students on the head because they’re sleeping, tapping them with a back scratcher on the head, a “love stick” the students call it, in order to wake them up. You also make a kind of counter-intuitive point, and that is the real educational investment these kids are making is not what takes place at school, but what takes place in the test prep programs that their parents put them into after school. That appears to be where they’re putting in all of their intellectual energy, and they’re just exhausted.

Ripley:  Right. And it’s a wild thing to see. And I eventually realized that I needed to shift my gaze from the public system—which is interesting in many ways—but I had to really look at these hagwons, these after school tutoring academies, these test prep places that are a really huge market in Korea. It’s on a level that we can’t quite imagine here. I mean, these companies are traded on the stock exchange. Big banks like Morgan-Stanley make big investments in these companies and they literally are redundant school systems so . . .

Mohler:  With multi-million dollar teachers.

Ripley:  Some, the most successful teachers, can become millionaires there, that’s right, because it’s disaggregated. I mean, students choose their teacher; they don’t choose the academy,. They typically decide, based very much on who gets the best test results, they decide which teacher is the best. A lot of this is word of mouth, but a lot of it is data-driven and they sign up for those teachers. And so the more kids you get signed up for you, the more you get paid; and these really successful hagwon teachers become, literally, celebrities—I mean literal millionaire celebrities in these countries. And it’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a free market for education, which means there are some things that are dysfunctional about it, because the more money you have, the better education you can get. And there are some things that are really cool about it, like teachers are paid according to their value in society. Meeting and interviewing a millionaire teacher—I met multiple millionaire teachers—is a very cool thing, and very inspiring. And I don’t know—I obviously don’t think that this is the way to get there—but, you know, when the Korean government surveyed teenagers, they found that the teenagers vastly preferred their hagwon teachers to their regular teachers. And the reasons they gave were that their tutoring teachers were never giving up on them, that they always tried new things if they weren’t understanding something. They really seemed to care about them, and they were driven to get results in a way that the public school teachers were not, according to the students. So, there’s a lot to be learned about how these paces are run and their sort of best practices, even if we wouldn’t want to follow that model

Mohler:  So take us from Korea to Finland. My favorite part of your chapter on Finland is where you actually describe a classroom. You write, “the most obvious things were those that were missing. There were no high-tech interactive white boards in the classroom; there were no police officers in the hallway.” And then you wrote that the student who was there, the young woman, began to see more important distinctions, the kind that a visiting adult would not see. That sounds really interesting.

Ripley:  That’s right. And I never would have picked up on this but for Kim, the student that I followed. Kim came from rural Oklahoma where she was the daughter of a single mother who was a teacher. Neither Kim nor her mother had ever left the United States. But Kim didn’t feel like she fit in at her high school. She never really felt connected to her school experience. She was very curious about the world for whatever reason and she heard about these exchange programs and she raised $10,000 all on her own in her—remarkable quest to spend a year in Finland, partly because she read online that Finland had the smartest kids in the world. And so she goes off and she’s placed in rural Finland with another single mother, as it turns out. And she goes off to school and one of the things she notices, as you alluded to, is that all the kids seemed very similar to kids that she knew in Oklahoma. But, you know, they weren’t all intellectual heavyweights; a lot of them were complaining about certain teachers, about the work that they had to do . . .

Mohler:  They’re kids.

Ripley:  Some of them were texting . . . They were normal, yeah. And this is true in every country, right? Kids are very similar. What was different that she picked up on is that they seemed to be buying into the idea that what they were doing in school all day long was going to impact how interesting their lives could be. They seemed to care more about school: even as they complained about it and even as they rolled their eyes, they seemed to buy into it in a way that not even the students in her honors classes in Oklahoma were doing, according to Kim’s impression of things. So she actually, at one point, talks to a couple of the Finish girls about this to try to sniff out why—you know, why do they care? I mean, you know, it’s sort of a hard thing to ask of a student who hasn’t known any other culture, because she asked, “Why do you care?” and they were sort of perplexed. And eventually one of them says, “Well, you know, it’s school. How else are we going to get into a good college and get a good job?” So they’re connecting the dots in a way that’s pretty logical. And Kim, instead, starts to wonder why the kids in Oklahoma are not connecting the dots since that’s also true here. I mean your life outcomes are—as I don’t need to tell you—are profoundly influenced by your—how hard you work and well you do and how far you go in school, more so, actually, than most countries in the world. I mean, the U.S. rewards skills lavishly, statistically speaking, and punishes the absence of skills severely.

