American blinders

During the first night of our around-the-world tour of education, I had this overwhelming sense of the arrogance/complacency/stupidity/ignorance/blindness that I have as an American.  I realized somewhere in there just how much I (and I suspect most of us in the States) take for granted.

The first issue was choice.  In some other countries, we have 14-year-olds choosing their future and nearly stuck on that path without the option of changing their minds.  Here, when I was a senior in high school, they told me “you can be whatever you want to be”.  I have a nearly infinite array of choices and even after picking my initial path, switching majors was a piece of cake.  Then choosing a career that really wasn’t in my major.  Then choosing to switch careers a couple times, then choosing to come back to school in a major that was sorta close to all of what I had done before but in an effort to switch careers again into teaching.  I didn’t really realize just what a luxury having all those choices at my fingertips was.  One of the freedoms I have also just taken for granted.

The second issue that struck me was the inherent assumptions that we (and here I have to include at least our instructor) make about our foreign colleagues/classmates.  The session was set up for foreign students to tell the class about the education system in their countries, starting with elementary school.  But did anyone else notice that we never educated those from other countries about what the system is here in the United States?  Do we assume that they already know?  Why would they?  Or, more insidiously, do we truly think this should be a one-way exchange?  I doubt that Dean DePauw set up the session with the intent of being unfair, but don’t our foreign brethren deserve the same opportunity to compare their system to ours that we got by listening to their stories?  It seemed to me that a large portion (20%?) of our class was being short-changed.  As I said, I don’t think it was on purpose, but I do think it is part of the blinders we wear as Americans.  And realizing this, it opened my eyes a bit.  I hope I can work on setting those blinders aside to make me a better professor.

And in the meantime, I want to share a little bit of our system, based on my own experiences both as student and parent.  Others may have a totally different take on our early education system so I hope they take the opportunity to fill us all in with their own experiences.

The first thing to note is that policies on education vary from state to state or even from county to county.  For example, I started my kindergarten year at age 4 in Pennsylvania.  Half way through, we moved to Virginia where they deemed that I had started a year early so they kicked me out and I had to start all over again the following fall.  Of course, back then, kindergarten was a half-day program whose main skill taught was finger painting, so being thrown out wasn’t much of a set back.  Today, kindergarten has more of a curriculum with my kids going a full day and learning to read within that year.  Then I had 6 more years of elementary school to be followed by 2 years in an “intermediate” school.  I was in a county with lots of tax base, so the offerings in 7th grade included lots of languages (I chose Latin), music classes (I chose beginning guitar) and lots of levels of basic classes like math (they pushed me into algebra, a class typically for 8th graders).  Most of the way through my 7th grade year, we moved to a different county that was less wealthy and a lot of my choices went away.  I was then in what that county referred to as a “middle” school, including 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  That model seems to be the most common in this region now, though I know of schools in more rural areas that go all the way from kindergarten through 8th.  In my case, I had to forget Latin and re-start on French in 8th grade.

High school is 9th through 12th grades, so with the age requirements for kindergarten, the vast majority of students graduate at the age of 18.  State law requires parents to send their kids to school, except in the case of “home schooling”.  Public schools are free to attend and with the mandatory attendance, caters to all levels of academic aptitude.  The curriculum is fairly rigid, or at least it was when I went.  In certain years, you study certain courses with maybe a third of your schedule open for electives.  Each required subject (math, social studies, English, etc.) is taught at various ability levels.  Grades are similar to Virginia Tech though in most cases, a broader range is used for each letter grade.  The letter grades are translated to a number scale (4.0 when I went) and you have a GPA.  Just after I graduated high school, my county went to a 5.0 scale for advanced classes so that basically you take the 4-point scale and add 1.  It was an easier way to distinguish those of us who struggled through classes like calculus or 5th-year French from those who took less grueling subjects.  I am still bummed that they didn’t have that system when I graduated, as I likely would have placed a few spots higher in my class.

The process of getting into college is somewhat variable, depending on the university.  Just about all of them require standardized tests (the SAT’s) with some needing more subject specific tests (ACT or Achievements).  Students take these tests usually in the 11th grade and have the opportunity to re-take them as many times as they want with the composite score being the best individual score from all the attempts.  When I took the SAT, there were only two subjects, Math and English, but now I believe they have split English into two different tests.  My final score for college admission purposes was my English from the first time I took it and my Math from the second time.  My scores were pretty high by the standards of the time, but in talking to various people recently, it seems that scores today are significantly higher than they were then.  If you read Virginia Tech’s info, the median score today is in the mid 1300’s but back when I came here as an undergrad, they were in the 1100’s.

In addition to test scores and grades, different colleges look for different things.  Like extra-curricular activities, admission essay, etc.  And different programs within colleges have different requirements.  For example, I know a girl who is making 4 college trips in October and November to audition for their dance programs.  Her sister is dance major with a math minor and intends to go to medical school after graduation.  Certainly not the typical path but indicative of all the opportunities and choices we have in the system.

And then there is the undergrad experience.  Some universities require you to pick a major before you arrive while others assume that all freshmen are “undeclared” giving them a chance to adjust to college before picking a major.  A large percentage of students change their minds on their major at least once during their academic careers and thus, 4 years is only an estimate on how long you will be in school.  In my case, I switched once and slacked off a lot so spent 6 years getting a 4-year degree.  Because of my financial need, I got some assistance from the federal government, but wound up borrowing thousands and thousands of dollars to finish.

So hopefully with this brief introduction, students from the more “rigid” countries can see there is a very large difference in how we do things in the United States.  And, you can get a feel for just how variable and flexible our system is.  As for my fellow Americans, if you read this far, maybe like me, you got a sense of just how fortunate we are to have what we have.

About rainman

CEE SEM MS ’12 PhD ’15
ESM BS ’92
SUC ’89-’92
PE VA, TN, KY, WV, PA

Category(s): PFP13F, Teaching Philosophy

3 Responses to American blinders

  1. Rainman,

    Thanks for the post! Good point about the one-sidedness of the international presentations. As a counterpoint, I’m guessing that Dean Depauw may have assumed (and probably, for the most part, correctly) that many of our international friends have gotten at least some sense of the education system here just from living in Virginia for some time. I spent a year in Iceland for my MS, and I picked up a lot about the similarities and differences between the two countries’ primary education systems during that time—just from chatting with Icelandic friends during my free time. Nevertheless, I agree that it would be nice to have at least a brief Q&A with some American students at the front. Smilie: :-)

    Another thought: it can be easy to forget that our system varies so widely from state to state, and even town to town, as you pointed out. I think most Americans would agree that the situation is both good and bad. On the one hand we have a wealth of options available. On the other hand, many of these options are inaccessible, or at least hard to take advantage of, for children living in rural areas and/or poverty.

  2. Thanks for raising the issue of U.S. education. The discussion will follow the international to offer some comparison and analysis. I hadn’t shared this with class yet so thanks for bringing it up and sharing some information.

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