“The Smartest Kids in the World” – Not us [MOVIE REVIEW]

Brittany enjoying her Finnish history class in "The Smartest Kids in the World." Photo courtesy of Discovery+.

Brittany enjoying her Finnish history class in “The Smartest Kids in the World.” Photo courtesy of Discovery+.

Amanda Ripley wrote a New York Times best seller called The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way. Tracy Droz Tragos, intrigued by the questions raised by Ripley, has just produced a documentary based on the book.

The United States spends more per student on education than almost any other developed country in the world and yet, despite that, our secondary education system lags significantly behind in math and science as measured by the Pisa test. We are high in spending and middle to low in performance when comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

How to fix our education system has been debated endlessly but in this discussion, one critical group historically has been left out of the equation—the students themselves. Tragos decided to tackle this question head-on by tracking four students from different areas of the country, Wyoming, Florida, Maine, and the Bronx in New York, as they embark on foreign exchange programs that will take them each to different countries that outperform the U.S. to learn in new environments. Following Ripley’s suggestion, this is an attempt to look at what other countries do right, looking at it from the perspective of those four students.

Brittany, a high achiever, went from Orlando to study in Finland. What she found was eye-opening. Always a hard worker who valued study over free time, she found herself in a program that valued independence and critical thinking. Her peers spent considerably less time outside class studying but performed at a much higher level. Finland overhauled their educational system years ago, making teaching an elite and well-paying profession. The teachers, quite simply, are superb and inspire their students.

Jaxon talking to his advisor at his Dutch high school in “The Smartest Kids in the World.” Photo courtesy of Discovery+.

Jaxon, a frustrated high schooler from Wyoming, was looking forward to his exchange program in the Netherlands. He has felt unfulfilled in a school system that valued sports over education, to the point that Friday classes were eliminated so that the school wouldn’t be penalized by the state when the student athletes missed classes due to sporting competitions. No one went to school on Fridays in deference to the sports. Jaxon, a wrestler, regretted the low expectations of his school. Arriving in Holland, he immediately saw the difference in commitment and performance. It, along with the language difficulty, were too daunting. He couldn’t keep up and was unprepared to put out the effort required. He, among the four, was the only one to give up and return home to a system, he readily acknowledged, offered little challenge and opportunity.

Sadie, from Maine, had been home-schooled until high school. High school was a shock. The educational level and standards were far below what she needed and the focus on conformity was suffocating. Offered the opportunity to study in Switzerland, she excelled. Her smattering of French made her transition easier than most. Sadie reveled in a system that put as much emphasis and value on finding a path in a professional track based on apprenticeships as it did on higher education after high school.

Simone studies Korean on bus in South Korea in “The Smartest Kids in the World.” Photo courtesy of Disovery+.

Simone, from the Bronx, is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who always placed importance on education. Simone was invited to study in South Korea and ends up with the most varied and inciteful experience. Immersing herself fully, she became fluent in Korean and by the end of her stay was able to give presentations in her new language. But what she learned along the way was more interesting than what she learned in the classroom. She certainly felt at home in an environment that placed such a high value on education but she also saw the effects that the intense competition had on her fellow students who felt the need to continue with tutoring after classes ended so that they would get a more vaulted position on the higher education totem pole. Yes, they perform at a much higher level than their American counterparts, but they have no life and are prone to debilitating stress.

Perhaps the most important take-away wasn’t the difference in achievement but in the encouragement of critical thinking, another area where the United States lags behind. Unlike the countries surveyed, out public education system bases learning on multiple choice tests not on essay answers to abstract issues or historical concepts.

Still, on the whole, this is an inadequate look at the system. There is no doubt that the countries profiled produce better results when measured by the Pisa test but there is more to it than that. The best issue raised by Ridley was the lack of input from students on what they need. The approach by government and school districts is akin to filling a pot hole in the road when it’s really the whole road that needs resurfacing.

It’s easy to compare the inverse relationship between money spent to results when put up against other systems, but what the documentary neglects to account for is the vastness of our system, the diversity in our students and their learning environments, and the fact that our use of standardized tests results in teaching to the test and not to the student.

This is not an apples-to-apples situation and it may never be remedied here in the U.S.. The system in Korea is actually horrifying with the pressure placed on students at a young age. On the whole, we do not value teachers and teaching the way these other countries do. There are no easy fixes. We definitely need to pay teachers more money and show them more respect but salaries are at the whim of politicians, bond issues, and people who don’t understand the relationship between good schools and higher property values. They see only dollar signs and are unwilling to pay for quality secondary education. Teachers’ Unions, necessary to protect teachers from the changing views of  school boards and politicians, are also a force against excellence, protecting inadequate and bad teachers with the same fervor they support the good ones.. Most public school districts do not encourage creativity or critical thinking. Abstract thinking is a concept that is little understood and yet it is one of the things that is a measure of future success. We have destroyed our vocational system by using it only as an outlet for poor students rather than using it as a viable alternative to students whose interests lie in areas other than the traditionally academic.

Yes, there are many ways in which our educational system has failed our students but this documentary has not illustrated how to fix the problem in a meaningful way. Our secondary education is definitely inferior to that of many of the developed nations but our problems are also greater. Death by suicide in Korean students is greater than it is here, but then death by gang violence in our schools is something that most of the other schools that score higher than us in math and science are unlikely to face.

In the end, for me, there were two take-aways. Teachers make the greatest difference in student learning and we need to spend more time listening to the students themselves on what they want. There have been studies showing that while our secondary education is inadequate compared to that of most other developed countries, our university level system, as a whole, is much better than anywhere else. The question that should be asked is if high school education were better, would the university system be even better? Perhaps, but the topic not covered in this documentary, among many others, is the effect of a lower level secondary education on those not on a track for college. Math and science levels, notwithstanding, the lack of critical and creative thinking of our graduates has a greater impact on their world view and knowledge than is being discussed.

Yes, we should definitely ask students what they want. Despite what the four profiled students feel is necessary, the range will go from no homework to more homework, from more school to no school. It is probable, however, that all would want safe schools and good teachers, something that is an alien concept in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, and South Korea. Still we need to listen carefully to what they have to say and why they say it.

“The Smartest Kids in the World” is a nice, superficial documentary that doesn’t really take a deep dive into any of the questions about improving secondary education in a wildly diverse country with enormous poverty on one end of the spectrum with schools that have been hobbled by socioeconomic factors influenced by a history of racism and inherent inequality and vast wealth that, judging by the recent college admissions scandals, is used as a battering ram against those who get in their way.

Streaming August 19 on Discovery+.




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