Book Review


By Ripley, Amanda

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Reviewed by
State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ)
Accounting Sciences Graduate Program
RJ, Brazil


Amanda Ripley is a North American journalist who has written for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She holds a scholarship for her studies in education from the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public organization for research in the United States. She is also the author of “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disasters Strike – and Why” and her work contributed to Time winning two prizes at the National Magazine Awards.

The aim of the author is to find out what the reasons are that led American teenagers to be ranked eighteenth in the world in mathematical performance, in the ranking of the PISA1 and other international tests, even though, on average, they enjoyed a better financial situation, as the children of parents who had received a high-level of education and studying in the richest schools in the world. To do so, she began a journey that took her into countries she defines as “educational superpowers”, such as Finland and South Korea, and to Poland, a perfect example of the excellent modernization of an education system, to find out what took these countries to that higher level. To that end, she studied several variables she believed were and are molding education, from government action to cultural analysis, from teacher training to expenditure per student.

Everything starts from analysis of the work by the economists Ludger Woessman and Eric Hanusek, who collected and analyzed the results of around fifty years of evaluation tests applied to teenagers from eighteen different countries. Ripley uses the results of that study to identify three basic categories of countries where academic performances are remarkable:

The Finland utopian model, where the society believes students are capable of developing a form of top order thinking, without competition or interference from parents.

The “Pressure Cooker” model, adopted by South Korea, where study is compulsive.
The model that is changing Poland, where students’ performances in the PISA test have improved drastically in the last decade, moving it up in the ranking, much closer to the top scorer than to the United States, despite its considerably lower level of economic development.

Ripley follows three American teenagers, Kim, Eric and Tom, in their experiences as exchange students in foreign countries, as they spend a year attending schools in Finland, Korea and Poland, respectively. Thanks to their help, she can see another point of view, receiving valuable insights directly from within the system. In addition, around two hundred exchange students contributed, answering a questionnaire over the Internet, enabling her to make comparisons across several international contexts.

The findings of the research suggest the educational outcome depends, as could not be otherwise, on a very complex combination of factors, though it is still possible to identify among them key variables affecting teenagers’ academic performance.

The variable to which Ripley attributes the highest importance is rigor and there is no better example than the South Korean educational system to illustrate it. There, high school students go to school twice a day: from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM they attended regular school, from 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM they go to Hagwons.

Hagwons are private schools that aim to offer courses different from those taught in public institutions, to reinforce learning and prepare the students for the extremely difficult tests they will have to take to enroll in the most prestigious high schools and universities. In fact, the vast majority of high-level job positions, in both the private and public sector, are occupied by graduates from the country’s top four universities. That was the reason why Eric, the American student who decided to spend six months  of the last year of high school in South Korea, was placed in a classroom with students two years younger than him: the boys his age were too busy getting ready for the final test to deal with a foreign student.

When class was over, students were expected to sort out the room, cleaning the desks and the blackboard and tidying everything for those coming next. Sometimes rigor is applied in too strict a way (corporal punishment was abolished only a few years ago). For example, those who earned negative points during the day, even for silly reasons, such as hair being too long, had to clean the bathrooms as a form of punishment.

Teenagers are subjected to a strict and firm rigor since the first years of school, but at the same time to a very high pressure (from whence the term “Pressure Cooker”). The competitive educational system, combined with high expectations, translated into compulsory study and excessive stress, to which such young boys and girls should not be exposed.

While being considered very competitive and very meritocratic at the same time, many believe, and among them the former education minister Lee Ju-ho (Korean Minister of Education in 2011), that the impressive results of South Korean students in the PISA test are the result of the efforts of the students themselves, rather than those of the schools. He also considers Finland’s system a much better point of reference for other countries, such as the USA, rather than South Korea’s.

The South Korean application of rigor has come to fruition as a suffocating system. In the 80s though, the Finnish understood that the only way to address education seriously was to carefully select the teachers. From among those who received the strongest academic education they picked the best and brightest of each generation, subjecting them to rigorous training. It was a radical strategy few countries had tried to put into practice. Strict rigor was used in selection, translating into a system where teachers were the creators of rigor themselves. They were free to design their own lesson plans, experimenting and developing creative and more effective systems.

Furthermore, sports and their correlation with the schools is criticized by Ripley. Their positive effect on children is undeniable, it is the way it is perceived and performed in US schools that concerns the author. Thanks to the opinions Ripley collected by applying surveys to students who took the PISA test (Appendix II of the book), it is evident how sports performances are considered as important as academic ones in the USA. That means too much time is taken from education, for teachers as well as for students.

She believes the differences in the aims of South Korean and US schools are quite evident: mastering the academic content is the only objective in South Korea, while in North America it is just one of the objectives, along with excellence in sports, for instance.

