Smartest Kids in the World: Poland

Part of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley concerns big changes to the Polish schools.

And there he was, in Poland at last. Everything was more or less going according to his plan. The thing is: When Tom walked to the front of that classroom in Poland that day, he was carrying an American burden no one could see. Despite his Yo La Tengo T-shirt and his winter of Chekhov, Tom was in at least one way a prototypical American teenager. Tom was not good at math. He’d started to lose his way in middle school, as so many American kids did. It had happened gradually; first he hadn’t understood one lesson, and then another and another. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. He hadn’t wanted to admit that he wasn’t as smart as other kids. Then he’d gotten a zero on a pre-algebra quiz in eighth grade. In other classes, a bad grade could be overcome. But, in math, each lesson built on what happened before. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to catch up. It felt like he was getting dumber, and it was humiliating. The next year, he got an F in math.

Note that this reminds me of the frustration expressed by a friend who quit a wonderfully well-paid job as a public school teacher to become a flight instructor and then commercial pilot of a $5 million aircraft (total compensation about half of a senior schoolteacher’s). He said that classes should be organized like a Latin American Spanish-language school for gringos in which people took a placement test every month and might move ahead or behind so as to ensure that they were always in an appropriate level.

Is this guy Tom from the lavishly funded Gettysburg, Pennsylvania high school an exception?

America’s math handicap afflicted even its most privileged kids, who were more privileged than the most advantaged kids in most other countries, including Poland. Our richest kids attended some of the most well-funded, high-tech schools in the world. Yet these kids, including the ones who went to private school, still ranked eighteenth in math compared to the richest kids in other countries. They scored lower than affluent kids in Slovenia and Hungary and tied with the most privileged kids in Portugal.

Our poorest kids did even worse, relatively speaking, coming in twenty-seventh compared to the poorest kids in other developed countries, far below the most disadvantaged kids in Estonia, Finland, Korea, Canada, and Poland, among many other nations.

How does math class work in Poland?

Back in America, Tom and all his classmates had used calculators. In his Polish math class, calculators were not allowed.

In Poland, the lowest grade was always one, and the highest was five. After each test, he waited to see if anyone would get a five; no one ever did. No one seemed surprised or shattered, either. They shouldered their book bags and moved on to the next class.  Kids in Poland were used to failing, it seemed. The logic made sense. If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn. “Success,” as Winston Churchill once said, “is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

There were no sports at Tom’s school in Poland. Sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pick-up soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for—or what mattered to kids’ life chances.

Did Poland have a deep tradition of pedagogical excellence? A Danish-style harmonious society with low poverty?

The defenders of America’s mediocre education system, the ones who blamed poverty and dysfunction for our problems, talked as if America had a monopoly on trouble. Perhaps they had never been to Poland. It is difficult to summarize the tumult that occurred in Poland in the space of a half century. After the fall of communism in 1989, hyperinflation took hold; grocery store shelves were empty, and mothers could not find milk for their children. The country seemed on the verge of chaos, if not civil war. Yet Poland tumbled through yet another transformation, throwing open its institutions to emerge as a free-market democracy. The citizens of Wrocław renamed their streets for a third time.

By 2010, when Tom arrived from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Poland had joined the European Union. The country still struggled with deprivation, crime, and pathology of all kinds, however. While Tom was there, the local soccer teams started playing in empty stadiums, silent but for the sounds of their feet kicking the ball. There’d been so much violence among the fans that they’d been banned from their own teams’ games. Nearly one in six Polish children lived in poverty, a rate approaching that of the United States, where one in five kids are poor. It is hard to compare relative levels of sadness, but the data suggested that poor children in Poland led jagged lives. In a United Nations comparison of children’s material well-being, Poland ranked dead last in the developed world. Like the United States, Poland was a big country where people distrusted the centralized government. Yet something remarkable had happened in Poland. It had managed to do what other countries could not. From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish fifteen-year-olds shot up twenty-nine points on the PISA exam. It was as if Polish kids had somehow packed almost three-quarters of a school year of extra learning into their brains. In less than a decade, they had gone from below average for the developed world to above. Over the same period, U.S. scores had remained flat.

