I published this review in The Tyee late in 2014: The Smartest Kids in the World, and What They Can Teach Us.
The title is misleading: they're not the smartest kids, just the best educated. And it's how they got that way that should interest North American teachers, parents and students.
Amanda Ripley is a very good guide. An investigative journalist, she knows how to write. Somehow she got the time and resources to do expensive and time-consuming research for this book, which took her from the U.S. to Finland, Poland and South Korea. But it wasn't just education tourism; she really dug into the school systems she studied, so her findings have some credibility as research.
Americans, and to a lesser extent Canadians, love to beat themselves up about their education failings as compared to the Finns or Koreans or whatever country is currently thriving economically. (Remember the 1990s, when Japan was supposed to be shaming us?)
It's a dubious policy to continue the beatings until scores improve, especially since we also love to rationalize about the "otherness" of the foreign: those ice-eyed Finns with their phonetic alphabet, those Asian kids driven to top grades or suicide -- nothing like our own kids. It might be more persuasive if I didn't remember the same BS being peddled in the 1950s about how super-educated young Soviets would roll over the grinning American ignoramuses of my generation.
Ripley disarms that argument by using three young Americans as her surrogates, experiencing different systems from the inside. An Oklahoman named Kim raises enough money to spend a year as an exchange student in Finland, Eric goes from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Gettysburg High to Poland. Ripley then tracks their progress while also interviewing other students and educators in the host countries.
In the process, she also explains the culture and philosophy behind each country's school system -- and how such wildly different systems can still produce such remarkable results.