Mohler:  You point to something in Finland that, again, is equally counter-intuitive as what you discovered in South Korea, and that is that what was different in Finland was the teacher and what made the teacher different was the teacher education system.

Ripley:  Yeah. One of the really inspiring lessons about Finland is that they’ve really invested in quality over quantity. Sometimes that was by accident and sometimes that was on purpose. But over the years, they have invested in people over, you know, numbers. Let me give you an example. The teacher training colleges used to be like ours in the United States. They used to have a whole variety of different education colleges of wildly varying qualities in selectivity, just as we do. We educate twice as many teachers as we need in fourteen hundred schools of education, wildly varying in quality. And then they did something that almost no country has done, but all the top education superpowers have done: they made it much much harder to get into education colleges. They actually shut down their existing teacher colleges and moved them to the most selective universities in the country, and that meant a few things. I mean, obviously, that meant that the people who were trying to become teachers had the advantage of a strong education themselves, typically, which makes it easier to teach higher order thinking skills. There’s plenty of research showing that having a high GPA does not a great teacher make. I mean, that is not enough.

But it did other things too. For one, these teachers are in college and they go to school for five years to become a teacher. They study their subjects deeply for the first part of that training, four years, and then—for whatever subject they’re going to teach—and then they study education. And then they have a full year of student-teaching in what is their teaching high schools, one of the country’s highest performing schools where they have veteran educators mentoring them on a daily basis, which we know is incredibly valuable to teachers to have that hands on experience. Whereas American teachers typically have a semester of student teaching and they often do not have a teacher mentor who has the time or ability to really help them improve. So it’s an example of a case where they made a decision early on to raise the bar early to the beginning of the profession and really start from the beginning. And I think—what I hadn’t expected and what I realized once I was in Finland—that that decision has a really strong signaling effect, as in addition to, you know, the different caliber the students are getting. It gets the message to everyone else in the country that you are serious about education, you know. Because we say all the time here how hard it is to be a teacher and how important education is; but then it is one of the easiest majors in the country in many, many colleges, and many kids know that. And so, the Finish kids I met knew how hard their teachers had worked to get there. Many people in Finland had gotten rejected from education-college; they didn’t get in their first or second time. And this is not something you hear in the United States. And the only thing it does is that it sends a message to parents and taxpayers and politicians, you know, that you now have the best educated people in this country in this workforce, so you better give them some autonomy and some respect and some better pay. And that’s a much easier case to make from that vantage point, as opposed to saying, “You better give us respect because we have a strong union.”

Mohler:  We’ve got to look more quickly at Poland, but just summarize what you found there, because that too—that fact—that especially may be relevant to where we are here in the United States.

Ripley:  Poland is a fascinating place with a very complicated, tortured history of invasion and communism and all manner of challenges. Poland also has a significant poverty rate among kids; it is a place where actually the student I followed, Tom, was from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and he went to Wroclaw, Poland, the big city in Poland, and one of his best friends at school was mugged at knife point, shortly before I got there, when he was walking home from school in a sort of sketchy neighborhood next to Tom’s school. So this was, you know, in some ways—not in all, but in some ways—more similar to some, not all, American states.