Poland still had not joined the top tier of education superpowers. But, unlike the United States, it had dramatically improved its results in just a few years—despite crime, poverty, and a thousand good reasons for why it should fail.

Just a few weeks before, a friend of Tom’s had been mugged at knifepoint there, in broad daylight, as he’d walked home from the school.  The Triangle kids did not have easy lives. Some had fathers in prison; others had mothers who drank too much vodka. On some days, kids came to school tired and hungry. To an outsider, it didn’t look all that different from an American ghetto.

So how have they done so well?

In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery. Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

In the spring of 1998, he and his boss, the new prime minister, Jerzy Buzek (another chemistry professor), announced a series of reforms the likes of which they might never have contemplated if they’d had more experience with the political sensitivities of education. “We have to move the entire system—push it out of its equilibrium so that it will achieve a new equilibrium,” Handke said. He was still teaching chemistry, this time to thirty-eight million people. To get to the new equilibrium, the country would enter what scientists called a transition phase. This phase would, as Handke put it, “give students a chance.” It had four main parts, laid out in a 225-page orange book that was distributed to schools all over the country. First, the reforms would inject rigor into the system. A new core curriculum would replace the old, dumbed-down mandates that had forced teachers to cover too many topics too briefly. The new program would lay out fundamental goals, but leave the details to the schools. At the same time, the government would require a quarter of teachers to go back to school to improve their own education.

Along with rigor came accountability. To make sure students were learning, they would start taking standardized tests at regular intervals throughout their schooling—not as often as American kids, but at the end of elementary, junior high, and high school.

For younger kids, the tests would help identify which students—and teachers and schools—needed more help. For older students, the tests would also have consequences, determining which high schools and then universities they could attend.

The Poles couldn’t know it yet, but this kind of targeted standardized testing would prove to be critical in any country with significant poverty, according to a PISA analysis that would come out years later. Around the world, school systems that used regular standardized tests tended to be fairer places, with smaller gaps between what rich and poor kids knew. Even in the United States, where tests have historically lacked rigor and purpose, African-American and Hispanic students’ reading and math scores have gone up during the era of widespread standardized testing.

autonomy was the fourth reform. Teachers would be free to choose their own textbooks and their own specific curriculum from over one hundred approved options, along with their own professional development. They would start earning bonuses based in part on how much professional development they did. In a booming country where people were judged by how much money they made, the cash infusion would telegraph to everyone that teachers were no longer menial laborers. The principal, meanwhile, would have full responsibility for hiring teachers.

the new system would demand more accountability for results, while granting more autonomy for methods. That dynamic could be found in all countries that had dramatically improved their results, including Finland and, for that matter, in every high-performing organization, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Apple Inc. All this change would happen, Handke declared, in one year.

Did the people who’d been getting paychecks from the old system welcome the change?

the Union of Polish Teachers came out against the reforms, accusing Handke of trying to change too much too quickly with too little funding. In another article in the same newspaper, one principal prophesied disaster: “We can look forward to a deterioration in the standard of education for most young people, a deepening of illiteracy and a widespread reluctance to pursue further education.”

And the results?

in 2000, Polish fifteen-year-olds took the PISA. No one realized it then, but the timing was perfect. PISA captured, entirely by coincidence, a snapshot of Poland before and after the reforms. The Polish kids who took the first PISA in 2000 had grown up under the old system. Half had already been tracked to vocational schools, half to academic schools. They were the control group, so to speak. No one in Poland had expected to lead the world, but the results were disheartening all the same. Polish fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math, below the United States and below average for the developed world. Once again, Poland had found itself on the outside looking in. If the vocational students were evaluated separately, the inequities were startling. Over two-thirds scored in the rock-bottom lowest literacy level.

