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“Without a high school diploma, you couldn’t work as a garbage collector in New York City; you couldn’t join the Air Force. Yet a quarter of our kids still walked out of high school and never came back.” – Amanda Ridley, The Smartest Kids in the World.

The United States is one of the most prosperous and powerful countries in the world. Yet, for the last several decades, our schools have made pretty poor grades. When it comes to critical thinking American high school students perform about 26th in the world in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading. In addition, the national high school graduation rate is now below that of twenty other nations.


Amanda Ripley, a writer and social scientist, focused on the three countries producing students with the strongest critical thinking skills: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Ripley contacted “field agents,” American teenagers who studied in these different countries. What she found, she believes, is the key to success in our schools as well.

Finland: In the late 1960’s, Finland shut down their various schools of education and moved them all to the elite universities in the country. From then on, teachers would only be accepted from the top 10% of the applicants in the country. While at first, there was a teacher shortage, in time, the teacher pool became selective and motivated. Teachers were teaching because they wanted to teach. A New York Times reviewer explains, “A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.” They taught students who knew that their teachers were bright, educated, and most importantly, really wanted to be there.

South Korea: South Korea implemented a rigorous post-high school exam that determines much of the student’s future job prospects and career. Student and parents in South Korea are so focused on this exam that children go to school all day and then attend “hagwons” or cram school almost all night. Students and parents have internalized the idea that in order to succeed, children need to not only learn, but also master the material.

Poland: Poland has a combination of Finland and South Korea’s educational system – well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. Another glaring difference is that while Polish children play sports after school, there is no sports program in the school. In Poland, school is for academics, not sports.

There are obvious problems with what Ripley calls “the hamster wheel” of education in South Korea and Poland. Students feel suffocated by the requirements and there is a tremendous amount of pressure to perform. However, perhaps that’s better than what Ripley calls “the moon dance” culture of American schools today: students who don’t care about learning and skyrocketing drop-out rates.

What can we, as parents and educators, do to help develop schools that foster “the smartest kids in the world”?

Learning for learning’s sake. We place a huge emphasis on learning for the sake of learning in our everyday lives when it comes to Torah and mitzvos. That is incredibly important and should never be detracted from in anyway. In order to help our children value education in general, we need to teach them about developing critical thinking skills that they will take with them well beyond the four walls of their classroom. In other words, if we teach our students to care about the process of learning, they will be more invested. If we teach them about the long-term benefits of learning, we will be providing them with a life-long education.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].