And what they did in Poland was that in about 2000, right around the time PISA started, they were feeling great economic anxiety, and they were afraid, they wanted to be part of the European Union in such a way that they would get good jobs and not the worst jobs that no one else wanted to do, you know—they were trying to break away from their communist past in many ways—and they did a number of things, including agreeing on a sort of core list of standards for what kids should know that was more rigorous than what they had before, which is, you know, something that 45 states in the U.S. are in the midst of debating, including Kentucky, which was the first to adopt the Common Core state standard. And they also delayed tracking of kids. So, the United States divides up by ability, earlier and more aggressively than most developed countries at this point. Poland decided that, you know, the research showed the later you do that, the better everyone does; so the longer you wait, the better the system performs. So they moved until age fifteen, the time at which they would stream kids into a more academic sort of advanced placement university track versus vocational track. And that, among other changes, seemed to be the most impactful one, where they saw their kids going from below the average developed world to at or above average. So it was a remarkable—a very quick change in Poland. And there are lots of reasons that it happened, but that delay in tracking seemed to be very important.

Mohler:  When you come back to the United States after visiting these three different countries, you’re very clear about what you think can be learned and what probably shouldn’t be learned, and I’m going to encourage people, as they read your book, to actually track down those analyses and proposals. But I want to zero in on your chapter entitled, “Drive,” because I think this is where many listeners to this program would receive some immediate benefit and encouragement. You write that when you come back to the United States and you looked at how educational attainment actually takes places, that parents are hugely involved, and you ask a very interesting question. In fact, I’m going to read to you from your own book. You write: “By contrast, other parental efforts rendered big returns. When children were young, parents who read to them every day, or almost every day, had kids who performed much higher at reading all around the world by the time they were fifteen.” It sounded like a public service cliché: “Read to your kids.” Could it be that simple? And then you say, “Yes it could,” which is not to say it was uninteresting. In other words, reading to your children, and a specific type of reading that you described, has a massive impact.

Ripley:  It does and, you know, I’m glad you brought this up because, as a parent of a public school child in D.C., I found this research to be incredibly refreshing and informative. You know, there was a study of parenting in thirteen different countries and regions around the world, and they looked at what the parents had done and they linked it to the same children’s PISA scores. And what they found was that reading to your child, and also talking to your child as they get older about the news of the day, and even adults reading for pleasure on their own is strongly correlated with teenagers who became critical readers themselves and who enjoyed reading. But there were other results too, including the fact that parents who volunteered in their children’s school’s extra-curricular activities actually had children who performed worse on the PISA test of critical thinking and reading by the time they were fifteen. And there’s some U.S. research that supports this idea. It’s a complicated stew, right—how parental behavior influences students. We know it is very powerful. And there is a lot of evidence, actually, that American parents are quite involved in their kid’s education. They don’t always get credit for this.

Mohler:  Yes, but this is where you get into trouble and controversy, and I think this is what really gets interesting, because you did end up on the front cover of The Atlantic magazine, saying that, if I can paraphrase your article, one of the greatest enemies of educational attainment is our culture’s fascination with sports. We have kids who are far more involved in sports than in actual learning.

Ripley:  Right. And I don’t have a problem with sports; I love sports and played sports all my life. But we’re the only country that makes sports a core mission of school. In most countries, kids play sports outside of school: they do pick-up games, recreational leagues. Sports are not part of what principals and teachers have to think about every day. So sports itself is not the problem. The problem is a broader lack of focus and consensus about what school is for. And kids and parents pick up on that. My child’s school is constantly asking me to do things that have nothing to do with learning. That does not happen in Finland. Finnish elementary schools do not ask their parents to hold auctions. So there’s a limited amount of time and energy, and if we don’t have a clear consensus and focus on what matters, then it is easy to do things that feel good and that do create community bonds that are important, but don’t actually lead to helping your child learn to think for himself.

Mohler:  And there’s a place for everything. When I was reading this chapter in your book, I thought that this is where you really find out what parents believe in, are excited about, and put a priority upon. When the child or teenager comes home from school, are they asked about sports or are they asked about learning? Those are two different things and you have to believe that, at least in many homes, there is a lot more conversation about the sports than about anything that could be remotely described as truly educational.

