America And Europe: Faulty Comparison 1

In a stack of papers called Reform.

  • Feb
  • 24
  • 2006

American Public Schools Versus The World

Many times, I’ve read or seen or heard comparisons between America’s public schools and a few other education systems. Comparing America’s public schools to other countries, private schools, and charter schools are the most common things I’ve seen, though comparisons to homeschooling are on the rise.

I do not believe the public school system infallible. A quick glance around this site will tell you that, so this is not a defense of the system. Instead, it’s an attack on the warped logic that arrives at conclusions through unfair comparison. Comparing apples to oranges – public schools to schools elsewhere, private schools, or charter schools – is no way to arrive at a judgment of the apple or the orange.

Too Many Variables

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing about this, but John Stossel, an ABC news correspondent who frequently fixes his journalistic gun on public education, put together a January 2006 20/20 piece called “Stupid In America.” American public schools compared to schools in Belgium provides an interesting view on things, but in no way gives us much meaningful information other than to support Mark Twain’s stance that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Do students in Belgium perform better in school because of, well, better schools? Are the teachers better prepared? Do their national standards motivate students to prepare for life after academics? Could it be the food they eat? The national history? The parental involvement? The amount of money spent per pupil? A greater national conscience about education? A more literate society? Is there less social mobility? More vocational programs? Fear of corporal punishment? Lax laws on child abuse? Mandatory preschool?

The number of variables in such a comparison staggers the mind. But it’s the job of someone reporting on the topic to consider such issues and report back the findings. Stossel, and others of a similar ilk, don’t even begin to take into account the other differences that may cause the increased performance of Belgian students. Or, if they do, they certainly aren’t transparent about such concerns. They automatically jump to the conclusion that it’s a problem with the way the students were schooled. No discussion of the other possibilities that may influence performance on an international test. Maybe the Belgian students weren’t smart enough to realize that the silly international test was a waste of their time and not worth being one more thing to worry about. Wouldn’t American students be smarter for realizing that? By setting their priorities, wouldn’t that be a demonstration of a skill needed to survive in the world outside academics? Don’t we want to encourage minds that take into account consequences and weigh decisions? And where did this international test come from, anyhow?

International Test? Since When?

Invariably, in this kind of comparison, there’s mention of some kind of international test given to students in both countries; that test dances before me every time I hear of this comparison, but never does outside that context. I’m beginning to think it’s just a rhetorical device to add credibility to the argument. It’s not a test our teachers or students know about. Ask around. SAT? ACT? CAT-6? CST? STAR? CAHSEE? EPT? ELM? Formerly-known-as-Subject-A? Regents exams? I’ve heard of all of those and many more. But an international assessment?

I’ve been a public school teacher for 8 years now and I’ve never heard of any kind of international test. Not a preliminary one, not a limited one, not even parts of one, which is what Stossel administers to some New Jersey and Belgian students as a way of extrapolating information for entire countries.

This international test certainly isn’t being administered at my school and it’s not something we focus on in professional development meetings. I’ve never heard it mentioned during any meetings at the district office and I’ve yet to see a workshop provided by the County Office of Education on how to get our students ready for an international assessment. Have I really just not been paying attention?

Does that international test even attempt to assess the education standards in the different states? With no national curriculum in America, how can we be sure that this international test isn’t biased toward a certain state’s educational standards or even those of a certain country? If I am a high school teacher and am held accountable to some kind of international test, why is it hidden? Why don’t we have that test at the ready as we write state standards? Why isn’t there a table of specifications for that test, laying out what standard each test item is supposed to assess?

What Does This Show Us?

The crux of Stossel’s suggestion is that public schools in America need competition in order to improve, operating on the thinking that schools are just like businesses. Once again, this is a ridiculous comparison that is simply not fair for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that schools are almost the complete opposite of businesses.

It may very well be that competition will cause public school performance to improve, but it’s not for the same reason as businesses improve due to competition. I’d suggest it would be because competition may serve to narrow the purpose of schools; right now, public schools have to be everything to everybody. That never works. Competition may result in more focused schools, able to concentrate on the needs of their constituents more directly.

There is a piece of Stossel’s claim, though, that should be taken into consideration. Public schools have been pretty much the only option for decades and perhaps it is time to change that. Maybe it’s the structure of public schools that needs to change. The way public schools are run today should not be the same as they were run 100 years ago. Too often, that is the case.