Three years later, in 2003, a new group of Polish fifteen-year-olds took PISA. They had spent their elementary years in the old system but were by then attending the new gymnasia schools. Unlike their predecessors, they had not yet been tracked. They were the experimental group. The results were shocking—again. Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects. In the space of three years, Poland had caught up with the developed world. How could this be? Typically, it takes many years for reforms to have any impact, and most never do. But the results held. By 2009, Poland was outperforming the United States in math and science, despite spending less than half as much money per student. In reading and math, Poland’s poorest kids outscored the poorest kids in the United States. That was a remarkable feat, given that they were worse off, socioeconomically, than the poorest American kids. The results suggested a radical possibility for the rest of the world: perhaps poor kids could learn more than they were learning. Perhaps all was not lost. Most impressively, 85 percent of Polish students graduated from high school that year, compared to 76 percent in the United States.

What had made the difference in Poland? Of all the changes, one reform had mattered most, according to research done by Wiśniewski and his colleagues: the delay in tracking. Kids who would have otherwise been transferred to vocational schools scored about 100 points higher than their counterparts in 2000, those who had already been tracked at that point. The expectations had gone up, and these kids had met them. The four thousand newly inclusive schools had, it appeared, jump-started the education system in ways no one had expected. The principals who had volunteered to run the new schools tended to be the more ambitious school leaders, and they were allowed to handpick the teachers who came with them. Quite by accident, the new system self-selected for talent, and the new schools had built-in prestige. To the rest of the education establishment, the new schools sent a message that these reforms were real, not just another political spasm that could be ignored.

Is there a Hollywood ending to this story? Not for all Polish students, unfortunately.

Expectations could fall as quickly as they rose. In 2006 and 2009, Poland gave the PISA test to a sample of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, to see what happened once they went off to vocational schools. Incredibly, the gains disappeared: The achievement gap from the first PISA returned, one year later. By age sixteen, vocational students were performing dramatically worse than academic students. The reforms had postponed the gap, not eliminated it.

Wiśniewski was mystified. How could the improvements vanish so fast? “It might be motivation,” he said. “It needs more research. But the peer effects are somehow very influential.” Something happened to kids once they got into the vocational schools with all the other vocational students and teachers. They seemed to lose their abilities, or maybe their drive, almost overnight.

tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect: Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.

How about the U.S.? Do we track the academically disinclined?

When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations.

Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material. Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.

The word gifted alone implied an innate talent that no amount of hard work could change. In a sense, it was the opposite of Confucianism, which holds that the only path to true understanding comes from long, careful study.

And how about the Finns, the heroes of the book?

By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived. Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world). Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student. It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity—a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking—was a telltale sign of rigor.

How do the physical facilities compare in Poland versus the U.S.?

Number thirteen was a bilingual German school, considered one of the better high schools in the city. It had hardwood floors, high ceilings, and wooden desks, but it was not in the same league as the facility in Gettysburg. There was no cafeteria, for example. Kids brought sandwiches from home or bought food from a small snack counter inside the school. There were no high-tech white boards or laptops, either. Back at Gettysburg, half the classrooms had laptops for all students, and the other half used one of five computer labs as needed.

Are the bureaucrats as jazzed up about the high academic performance as Ripley?

I asked Tom to introduce me to his principal, Urszula Spałka. Spałka gave succinct answers to my questions, betraying little emotion. When I asked her about the reforms, the ones that had made the country a role model for the rest of the world, her expression soured. “We’re not too excited about the reforms,” she said drily. “Schools don’t like radical changes. And these were radical changes.” Despite Poland’s higher PISA scores, many Poles still thought it had been a mistake to keep all kids together during the volatile teenage years. Or they were focused on other problems: Many thought the graduation exam had gotten too easy, and the country’s teachers were feuding with the government over a move to increase their hours. Everywhere I went, in every country, people complained about their education system.

Is there any cash value to running a decent school system?