Ripley:  Right. And there’s actually—we have figured out the gross mindset. We know that there are certain mindsets that parents can help their children cultivate. This may be actually easier in some ways than cultivating academic skills. These mindsets can help them thrive for their entire lives. And we have this down for sports. We have figured this out. I mean, parents are pretty direct with their kids, especially as they get older, about what they did right and wrong in a basketball game and how hard they need to work in order to get better. They don’t protect them from failure to the same degree, especially as they’re teenagers. In fact, its one of the only places where American kids get very honest feedback about their performance. American fifteen-year-olds rank number one in the world for the percentage who say they routinely get high grades in math. Number one in the world, way above Finland and Korea and Japan and Canada, along with other places with much much stronger math scores. It seems like if we could transfer some of the best practices that we take toward training for sports into academics . . .

Mohler:  That’s very insightful.

Ripley:  We could do this. You know, it’s not an inconceivable concept.

Mohler:  The last thing I want to ask you about is something that also I found really interesting in your book, and that’s where you talk about parenting styles. You suggest there are four basic categories: authoritarian parents, they’re the strict disciplinarians, the “because I said so parents”; permissive parents, who tend to be indulgent and averse to conflict; and then you have parents who are neglectful, that’s pretty self-explanatory. And then there’s also authoritative—not authoritarian, but authoritative. And you say the word is like a mash-up of authoritarian and permissive: these parents inhabit the sweet spot between the two. They were warm; they were responsive and close to their kids. But as their children got older, they gave them freedom to explore and to fail and to make their own choices. But they also set clear, bright limits. Rules that were not to be negotiated.

Ripley:  That’s right. And that is something that culture does inform, right? I did see that style anecdotally in Korea and Finland: kids are given more freedom to fail and recover. And I think that’s something that we are working on here. You know, we have a strange system where we don’t want kids to fail until they’re eighteen, and then all bets are off. And you see this in the debates about raising standards about what kids should know in different states. You know, we get very uncomfortable if we threaten to not give a child a diploma, because, you know, he can’t pass a series of tests of basic skills. We feel like if he came to school every day and tried, more or less, then he should get a diploma. But then if he goes to college or tries to get a job, all bets are off.

We have almost 40% of our kids going into remedial classes, paying for college but not getting college credit, going into debt, and repeating high school English, which is incredibly demoralizing. And we have kids who have to take basic skills tests to get jobs now. To go into a job out of high school, you typically have to take some kind of test for many types of decent jobs, and they’re not able to pass them. You know it would be good, I think, if we could shift that a little so that kids experienced failure and recovery while they were still kids, and not while they were adults and kind of on their own.

Mohler:  The book is The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, and the author is Amanda Ripley. It’s published by Simon and Schuster. Amanda Ripley, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Ripley:  Thank you so much for having me.

[Concluding commentary]

Mohler:  I very much enjoyed the conversation with Amanda Ripley about her book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. I think one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is its absolute candor and honesty, and the fact that what Amanda Ripley is trying to do is introduce us to how education is considered and lived out in the lives of kids and their schools in at least three particular countries, very important countries for this consideration: Poland, Finland, and South Korea. But she doesn’t come back and say, “Here’s exactly what we need to learn from this place, and here’s what needs to change in our system.” Instead, she points to what can be learned, and she also recognizes the cultural and societal particularities that establish why South Koreans learn and teach as they do; why the same is true in Poland and also in Finland. But what she brings back is a wealth of material for us to think about. And when she gets back, and she looks at kids here in the United States, she asks some very important questions, and she gets to some really important material.

I think Christian parents looking at this book will be particularly interested in what she has to say about the roles of parents in the lives of their children, especially in their educational lives. I was really interested in that part of the conversation in which Amanda tells us that it is only in sports, in the athletic life, that many American children and teenagers are given honest feedback about what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve. That’s a really critical insight: not at the expense of sports, but understanding that a greater responsibility is that kids have the same kind of feedback—honest feedback, helpful feedback—in other areas of their life, including learning.

But the role of parents is so huge in this book. And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson that we can gain from the entire enterprise. For instance, Amanda Ripley is very clear and she’s eloquent when she writes about the simple fact that parents reading for pleasure is correlated to such a high degree with the educational attainment of their children. Thinking about her own generation, and what it meant for parents to read to kids, she writes this:

After all, what did reading to your kids mean? Done well, it meant teaching them about the world. Sharing stories about far away places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged kids to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading, but of learning about all kinds of new things.