Is it possible that students in Belgium receive a better education than students in America? Yes and we need to be concerned about that on some level. But how on earth can we actually limit the variables down to something manageable to show that to be true? How can we expect students to perform to the best of their ability when a handful are selected to stand in for the entire country and are given a test for which they’ve never been prepared?

C’mon, Stossel. Give Me A Break.

39 comments

1. EllenK says:

[2/25/2006 - 5:02 pm]

I watched that show with dismay. It was the talk of the workroom on Monday. Once again, it’s very easy to look at just test scores, but we have more kids taking SAT’s than ever before due to the misguided concept that “everyone goes to college in the USA.” In Europe that isn’t a given, in fact in most nations they track the kids starting around age 12 and they are moved to either a precollege track or a vocational track based on their testing and results. This is not the case in the US. It is comments like this that fuel the high stakes testing industry and that whip state legislatures into frothing, idiotic mandates. Any minute now I expect to see Art and Music cut from elementary curriculums. But nobody is going to complain until the football programs get cut….just a sad fact of life.

2. Todd says:

[2/25/2006 - 11:04 pm]

Good points, Ellen. But is tracking a positive or negative thing? I’m inclined to say it’s negative and that tracking is one of the things done in Europe that limits social mobility. I wouldn’t want my life determined by some stupid decisions I made when I was 12!

So, what, do we go back to tracking kids because it creates a more reasonable goal for public schools? Only to see the racial inequities manifested in the student body of the college and non-college tracks again? And isn’t the point of public education to better the students, to help create an informed populace? Does tracking do that?

3. Katarina says:

[4/9/2006 - 10:12 am]

I attended high school both in the U.S and in EUrope. And though you won’t like it, your high school was nothing in comparison with high school in Europe. The material we covered in the AP classes, i covered back home in my freshman year. We are not taking ACT, SAT, or other tests(look, however, at statistics, how are the internationals beating Americans even in those), so i think that the international tests are a good way how to compare high school education level.

Katarina

4. Todd says:

[4/9/2006 - 9:57 pm]

Is it that the content we teach in the US is low level by comparison, then? Do we simply need to step up our content standards? Can it possibly be that easy? Again, there are far too many variables to narrow the reason for, as you say Katarina, AP material in the US being freshman-level material in Europe.

And the problem I still have with that international test is that it’s a mystery. I don’t prepare my students for that test. I’ve never seen it, never heard it discussed other than on news reports, and never met a student who has taken it. I don’t question its existence, but what does it say that our students are taking a test for which they are not prepared since their teachers do not know about it? How fair can that test be, then? That’s why I say the test should not be used for comparison.

5. Joanne says:

[4/27/2006 - 3:09 am]

That there are “too many variables” is an excuse. With time and effort a strategy could be formulated to improve the American school system. You have argued that Stossel is wrong but you have not accomplished anything in doing so. You have not provided evidence that he is wrong.

I agree that the citation of “an international test” is vague and should have been clarified. Perhaps comparing SAT scores would be more appropriate (some schools in Europe use them-particularly when students intend to apply to American colleges).

It would be more fruitful to look at the differences between American and European schools. I have read that American schools close at two (state/school unknown) and that they do, on average, 5 hours of homework a week. This is quite shocking to me since my average school day was 2 hours longer and I was expected to do 5 hours of extra work per night, or more during my final 2 years.

Perhaps analysis of these differences (as well as those you cited) would be more useful than simply throwing your hands up and saying it’s all too complicated!

6. Todd says:

[4/27/2006 - 10:51 am]

Looking at the differences is one thing. Saying that one system is better than the other is a completely different thing. To make that comparison is what I’m throwing my hands up at.

The fact of the matter is that there *are* too many variables to suggest that one system is better than the other. There are too many differences to compare apples to oranges. Do you propose that we ignore those variables and that they don’t constitute something of a roadblock?

As far as providing evidence, I’ve pointed out holes in Stossel’s logic, holes in the way he weaves his arguments together. That’s not enough to suggest that his conclusions are erroneous and need to be re-examined?

