Saturday, April 4, 2009

We're Not Europe/Asia - Should We Be?

Nearly every in-depth discussion of the American education system inevitably turns to the school systems of other countries and the way their students regularly outperform American students on international tests. The question is whether America should look to those schools in terms of improving its system. For example, Joanne Jacobs recently linked to a story about how countries with high scoring students - like Finland and Singapore - have "high quality" teachers. The definition of the term "high quality" is vague, by the way, and there are many other variables involved. The question is whether we should adapt their teacher education programs.

While this is interesting and certainly tempting as a reform idea, the rational side of me keeps in mind the significant cultural differences between European/Asian countries and America. Having taught in Taiwan for five years, I know there are fundamental components of their system that, while very effective there, would simply not transfer here with the same results. For one, they have rather strict controls on their "college-prep" track, as noted in the comments on this story. Hopeful college students simply don't have an option of slacking off, as they do here. American students can "graduate" with a D-average, or not even graduate at all, and still get into college. That exists no where else in the industrialized world, especially Taiwan. And, we certainly don't intend to restrict access the way other countries do, as we have a more egalitarian approach to education.

A telling comment on the differences in the Taiwan system and the US came from Dr. David Ho, the researcher credited with coming up the "AIDS cocktail" which was the first and most effective treatment for lowering HIV to undetectable levels in infected people. Dr. Ho was born and raised in Taiwan where he went to school for his formative years - elementary and middle. He then moved to the US where he did high school and college. He has noted that if he'd stayed in Taiwan his whole life, he never would have made the discovery. Likewise, he explains if he had been born in the US and always educated here, he never would have made the discovery. It was the rigid style of the early years in a Confucian system that gave him the discipline he needed, as well as the more "open" and diverse style in the US that encouraged questioning and creativity (yes, through electives) that allowed him the solid foundation and insight necessary to make one of the 20th century's most significant medical breakthroughs.

Clearly, it's not one or the other, but a combination of both. For that reason, I would like to see some reforms in the USA which would align more with other countries standards for university. They are clearly more efficient in that they don't waste the time of students or teachers by trying to force non-academically-inclined students to pursue higher education. Yet, while our system may be too lenient, theirs are often far too exclusive. Thus, I would like to see a serious expansion of Career and Technical Education (CET), as well as a much greater emphasis on associate's degrees. American society is far too elitist in its attitude toward skilled labor. Granted, America must also alleviate historical concerns that poor and minority students are funneled into vocational education with little choice. That is why I am still intrigued by the reform plans in New Hampshire.

We are not Europe, and we are not Asia. They have different attitudes toward education and different cultural norms that will not transfer to American society. Yet, there is much we could adapt from the most successful schools system, at the same time we keep all that is successful about the American system, and there is much we do right.


Mrs. C said...

There IS much we do right. I appreciate the fact that at least in theory, children are not pidgeonholed while still learning to read and figure themselves out. My son Emperor (7) was in special-ed preschool but can now read, write and do all sorts of things just as well or better than his peers. Some kids are late developers. :]

I like this idea of community college for children who are ready for it. In truth, depending upon the high school, much of college is different material presented at the same "level" of demand upon the student. Might as well get credit for it.

Although, I don't know that New Hampshire is a student-friendly state overall. They are rather rigid and inflexible in allowing parents to give their children time at home should their needs warrant it:

To homeschool in New Hampshire, you need to give personal information to the state (!), turn over records each year AND allow your child to be tested. Instead of letting moms and dads decide where and how the child is taught, the state gets to decide whether the child's education is good enough.

To me, that's a really slippery slope. Sure, it will catch some lax parents who just don't want to get Johnny to the bus on time, but it will also penalize parents who are concentrating on the child's interests or whose children are developing unevenly, etc.

Just a thought.

BTW, I have heard good things about the public schools there. I just like to have a *choice,* is all. :]

PS Winters there are terrible!!

Claus von Zastrow said...

You're quite right that we have to ensure that socio-economic status does not become the main determinant of who does and doesn't go to college. That will be very difficult, indeed. Let's face it: higher-income parents will continue to insist that their children attend college. If we don't make college an important and attainable goal for more lower-income children, we'll continue to reproduce current inequities of wealth and status.

You're also quite right to suggest that we cannot adopt another country's system wholesale. That said, we could for example learn from other countries' professional development and teacher education practices. Those don't seem as culture-bound as the practices you cite.

Tracy W said...

May I suggest a compromise?
A focus on giving every single child possible a solid enough grounding in England and maths so that they could cope with a college-level course in a technical subject if they wanted to.
And plenty of options otherwise for the non-academically inclined to pursue other interests.
So not expecting every kid to go to college, but giving as many as possible the option to do so if they later decide that they want to. Or, failing that, the option to go back to high school and start off where they left of.

Plus algebra and good writing and reading skills have all sorts of applications in and of themselves, even if you never go onto college.