As she continues, “As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different, but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current events with their kids had teenagers who performed better at reading.” Here, again: “Parents who engage their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels.” Then listen to this sentence: “In fact, fifteen-year-olds whose parents talked about complicated social issues with them not only scored better on statistical tests, but reported enjoying reading more overall.” Later she writes this: “If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what kids said.”

Finally, looking at the issue of parental styles, the breakdown of parenting styles into four different categories is perhaps too restrictive, but it is still illuminating and very interesting. We looked at this before in terms of parenting books and approaches to parenting. But in this case, she goes back to this four-fold differentiation: between parents who are strict disciplinarians, their reason is simply, “Because I said so”; and then permissive parents, who are the opposite, they’re averse to conflict and they give their kids indulgence and inordinate freedom—they acted more like friends than parents, she explains; and then neglectful parents are just what the word implies, they’re neglectful, they are disconnected, emotionally distant, and often absent; and then there’s the fourth option, authoritative. These parents actually follow a model that is more clearly scriptural, even if they do not know it. Though they recognize it or not, secular or Christian, they are basically following a far more biblical script. These parents understand that they are indeed to parent. They set very clear boundaries, guidelines, rules. They put a great deal of responsibility on their kids. They don’t negotiate the rules, and they set very clear consequences for breaking those rules. But on the other hand, they’re moving their kids toward increasing freedom and the responsible use of that freedom. And they are working their children toward becoming thinking adults, not keeping them in a permanent childhood or a perpetual adolescence.

That should give us some indication why so many young people in America are having a hard time growing up today. The two extremes on this scale; authoritarian parents on one hand and permissive on the other, both of them actually lead to something short of thinking adults in terms of their children. But that sweet spot of authoritative parents, that’s something that we can recognize as being right. And it’s right because we recognize that the word authority is there. Parental authority is present, but it’s an authority that’s moving children towards adulthood, not keeping them forever children to be kept at home. She cites the researcher Jelani Mandara at Northwestern University who found that kids with authoritative parents had higher academic achievement levels, fewer symptoms of depression, and fewer problems with aggression, disobedience, and other anti-social behaviors. She writes: “Other studies have found similar benefits. Authoritative parents taught their kids to be resilient and it seems to work.”

Without doubt, Amanda Ripley offers some very clear suggestions and prescriptions for our society as it deals with the education of our young people, children and teenagers especially. She raises the very hard reality that we do not allow these kids to fail until age eighteen, until all of a sudden, and many of them do catastrophically fail. Furthermore, she takes an honest look at how we’re doing amongst the other nations, and she recognizes that we are a huge, complex, diverse nation, and we’re not doing as poorly as some of the prophets of doom would indicate. On the other hand, we’re not doing as well as we would want to do. And it’s not just a matter of geopolitics, it’s a matter of our own concern for our own children, and the children of our neighbors as well.

Perhaps the greatest take home from all of this is the role of parents, and we’re not surprised by that. It comes back to the fact that you can change many things in the schools, but if it doesn’t change at home, it’s never going to actually lead to transformation. The role of parents in this turns out to be—and we’re not surprised by this—absolutely central and crucial. And it comes down to some simple things we all know we are to do: read to our kids; let our kids see us reading for pleasure; and parent our children in such a way that we set very clear expectations and demonstrate true parental authority, but an authority that’s moving our children toward adulthood, and in particular, a thinking adulthood—and as Christian parents should always keep in mind, a faithful adulthood.

At the end of the day, the greatest benefit of reading this book is not that we would try to have the smartest kids in the world, but that we would understand how to relate better to our kids, and to the kids of our neighbors, and the kids of this culture in such a way that every one of them becomes, insofar as it is possible, a thinking adult—and for Christian parents, how every one of our kids can become a more faithful Christian living in the very real world.

Thanks again to Amanda Ripley for thinking with me today.

Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 14-15, 2014 for the Renown Youth Conference. This is a conference that will help train your middle and high school students about how to think and to live as faithful Christians. We’ll look forward to joining again on March 14-15, 2014 for the Renown Youth Conference. For more information, go to events at

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.