Prior studies on academic performances highlighted the importance of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ), stating that this mainly depended on a talent, an inherent ability, something that cannot really be improved. On the contrary, the author believes, and it is strongly supported by the data she collected, that students’ performances are much more closely linked to character, another key variable, which she defines as motivation, empathy, self-control and persistence. Teenagers are teenagers, they do the same things all over the world (play videogames, text to each other, spend time on social networks, watch television, etc.). What was really making the difference was the degree of seriousness with which students were approaching their education, which depended in turn on the seriousness attributed by social parties (parents, institutions, government, etc.) to the education system and to the value of academic success. Finland’s experience proved that the students weren’t born intelligent, they became intelligent, and their high performance was the result of hard work.

Quality of the teachers is another key variable that is deeply and carefully analyzed in this book. Better teachers means they can adapt easily to change, along with their students, updating their teaching according to the changes in the economy. According to the author, the quality of a professional’s teaching is the consequence of the difficulty of the selection process required to obtain such a title. Ripley realizes that in educational superpowers the entire career path of a teacher is strictly monitored and evaluated, starting from middle school. In Finland, for example, only eight extremely specialized universities are authorized to graduate teachers and every year just twenty percent of applicants are accepted. Overall, an aspiring teacher has to spend at least nine years in university, which also includes one year of practice in actual classrooms, under continuous supervision and evaluation by experienced professors.

To offer a consistent comparison, Ripley analyzes the career paths of two teachers: Stara, from Finland, and Bethel, from Oklahoma, USA. Again, the comparison with the North American education system is dramatic. To start his career as a teacher, Bethel had to take the ACT, a standardized test that evaluates everything a person has learned during his academic career, which could be passed by obtaining a minimum grade of nineteen. At the time, the national average for the ACT was 20.6, meaning that it was deemed acceptable for a person in charge of molding future education to have a lower educational result than the national average.

At that time, the universities in the USA were turning out 2.5 times the number of teachers required by the market. Ripley’s conclusions here are that standard requirements and an excessive supply of teachers necessarily lowers the intellectual level of the entire teaching profession.

In South Korea, Hagwons and the efficiently flexible private education market had provided the system with extremely competent and capable teachers. The remuneration of private school teachers was strictly linked to their performance, and closely monitored throughout their entire career. Fierce competition kept teachers under constant pressure, forcing them to continuously improve their teaching abilities.

It is easier to lead with a firm hand when working with employees who already received sound educational training, passed through rigorous training and receive decent remuneration.

Another key variable affecting educational outcome is the culture of the country.

The seriousness attributed to the profession of teacher is very important. The higher the credibility of a person, the higher his or her chances of being respected and being listened to, with evident consequences for the applicability of rigor.

Ripley believes the way parents raise their children has a strong impact on their academic performance. There is strong evidence that those from families in which the parents are more involved in the life of their children perform much better than their peers. At the same time, the absentee rate is lower. It does not matter what age, race, or income is taken into consideration, the result does not change. Among fifteen-year-old students, the performance in reading of those whose parents did not use to read to them every day, or at least once a week, when they were younger was much poorer, as if those students were half a year behind in their studies (fourteen points less in the PISA test).

The freedom and responsibilities given to the children count as well. In the USA everything is tightly supervised and controlled, while in Finland the children are used to being more independent, more free to choose how to manage the time at their disposal. Consequently, the children are growing up to become highly motivated, self-sufficient and resourceful students.

Ripley focuses particularly on Poland because of the revolution that occurred in the educational system in the early 2000s, leading to an impressive improvement in the educational results, allowing a precise and clear evaluation of the cause-effect links to be made.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the nation found itself finally free from the suffocating grip of the USSR and, at the same time, in desperate need of establishing a modern new education system. And so they did, starting from scratch, pursuing three main guidelines in developing the new system:

Inject rigor into the system: the new program was to provide schools with directives whereby objectives must be attained, but the details of how to do so would be the responsibility of the school (from a scattered and chaotic organization to a more centralized one). Additionally, one teacher out of four had to go back to university to refine their teaching abilities and improve their knowledge.

Empowerment: standardized tests were introduced throughout the students’ development (this type of test, aimed at a specific target audience, would prove decisive in all countries with significant poverty rates, says the author), enabling the system to monitor itself, to understand what was being done correctly and what was not and to respond by taking precise and objective-specific action. Teacher autonomy and rights were improved, as well as their salaries, with a bonus delivered if they undertook professional training during the year.

Raise the expectations of the teenagers: by introducing an additional mandatory year of study and by building thousands of new schools, they raised the minimum level of knowledge expected from teenagers, automatically increasing their own expectations.

Despite high levels of crime, child poverty (Poland was occupying the last position in the developed country ranking for child welfare) and several other legitimate reasons that would be expected to make the performance in the PISA test mediocre, between 2000 and 2006 Poland’s students overtook those of the North America not only catching up with other developed countries but even outmatching many of them.

