Jay Mathews is The Washington Post’s education columnist. His books include “Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.”

One of the more intriguing moments in Amanda Ripley’s fine book is the introduction of a Minnesota teenager named Eric to the South Korean public school system. That country has some of the highest average test scores in the world. Eric assumed that every high school class would be flying high, all eyes on the teacher, no nonsense. Instead, during his first day in sociology class, attention was minimal. About a third of the students were asleep.

They were recovering from their evening tutoring academies called “hagwons.” South Korea’s glittering international reputation for academics began to look to Eric more corrosive than inspiring.

“The kids had acted like they lived in the classroom because they essentially did,” Ripley writes. “They spent more than twelve hours there every weekday — and they already went to school almost two months longer than kids back in Minnesota. His classmates slept in their classes for one primal reason: because they were exhausted.”

Ripley is a talented writer who has done wide-ranging pieces on education and other topics for Time and the Atlantic. “The Smartest Kids in the World” may not please everyone in the education-geek world I inhabit, full of people who have been arguing for decades about class size and test validity, but it has the most illuminating reporting I have ever seen on the differences between schools in America and abroad.

“The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley. (Simon & Schuster)

There have been several books on education overseas. Works like “Surpassing Shanghai,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Marc S. Tucker, provide all the wonky data and arguments about what lessons we might learn from Asia and Europe. But such writing can be dull. Ripley brings the topic to life by leading us into classrooms full of surprises in Finland, Poland and South Korea, all of which have high international test scores and give their teachers rigorous training. She follows three American students who for various reasons got a year abroad that included time in high schools.

The book starts hopefully. Ripley introduces German statistician Andreas Schleicher. He is the creator of the Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam often cited by American politicians wanting to remind us how backward our kids are. The PISA test presents itself as a way to measure the teaching of creativity and critical thinking.

Ripley visits her exchange students: Eric in Busan, Korea; Kim in Pietarsaari, Finland; and Tom in Wroclaw, Poland. She spends a lot of space on each kid’s experiences and impressions, but these do not differ much from the often-reported experiences of U.S. foreign exchange students over the past 50 years: They found foreign schools much tougher than American ones and the students more likely to take school seriously than the average American kid. She also interviews leading education officials and experts in those countries to find out how their PISA scores got so good.

The most consistent U.S. failing Ripley discovers is our way of selecting and training teachers. If we erected barriers to education careers as high as those for lawyering, we would be better off. One of the Finnish teachers in the book “had to first get accepted into one of only eight prestigious teacher-training universities,” Ripley reports. “She had high test scores and good grades, but she knew the odds were still against her. She’d wanted to teach Finnish, so she’d applied to the Finnish department at the University of Jyvaskyla. In addition to sending them her graduation-exam scores, she’d had to read four books selected by the university, then sit for a special Finnish literature exam. Then she’d waited: Only 20 percent of applicants were accepted.”

American education schools, by contrast, are relatively easy to get into and to get degrees from. The profession has nothing remotely comparable to the bar exam.

The deeper Ripley goes, however, the less certain she is of the answer to our school problem. Teachers in the high-scoring countries give their students more rigorous assignments and get more support from parents, principals and students for demanding work than teachers do in the United States. Ripley embraces that key concept. But some of those nations share the American habit of thinking that not all students need rigor.

The PISA is given to 15-year-olds. Ripley cites a testing expert’s discovery that Poland gave that age group a boost by holding back pupils on their way to vocational school for an extra year of academic studies. Then, as an experiment, the PISA was given again to a sampling of those students when they were 16 or 17 and attending vocational schools. Their scores had dropped significantly. The extra year of academics had no lasting effect. Poland had an American-like gap between kids who were heading for college and those who weren’t.

Ripley seems to realize toward the end that she put too much faith in the PISA as a measure of creativity and critical thinking, a controversial issue among experts. Upbeat statements about the test tend to disappear later in the book. What the PISA is measuring is probably not creativity. If you believe the exam does capture that elusive quality, then you have to accept the notion that it can be pounded into students as is done in South Korea.

One thing the PISA almost certainly assesses is how much students know. In countries that want them to learn about the world, students get higher scores. They need that command of content, as educators put it, or they won’t have anything to be creative about.

Ripley rightly concludes that we need “a serious intellectual culture in schools.” But watch cable news, eavesdrop in a student cafeteria or attend a local PTA meeting, and you will see that such a culture is something that so far doesn’t interest us much.

Jay Mathews is The Washington Post’s education columnist. His books include “Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.”


And How They Got That Way

By Amanda Ripley

Simon & Schuster. 306 pp. $28