Shannan Costello is an intern for the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service. She is a senior at Marist College where she is majoring in Communications with a concentration in Public Relations. She will be contributing content to Education Speaks throughout the summer from the unique perspective of a college senior.
Americans worry, with good reason, about our nation’s position in today’s global world. The U.S. has long been a world power, and with American students trailing in math and science compared to many Asian and Nordic countries there is a fear we are losing our edge. Since children are the future, education is key to our country’s long-term success.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) comes out with reports based on an international standardized test ranking the competitiveness of most industrialized nations on an international scale. The most recent round of PISA testing revealed that American 15-year-olds fall 27th out of 34 countries in mathematics proficiency.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently administered a new exam to international college graduates. This test, the Piaac, found that Americans with Bachelors degrees placed 16th out of 24 nations in numeracy–well below the international average score. While it is universally agreed upon that the United States is home to the majority of the world’s best higher education institutions, on average U.S. college grads are also lagging. Common Core learning standards have focused the nation’s attention to K-12 education and how the U.S. compares globally. College graduates have never before been compared internationally in the same way high school students have. Perhaps with the new OECD test results, higher education will be the next front.
As a two-time study abroad student, I learned a lot about globalization, foreign cultures and foreign education. Spending three semesters in two different European countries opened my eyes to the education systems, values and techniques in different countries. My first experience was in a country that consistently ranks below the U.S. on these international exams, Italy, and my second was in a country that typically outranks us and performs slightly above average, France. Of course, my experience was only at the college/university level, which differs from primary and secondary education. However, I did notice some cultural and educational differences that I think are connected to the performance on these exams.
My friends and I often conversed and compared our experiences abroad to what we were used to at home. There were many cultural contrasts between the three nations, but there were also differences between my educational experiences and those of the other Americans I knew while studying abroad. People thrive in different learning conditions, personal lifestyle and learning style preferences impact American students’ perceptions of international education.
In Italy my professors were relaxed, unconcerned with schedules and lesson plans. The class sizes were smaller, but there was not always more individualized attention. I attended an international school, with primarily Italian professors and students from the United States, South and Central America and other European countries. It was a different experience from the U.S. education system, but not nearly as extreme as my time in France.
Italy’s scores usually fall towards the bottom of the ranking on the PISA test just below the U.S., while France outranks us on this test. From my experience this makes sense, however that does not necessarily mean that these education systems are better or worse. Many of the differences come from varying cultural values and a different education system structure.
The French public education system is run at a national level. This means that the curriculum is basically universal. This is very different from the U.S. system, where there are general guidelines nationally, more specific ones like starting age requirements and graduation requirements at a state level and then the very specific decisions are made within the district. It makes our education system more customizable, but it can also allow for inequalities in education. Our system also makes more room for fun and learning from non-academic experiences. While these things can contribute to happier and more well rounded children, they can also mean that some of our students are very internationally competitive and prepared for college, but others are not. These things, while beneficial in their own way or for certain students, do not make for overall higher standardized test scores.
My professors in Paris, though nice people, were often quite harsh. There was no such thing as “sugarcoating” and often criticism did not feel so constructive. They demanded perfection without actually believing it was possible, but graded as if it was. In the French school system, from primary education through higher ed., they grade on a system of 0-20, but anything above 16 is almost entirely unachievable. In the American system, getting a grade of A or above 90% is achievable. Even though a grade that high is considered excellent work, students are considered capable of excellent work.
France’s negative reinforcement system makes people study very diligently and become very knowledgeable, but it also can take away from the joy of learning and can make students feel inadequate too pressured. French students acquire a lot of academic knowledge, but their teachers and professors put little value on creative thinking and individual strengths and weaknesses. France is a very formal nation and its residents value implicit understanding. For my American friends and me, studying at five different French schools, this made for a strict and confusing school system. Did my American education prepare me for this experience? Yes. I had all of the knowledge and skills I needed to make it through the semester, I had just never needed to apply them in that way or under those conditions before.
While France does outrank the U.S. on these international exams, it is not an international leader. They only fell one point above average on the college graduate numeracy test and typically hover just around average on international competiveness. I admired many of my French friends for the impressive references they made in conversation and their fluency in English. There was no doubt they were well educated and those who spent time as exchange students in the U.S. knew that. Yet, they all had extreme doubt about their English proficiency and were not very optimistic about their job prospects.
The American education system is trailing in math and science and these are extremely important for the future success of our nation. From my experience with the French system, I think it is important to remember that the countries that outrank us may have better test scores, but they are not superior in all ways. There is more to a good education than being able to pass a math test. The PISA and Piaac tests cannot truly capture this distinction.
There are unique things done right and wrong in every education system I’ve experienced. The United States’ education system has issues to fix, but it is important to find solutions that do not sacrifice the strongest aspects. The ability to compete is important in today’s global economy, but we cannot compare our education system to those of our neighbors’ and expect to find all the answers. Top ranked Shanghai has issues with equity in education that are believed help to raise the province’s scores – unlike the American educational inequities which are based on funding and trying to offer high quality education to all.
International competiveness, equality for all income levels and college/career readiness are essential to the success of the United States. Now is the time to look inward at our country’s issues and focus less on how other nations are educating children. High scoring countries can be useful models, but we cannot forget that we have offerings that they cannot or do not provide. Every student I have met –American, Italian, French, Swedish, etc. – that has experience in multiple foreign education systems, agree that there are positive and negative elements of each system. During this time of education reform in the U.S., we must consider our large and diverse population, which is fundamentally different from top performing nations like Singapore, Finland and South Korea, as well as our nation’s diverse strengths and weakness, which shape our students and therefore, our future.