Poland’s economic growth in 2013 was one of the fastest on the planet, confirming once more the correlation between education and wealth creation.

Ripley’s analysis also reaches the conclusion that wealth doesn’t necessarily mean high education standards. In 2009, the USA occupied the second position in the world ranking of expenditure per student. IPads, digital blackboards and all sorts of other technology were very common in US classrooms. In that same year though, US teenagers ranked twenty-sixth in the PISA test. When talking about expenditure in education, the author believes quality is much more important than quantity. What really made the difference was how the teachers were using that money, if they invested in the best way and in the best interests of the students.

Another interesting highlight of the book is about the homogeneity of the population and the percentage of immigrants in the population, variables that don’t seem to be directly linked to educational results. While a correlation with the family’s income could be found, what a country does with its students seems to really make the difference. Singapore, where the heterogeneity of the population is considerable, is ranked among the leading nations in the PISA tests and there is essentially no difference in academic performance between immigrant students and natives.

In the USA, however, the system somehow seems to stimulate racial segregation, causing the creation of agglomerations of low grades, unstable family life and low expectations, characterized by inconsistent quality of teaching, low academic commitment and high inequality. In this academic nightmare, educational results are similar to those achieved by higher income students who are two years younger. In Singapore, political guidelines had been able to prevent extreme segregation, whereas in the USA the government demanded that teachers and directors believe that their students are different and should be treated accordingly. They had to monitor race and income and pass the data on to the government, which used this to evaluate the schools in each category. Rigor cannot exist without equality and impartiality.



This book was written on the assumption that no country in the world has yet found a solution that enables all the children and adolescents to fully exploit their learning potential. The author clearly states that the aim of this book is not to develop a model that could be used by policymakers to mold the educational system of their country, but rather to try to offer a useful contribution to the still only partially understood subject of education. In fact, one of the criticisms that could be made of this study is that it is not properly representing reality.

When discussing the US educational system, Ripley arbitrarily decides not to analyze the whole system, leaving out charter schools, vouchers, tenure “… and other policy hang-ups”, as the author calls them. Furthermore, there are other valid international academic tests, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which evaluate different aspects of education, focusing more on technical education. When speaking with experts though, she felt their answers were surprisingly abstract.

All things considered, this book is an extremely valuable analysis of the results of the PISA test and should be considered an excellent starting point for further studies on Education. It shares the same aim as the PISA test, developed during the 1990s and 2000s by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Andreas Schleicher, statistician and researcher in the field of education, with the intention of creating an instrument would be able to measure the critical thinking and communication abilities that together determine the ability to think creatively. That is what is required for today’s world, where the ability to innovate is increasingly dependent upon the activation of social relationships, connections, creative exchange and active participation2.

In other words, the aim was to measure a system’s effectiveness using scientific parameters and to compare the results of the educational systems adopted by each country. It is not trying to offer solutions, it is trying to reveal the coordinated world of education, offering a new and very important scientific point of view. As shown by the economists L. Woessmann and Eric Hanushek, there is an extremely high correlation between the cognitive abilities of students and economic growth over the long term3. In addition, their study gives evidence for the fact that years of schooling presents a level of correlation, but much lower, suggesting that the quality of schooling is much more important than the quantity of time spent in the classroom. There is also evidence that there may be a correlation with the Human Development Index and the Global Innovation Index.

In the last few pages Ripley admits that, if she had to choose between the hamster’s wheel model or the US model, she would choose the hamster’s wheel. In South Korea, the wheel was creating as many problems as it was solving, as it was implacable and excessive, but more honest and it was helping the students to understand the value of persistence and of failure and to learn to work harder and do better. Unlike US students, Korean teenagers were really being prepared for the world of today.


1 The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a comparative evaluation initiative run by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is applied to samples of students within the 15-years-old age group, from the eighth year of basic education, an age at which it is presumed compulsory basic schooling ends. Its aim is to produce indicators that contribute to the discussion of the quality of education in the participating countries, in order to support policies for the improvement of basic education. This evaluation seeks to ascertain the extent to which schools in each participating country are preparing their youth for contemporary society. The test takes place every three years and covers three areas of knowledge: reading, mathematics and sciences and collaborative problem solving. In addition to observing such skills, the PISA collects information for the development of contextual indicators that enables the correlation of students’ performances with demographic, socioeconomic and educational variables.

2 De Kerckhove: «Benvenuti nella datacrazia, il mondo governato dagli algoritmi», available at, accessed in June/2017.

3 The High Cost of Low Educational Performance – the long-run economic impact of improving PISA outcomes. OECD, 52p. OECD 2010, accessed in June/2017.



Published by the Triple Helix Association  –  ISSN 2281-4515


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