When we think of our education system, we tend to look inwards at ourselves, and not outwards at the rest of the world. Discussions of our own education system tend to be insulated from the international viewpoint, focusing instead on how best to prepare American students for American colleges before they enter the American workforce. When such discussions do include the school systems of other countries, it is often only to show how meager American education is by comparison, and how much more competitive our schools should be.
Results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared 510,000 15-year-old students from 65 countries in mathematics, science, and reading, and placed the U.S. 36th, 28th, and 24th respectively, a distinct drop from the 31st, 23rd, and 17th place status that American students acheived in 2009, raising concerns about the internationally rising standards of education and whether the U.S. is falling behind in meeting them.
I sat down with some M-A students who have lived and studied in foreign countries to hear about their experiences.
Luiza Nacif arrived in the U.S. her junior year at the age of sixteen. “Personally, I think that American schools are easier,” she said, “They don’t really provide a challenge. When I was in Brazil, the math teachers would give us exercises so that we needed to think on the spot instead of memorizing formulas and writing them down, and just doing what the teacher did on the board. That’s a little bit disappointing to me, honestly.”
However, Nacif feels that the writing classes at M-A are superior to those in Brazil as they emphasize several genres of writing and skills of communication. Although Nacif took English in school before she arrived here, she believes that she wouldn’t have adapted as well had her parents not had several international and American friends with whom they communicated in English.
In Brazil, grades are based mostly on tests rather than homework and assignments. “Here we have very few classes.” She added, “I used to have thirteen classes, and there was one day a week for which we would stay in school for the whole day, twelve hours.”
Most of her schooling in Brazil was geared toward preparing students for the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (ENEM), their equivalent of the SAT. Universities only look at students’ scores on this exam while considering them for admission, not their grades. “Our national exam has biology, chemistry, sociology, philosophy, art history, PE, physics, geography, history… basically everything we have learned,” Nacif explained. She believes that in order for American students to compete at that level, they would have to give up extracurricular activities such as sports or theater in favor of more hours of school and studying.
Nacif finds one aspect of American education a bit troubling. “I feel like Americans should learn more about the world instead of themselves,” she suggested. “In Brazil, we learn the geography of all countries, history of all countries, even literature of all countries, with a little bit of focus on Portuguese or Brazilian literature. I also think it would be good to require sociology or philosophy; those classes have really broadened my understanding.”
Ginny Gao left Beijing, China and arrived at M-A in 2012, her freshman year. When asked what was emphasized in her Beijing public high school, she said, “grades. It’s a one word answer.” She observed that when American teachers grade work, they keep students’ feelings in mind and generally try to support them and reward what they did well. In China, on the other hand, teachers would seek out as many mistakes as possible to encourage students not to repeat the same errors and to strive for perfection. Gao remembers her initial shock at hearing an M-A teacher explain that red seemed too harsh a color to use for test grading, so green would be used instead.
The teachers in China “are just more generally strict.” Gao described the classroom dynamic as “authoritarian style, not democratic style.” She explained, “Chinese teachers are more like sport coaches, and American teachers are more like mentors and friends.”
The Chinese national exam, translated as the National Higher Education Entrance Examination and commonly known as Gaokao, acts as the dominant factor in applications to institutions of higher education. The exact subjects on the test vary by region, but every exam includes a Chinese language, mathematics, and foreign language (usually English) portion. Students are expected to choose one of two academic tracks around the age of 15, either the natural or social sciences. The chosen track determines the subject matter of the rest of the Gaokao that a student will take. Exam success is emphasized to the point that once a student chooses a track, they are limited to only taking classes within that subject.
Gao remembers believing that American schools “were extremely easy” before she arrived. “When I first came here, I realized that I was actually kind of wrong,” she recalled. “The teachers aren’t as rigorous on the school work but they still teach us really well. It depends what classes you take. If you take all high stress or all AP classes, you might get the same environment as in China.”
“In America, your stress level really depends on the classes you take; in China, everyone is stressed!” Gao summarized. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re in a low level school or a really rigorous school” as the pressure to compete and excell academically is so enormous. However, she does feel that Americans tend not to push their students hard enough. “M-A students definitely can compete internationally; for U.S. students it depends on the school.”
Gao wishes Chinese schools were more similar to American schools in several areas. Chinese students have little control over which classes they take, while Americans generally select most of their classes. Also, Chinese students often spend twelve or more hours a day in school and studying, without time for “sports, clubs, or their own stuff.”
Nevertheless, Gao worries that American schools are too politicized. “The schools in more conservative places teach more conservative ideas and vice versa,” she remarked. “High school should be neutral. College is where you develop [your own political associations].”
Both Gao and Nacif commented on the unusual freedom of choice American students tend to have in how they spend both class and free time. It seems that an underlying question in the design of national education systems concerns the amount of time students spend studying or in school.
American colleges have begun to reconsider the value of SAT or ACT scores, relative to high school transcripts when predicting future academic success, so perhaps in the coming years international organizations will phase out tests like the PISA as irrelevant comparisons. Furthermore, concern over the merits of emphasizing standardized national and international exams has grown in the past decade as some say this attitude encourages more rote memorization than actual critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Gao and Nacif expressed a hope for a happy medium that may exist somewhere between studying twelve hours a day for sixteen years for one life-determining test and busy-work based grades, one that would encourage both original thinking and academic excellence for all students.