7. DeboraH says:

[1/30/2007 - 11:04 am]

There IS an international test, which was piloted at the public elementary school my children attended in San Jose, Calif., in the mid 1990’s:
TIMMS (I’m not sure exactly what the acronym is; I think it is The International (M?) for Mathematics and Science.) I know that it is still being given to students at different grade levels, and cited as a basis for comparison in these subjects (only). Schools are now tested on a voluntary basis, and my best recollection of the results (while far from comprehensive) was that U.S. students tended to perform well in primary grades, and significantly worse in high school, compared with their peers in other countries.
An important question is whether the students being tested in other countries actually represent the same broad spectrum of students at a particular age (as in most American public schools), or are they in effect ‘pre-selected’ by the type of school at which they are enrolled, based on a sorting or tracking system that eliminates students who are not expected to perform well academically.
It is true the variables are enormous. And while they should not be discounted in designing curricula specific to the needs of a given student population (if not individual students), it is imperative that every school be working toward producing the highest possible OUTCOMES. To do that, we really need international tests, with results that are reported publicly. And individual and schoolwide results should be reported to the parents of each student tested.
I know how much teachers and many parents dislike and distrust standardized tests, but if results are delivered to THEM to identify needs and strateies to improve, I believe they will recognize them as valuable (if crude) tools.

8. Todd says:

[1/30/2007 - 4:53 pm]

If, if, if. Yeah, I agree. If those results can get back to the school immediately with targeted areas for growth, it would help. The comparison to another country would hold no bearing on instruction, however.

I stand by my original comment: if that international test exists at the high school level, why aren’t teachers being told about the standards it assesses? Why aren’t teachers given prep materials for that test? Why don’t I know about it and why haven’t I seen released test questions?

The suggestion that schools in Europe promote a kind of tracking is almost as large an argument against this kind of comparison I can think of. If we in the US are trying to education everyone, how can we be compared to a system that only educates some? The data supports that theory: everyone’s in the pool in elementary school so the US compares well. As the years drag on, perhaps more of the failing students are siphoned off in Europe, leaving a rather elite high school. When compared to US high schools, full of wheat and chaff, that elite school will naturally score higher.

And we don’t need an international test to “be working toward producing the highest possible outcomes.” We don’t need to be measured against another country to work toward increased quality. We need rigorous and relevant standards, along with measuring systems that honestly assess comprehension (not just scantron forms). Again, the comparison to schools that are systematically different from ours is faulty.

9. Kate says:

[2/16/2007 - 8:44 am]

I went to a school in Belgium actually and….I hated it! The students hadn’t written an essay until 12th grade. Over half of them seemed to have flunked at least one grade. Getting over 50% on a test was considered awesome.

10. Joe says:

[6/15/2007 - 7:30 pm]

You are right on about Stossell,

He’s simply a guy making a lot of money. If I presented him a fool proof business performance school system that guarunteed the future success of America (at least at making money, which is why Stossell does what he does), but I told Stossell that it was going to cost him even the slightest of his book royalities. His response would be “Give Me a Break”

P.S. I am a teacher too and my sources have Benjamin Di Israli making the comment that there are three types of lies, lies, damn lies, and statistics.

but we can add a fourth, lies, damn lies, statistics, and John Stossel

11. Joe says:

[6/15/2007 - 7:43 pm]

You are right on about Stossel,

He’s simply a guy making a lot of money. If I presented him a fool proof business performance school system that guarunteed the future success of America (at least at making money, which is why Stossell does what he does), but I told Stossel that it was going to cost him even the slightest of his book royalities. His response would be “Give Me a Break”

As far as the future of American Education and the competetive global market goes, we are not even in the game. Subrban School in Chicago spend more money per student on athletics than city schools do for academics. Can any teacher honestly tell me that they can educate an American student better than students from other countries who are in school at least 30% more than the American kid?

And what about motivation? The kids from India and Asia have that same passion that my immigrant grandparents and my parents had when they came to this country. Their hungry to learn and earn.

Should I scold my students because my generation spoiled them (after we spoiled ourselves, which we are not finsihed doing yet). Should I tell that that there are going to be losers unless that have as much excess captical and are as uhappy and nuerotic as we are.

My response to them “is follow your heart, practice your art, and learn to live with less.”