As Tom left Poland, another American was arriving. Paula Marshall came from Oklahoma, not far from where Kim lived. She didn’t come to study or sightsee, however; she came to open a factory. Marshall ran the Bama Companies, an Oklahoma institution. Her grandmother had started selling homemade pies to local restaurants in the 1920s. Then, Paula’s father had pitched a brilliant idea to McDonald’s: Portable pies customers could eat in their cars. It was a profoundly American success story: a young man who turned deep-fried apples into gold. Decades later, Paula had taken over, opening new factories in Oklahoma and China. The company had grown exponentially, supplying breadsticks to Pizza Hut and biscuits to McDonald’s. Most of its one thousand employees still worked in Oklahoma. But now, she’d come to Poland to open her next plant. There were lots of reasons, one of which was that modern factory jobs required skilled workers who knew how to think critically. The locals had assured her that she wouldn’t have trouble filling jobs in Poland. “We hear that educated people are plentiful,” she said. When I met Marshall for coffee, she spoke in very practical terms about the challenge of filling jobs in the United States. Take maintenance jobs, she said. Those jobs paid twenty-five to thirty dollars per hour, but they required more skill than the title implied. Today, maintenance techs had to be able to understand technical blueprints; communicate in writing what had happened on their shifts; test possible solutions to complex, dynamic problems; and, of course, troubleshoot and repair major mechanical systems. The Bama Companies had trouble finding enough maintenance techs in Oklahoma. Some years, they even had trouble filling their lowest-skilled line jobs, because even those workers had to be able to think and communicate. Marshall was willing to pay for employees’ technical training, but she’d discovered that many people came to her unable to read or do basic math. She found that she couldn’t trust a high-school diploma; graduates from different high schools within the same Oklahoma school district knew wildly different things. (The military had found the same thing, interestingly. A quarter of Oklahoma high-school graduates who tried to enlist could not pass the military’s own academic aptitude test.)


  1. paul kramarchyk

    June 23, 2014 @ 10:43 pm


    Bill Gates, Microsoft — Net Worth $72B, Education: dropout
    Larry Ellison, Oracle — Net Worth $41B, Education: dropout
    Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook — Net Worth $19B, Education: dropout
    Michael Dell, Dell Computers — Net Worth $15.9B, Education: dropout
    Paul Allen, Microsoft — Net Worth 15.8B, Education: dropout
    Steve Jobs, Apple — Net Worth $11B, Education: dropout

    My 2¢ — There’s a message in this bottle. I think we (U.S.) spend too much time and money on underachievers and too little on students with a certain nerdy pizazz. Given the intellect and ambition of the people from the list above, I don’t know if better teachers and more challenging academic environment (faster pace) would have made a difference. But it couldn’t hurt.

  2. wally w

    June 24, 2014 @ 11:36 am


    Off the top of my head, of Pauls list of dropouts, 2 were from Harvard and 1 each from Reed and the U of Texas, all good to great schools. So while they may have dropped out of college, my guess is that they all got pretty good educations before they got to college, which is what these posts seems to be covering. I have also seen that success is correlated not with the colleges you graduated from, but with the colleges you were accepted at.

  3. philg

    June 24, 2014 @ 4:32 pm


    Paul: Finland spends MORE time and money on underachievers than the U.S. does, according to Ripley. If a student falls behind the system springs into action with all kinds of resources until the student catches up. By assuming that there is a category of born “underachievers” you are proving Ripley’s point regarding American attitudes.

  4. paul kramarchyk

    June 24, 2014 @ 10:43 pm


    My point is that the fast track learners in my list were mostly self-taught. High school was not a challenge and in order to exceed the learning speed limit they had to do it on their own, outside the standard curriculum. Most U.S. K-12 schools have programs (read: $) that try to address “problem learners.” While few U.S. K-12 schools have ‘effective’ programs to support “fast track” learners. I realize every community can’t afford the equivalent of The Bronx School of Science. I think the country loses a lot of intellectual promise by not providing fast lanes starting in the early grades of grammar school. And would benefit greatly if we spend as much money supporting fast trackers as we do on problem learners. Harvard researchers estimate that the added costs of autism-related healthcare and education average more than $17,000 per child per year in the United States. The figure represents expenses above those for a child without autism spectrum disorder. (The $17k figure is about half what is spent per child in my community in Connecticut. A special van, not the regular school bus, picks up each child and transports them to a special learning center.)

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