As someone who studies comparative education continuously, I have no end of things I could write about Amanda Ripley's interesting book, including criticisms; but I prefer to stay positive, and focus on what we can learn from the book, and I learned much.
The subtitle of "the smartest kids in the world" is "and how they got that way", and most readers of the book most want that last bit, the secret formula that can make their own kids, and those throughout the U.S. school system, be similarly smart. I will focus on her best answer to that question.
Ms. Ripley follows American high school students to Finland, South Korea (where I taught for seven years; my wife is a former Korean high school science teacher), and Poland, and does some extra research in attempting to find out what the students in the "highest performing systems" do. She defines, conventionally, a "high performing system" as one with high PISA scores. Since her book's publication, new PISA scores have appeared, and a more important set of data from PIAAC, the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, has also been released; and despite the information available at the time of her writing, she never considers attainment, which can be roughly defined as the number of years of schooling successfully completed (important because education doesn't end at 15), nor outcomes (such as employment) for society's least fortunate (such as those with disabilities), nor outcomes (such as the discovery of new knowledge) for society's most gifted, nor the ability of an educational system to fill the needs of a modern economy, which in addition to achievement, are the five factors I include in calculating my own assessment of educational system performance; therefore our definitions of "highest performing systems" differ.
My latest calculations put Singapore on top, as having the best educational system in the world; below it I establish a tier of other leading systems, which, in alphabetical order, are Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland; and below these I have established a third tier of systems still at least above average, if lower performing than those above: in alphabetical order these are Australia, England, Finland, Germany, (South) Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States. And as I went through the many iterations of "the best schools and school systems do x" in the book, the point she makes that is most consistent with what these real best systems do is on page 212, in appendix I, "how to spot a world-class education":
"In the world's education superpowers, parents agreed that a rigorous education was critical to their kids' life chances.
"Wherever you live, if you can find a community or school where parents and educators share this baseline belief, then you have found something more valuable to more children than the best football program on earth."
Or, as I prefer to put it in the note I made at the end of the book, "Empirically optimized rigour --> the best school(s)"