P.S My sources have Benjamin DiIsrali making the comment that there are three types of lies, lies, damn lies, and statistics.

but we can add a fourth, lies, damn lies, statistics, and John Stossel

12. Linda says:

[7/11/2007 - 3:23 pm]

But, What curriculum do they follow/give in Europe vs. USA? Slam dunk European students are better educated, prepared for anything re US students. Unless you’re lucky to be/find an area where some sense of honor exists, you’re trapped, here in American school systems. And without honor there’s no learning. It’s as if whosoever is guiding it purposefully leaves blanks, mysteries, as to what’s going on INSIDE our school systems. It cannot be there’s “too many variables”, wh is a cop-out; but where is the moral leadership, imperative as students need guidance and, if like my case, we can’t find teachers we can respect, there is left the huge Void you’re all talking about! Teaching is the most noble of professions. How many teachers go into it just to get some job? I HAVE NEVER FOUND A CLASSROOM IN WHICH THERE WAS REAL TEACHING GOING ON. O.K. For me, I wd look for a teacher who cd at least guide me along; however, it always seemed to be the other way around. My experience in U>S> schools is abysmal–as a student!!! Look around. What do you see? Hear?Few and far between do you find young people you can trust. Why? Because of the system? Their idea of what society will accept? David Duke has the right idea of why the system is the way it is.

13. Todd says:

[7/11/2007 - 6:17 pm]

Linda, do you really want schools to teach morals? You honestly think that’s the appropriate place for such instruction?

Tell me again how “too many variables” is a cop out. I’d like to see you explain that. Take every argument I’ve suggested and show me how my thinking is wrong. Can you answer any of those questions I suggested there? Did you actually read what I wrote or did you just make a comment based on the title?

14. Maureen says:

[7/12/2007 - 8:06 am]

I am an American who was subject to both American and European education. Ellen is correct that most countries in Europe, mainly the UK, have exams called the “11Plus exam”. Just to describe the 11Plus it is a series of general questions you would learn in in grade 1 (P1) to Grade 7 (P7). They determine your level of learning and if you are exceptional you are allowed into Grammer schools that focus on preparing you to go to University. They assume you are most likely to go. Those who do not receive an exceptional score go to highschools.

This test is not the end all to be all decision either. There are lots of children who fail the exam, who after a year or so, in highschool, are allow him into grammer school. These tests do not determine if your child will go to college. Children continue to go to University after highschool because its cheap.

Once in grammer school or in highschool your seperated into years and again levels of learning. No one ever repeats years in the UK. If you do not achieve desired marks to continue your level of learning you just get moved down to a lower class. As well as if you are in the top 5 in your class you can move up a class. When I was in Forthill College it was worked out

A1- Top class
A2
A3
B1- Average
B2
B3
C1- Remedial
C2

After your time in highschool or college you then take your GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The children in their 3rd year decide what classes they want to take to study for their GSCEs and after they recieve their marks (they would be 16 around this time) they can choose to stay in their highschool until their upper 6th year or continue on to Technical School. Both are aimed to achieve your NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) or your AVCEs (Advanced Vocational Certificates in Education). Those are the bare minimum qualifications needed to enter University.

Now I had been back and forth from USA to the UK and I have to admit the UK system of education is far better. When I returned to the United States and completed highschool there when I was 16. I was placed in my American Highschool year due to what I had learned and I was leaps and bounds ahead of my peers. I returned to the UK for my education and I am completing my final year of University this year with only 7,200dollars worth of debt for three years of University, which is at a 4% APR rate. There is also a threshold of income I have to break before they begin to take payments from me when I finish.

There are alot of things I love about America, but the education system is not one of them and yes depending on how old you are there is an international test. Since I was 11 the first time I moved over I was just given the 11plus.

15. Todd says:

[7/12/2007 - 8:48 am]

Thanks for the details, Maureen. What you write, though, speaks exactly to my point: the two education systems are so radically different from the core that there’s no comparison between them.

I love the specialization that seems to happens there, but that is not the system we have here. How can a specialized system, one where students are partitioned and prepared for things they seem capable of and/or interested in, be compared to a system where everyone receives the same general education? Of course students in the former system would appear smarter than those in the latter. Add to that the fact that it’s often upper echelon European students who are compared to average American students and you’ve got loads of variables there, making it darn near impossible to pick out why one group performs better than the other on any standardized test.

I don’t know what to tell you about that international test other than I have never heard of it, the standards that it assesses, or any released test questions. I don’t know of any other teachers who are busily preparing their students for this international test or who even know that test exists! They never talked about it in teacher prep classes and my principal has never talked with the staff about it. None of the governing offices of education have ever sent a memo to teachers/schools about it and it’s not on the “Testing and Accountability” area of the state education Web site.

16. Maureen says:

[7/13/2007 - 7:08 pm]

–How can a specialized system, one where students are partitioned and prepared for things they seem capable of and/or interested in, be compared to a system where everyone receives the same general education?–

Honestly the only way you can compare them to get an accurate view of which one does better is to take an age group and nationaly give then a general exam and then in europe, of the same age group per country, give them a general test with a ratio to show on average per child which child performs better.

