Thursday, November 20, 2008

American Education Week


We got free coffee and donuts at Baby Boozer's daycare this morning, in celebration of American Education Week, which "spotlights the importance of providing every child in America with a quality public education from kindergarten through college, and the need for everyone to do his or her part in making public schools great."

So I thought I'd do my bit and blog about something many Americans aren't aware of:

American public schools ARE pretty great.

Half a decade ago, I was running a summer program at the American University of Paris, working with American High School kids as they spent three or five weeks taking college-level classes in preparation for going away to university.

This gave me a unique opportunity to compare American teenagers with British ones - and I was always very impressed with the results.

American kids tended to be far advanced of their European peers in maths and science and many took classes (in things like business and law) which set them on a good path towards a real academic career at university (instead of doing fluffy 'media studies' like British kids wind up doing.)

To counter their strengths in practical subjects, we snobby Brits often accused American kids of being slightly less knowledgeable about history and humanities, but that wasn't really a fair assessment either.

American schoolkids might not have studied Romeo and Juliet, but they had read the great American novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

They might not have known who the president of the European Union was, but they knew the capitol of Nebraska and could name all fifty states (most Brits struggle to name the EU member states, of which there are half as many.)

Likewise, American kids might have only had a basic knowledge of Henry VIII and the French Revolution - but they did have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of American history, such as the founding fathers, the Civil War and the scope and meaning of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Many Europeans, myself included, judged American kids by their knowledge of European things. It's important to remember than the United States matches the size and complexity of the European Union and in many respects, the average American teenager knows their home territory better than European kids know theirs.

But what impressed me most about American kids was their confidence and curiousity. Sure, I had my fill of the 'duh, like, totally, what-EVAH' moments, but for the most part, I found I could talk to American teenager like young adults, whereas British and French kids tended to be, well, kids.

Almost all of the students who attended this summer program went to American Public Schools and if they were a fair example of the level of education kids in America get 'for free,' than I think the United States has a lot to be proud of.

Right now, there's so much debate about what's right and wrong to teach kids. Non-explicit sex education. Intelligent design. Prayer and religion in the classroom. I find it deeply troubling because the American kids I know are open minded, bright and offered me a vision of a country crammed full of potential. We must do everything we can to preserve that.

It's an inescapable truth that each generation of a civilised society becomes increasingly more liberal - but they also become smarter and better than their parents. Let's not let people try to cram a lid on that development.

Forgetting the politics, remember that American kids offer this nation it's future and we need to do everything we can to encourage them to make it a bright one, full of learning, rationality, openness and humanity.

If you have or know school-aged kids, make sure you take a moment during American Education Week to pat them on the back and say: "Good job."

They've earned it.


3 comments:

Coffee Bean said...

I love reading your perspective on things here in America because you have a very different background.

I worked as a substitute teacher in Mississippi for awhile and it was very eye opening. There was a lot to respect about the schools I worked in and I believe most teachers are in it for the right reasons... the ones I've known have been. However, I was working in the best public school district in the state... and they were the best because they were in an affluent area. When comparing those schools with those in the Delta... you really have to take a hard look at the problems with the public education system here in the U.S.

You also must know that the kids you were dealing with in Paris most likely came from upper middle class homes which means they most likely came from those public schools in more affluent areas.

The truth is there is much more that goes into education... the homelife of children... the nutrition they receive... the individual potential to learn... and so much more are all factors that need to be considered.

When you look at the overall test scores on achievement tests compared to those of students in other countries you can see that we have been losing ground overall as a whole.

We need education reform. That doesn't mean there is nothing good in our public education system... it just means we could do better.

Roland Hulme said...

I think that's a very fair comment. Most of the kids I met were affluent, largely from the north east (and about 65% Jewish.)

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