The Smartest Kids in the World
prologue the mystery
Heat Map: In a handful of countries scattered across the world, virtually all kids are learning to think critically in math, reading, and science.
For most of my career at Time and other magazines, I worked hard to avoid education stories. If my editors asked me to write about schools or tests, I countered with an idea about terrorism, plane crashes, or a pandemic flu. That usually worked.
I didn’t say so out loud, but education stories seemed, well, kind of soft. The articles tended to be headlined in chalkboard font and festooned with pencil doodles. They were brimming with good intentions but not much evidence. The people quoted were mostly adults; the kids just turned up in the photos, smiling and silent.
Then, an editor asked me to write about a controversial new leader of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. I didn’t know much about Michelle Rhee, except that she wore stiletto heels and tended to say “
crap” a lot in interviews. So, I figured it would be a good story, even if it meant slipping into the fog of education.
But something unexpected happened in the fog. I spent months talking to kids, parents, and teachers, as well as people who have been
creatively researching education in new ways. Pretty soon I realized that Rhee was interesting, but she was not the biggest mystery in the room.
The real mystery was this: Why were some kids learning so much—and others so very little?
Education was suddenly awash in data; we knew more than ever about what was happening—or failing to happen—from one neighborhood or classroom to the next. And it didn’t add up. Everywhere I went I saw nonsensical ups and downs in what kids knew: in rich neighborhoods and poor, white neighborhoods and black, public schools and private. The national data revealed the same peaks and valleys, like a sprawling, nauseating roller coaster. The dips and turns could be explained in part by the usual narratives of money, race, or ethnicity. But not entirely. Something else was going on, too.
Over the next few years, as I wrote more stories about education, I kept stumbling over this mystery. At
Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C., I saw fifth graders literally begging their teacher to let them solve a long division problem on the chalkboard. If they got the answer right, they would pump their fists and whisper-shout, “Yes!” This was a neighborhood where someone got murdered just about every week, a place with 18 percent unemployment.
In other places, I saw kids bored out of their young minds, kids who looked up when a stranger like me walked into the room, watching to see if I would, please God, create some sort of distraction to save them from another hour of nothingness.
For a while, I told myself that this was the variation you’d expect from one neighborhood to the next, from one principal or teacher to another. Some kids got lucky, I supposed, but most of the differences that mattered had to do with money and privilege.
Then one day I saw this chart, and it blew my mind.
The United States might have remained basically flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom of the world to the top, without pausing for breath. And what was going on in Norway, right next door, which seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty? And there was Canada, careening up from mediocrity to the heights of Japan. If education was a function of culture, could culture change that dramatically—that fast?