Saying that though I believe and Average European student will preform better than an Average American student. Really the reason why I say students in Europe preform better is generally in the way they are taught as opposed to what they are taught. It is completely not the American teachers fault. I happened to like my American teachers. I found them to be very caring and generally did try hard to help children learn.

Mathematics in America is taught seprately and to different intensities where in Europe classes are just called “Maths”. Where all different types of maths is learned throught the school year. As an example, when I returned to the states, when I was 15, I was already exposed to calculus when my age group in the states where just starting algebra II. Same with history and science and so on.

In my experience of UK highschools and colleges is that they also keep the children of a year group together. Unlike in America where the classes are seperated and different children from class to class. In the UK it would start off 1A3 (Year 1 A3level) and would end 5A3 with the same children. I believe this also contributes as well because it removes alot of anxiety about returning to school and worrying about making new friends or not. They were just concentrating on the material and with peers around them who understood their level of the material as well.

–I don’t know what to tell you about that international test other than I have never heard of it, the standards that it assesses, or any released test questions. I don’t know of any other teachers who are busily preparing their students for this international test or who even know that test exists! They never talked about it in teacher prep classes and my principal has never talked with the staff about it. None of the governing offices of education have ever sent a memo to teachers/schools about it and it’s not on the “Testing and Accountability” area of the state education Web site. —

I dont believe many teachers are in the States are told to prepare their children for international exams because most students are rarely encouraged to go abroad and few can rarely afford it. Its not expected of them to do so either. Students in Europe are encouraged to go abroad to other parts of Europe or America. They also are funded for these ventures. I see general excitment here for learning because they dont feel that its out of their reach.

For all the times I was in the American Education system I also felt a lethargy towards learning from students. Many times due to the fact that American students do not look foward to the unbelievable amount of debt university will give them and so dont bother to do more than what is expected to graduate highschool. So ontop of changing the way a student is taught there needs to be a way to encourage students to continue to Universtiy and to go abroad and not need to worry about the costs. Maybe if it was more common for American students to seek European schooling or experiences American teachers would be more aware of these tests.

17. Todd says:

[7/13/2007 - 9:02 pm]

So we have two systems that are radically different being compared by use of tests that one system is nearly completely unaware of. Do you see how that makes a comparison between American and European public education faulty?

Some things about American education should be mixed with the European model and vice versa. But to give a blanket commendation of one system over the other, as Stossel did, does a disservice to everyone and doesn’t help improve a thing.

And, frankly, I don’t think comparing students of one culture to students of another culture does, either. We need to focus on how to improve our system. Those comparisons might be interesting diversions, but they don’t further the cause of improving American public education.

18. Maureen says:

[7/14/2007 - 5:29 am]

What your trying to get at Todd, or what I am getting, is that because these systems are different we shouldn’t bother comparing and just focus on fixing the problem.

How can one improve their own system if they ignore other systems just because they are not compatable with your own in methods of teaching.

Thats like a car with a specific design, but we want to improve the design yet we will not compare it to another countries degisn based on performance because the way they manufacture it is so radically different.

The way car manufactures are able to progress their design is not only influence, but a break down of the foriegn cars design to see what makes it better and work on the basis of what is known to be good and improve on it. They give it general tests that they would use on their cars and then on the foriegn models to work out where the improvements need to be made.
And we do give blanket commendation over car manufacturing don’t we?

The exact same tests given equally to European students and American students would give you honest result. If there is an area where the Europeans to better at then look at it and improve it. If there are areas that they dont then thats where your stregnths lay.

You cannot dismiss a system because their culture is different either. Culture plays a big role in the development of societies views towards education.

19. Todd says:

[7/14/2007 - 9:51 am]

No one is saying that a Buick is better than a Ford. No one is implying that the Buick assembly workers are incapable. No one is saying that Buick needs to adopt the Ford model. Stossel is implying all those things. That’s not doing anything to help our system improve.

I’ll let my previous comments on that international test stand as my response, but let me repeat one bit: How can we assess students using a test that teachers have never seen and about which they are never informed?

And the fact that “culture plays a big role in the development of societies views toward education” [sic] is exactly my point. That’s a prime reason we need to consider heavily just what any kind of comparison tells us. Does it tell us more about the education system or the society that it’s a part of?

20. Sarah says:

[7/22/2007 - 6:35 pm]

As some of you had mentioned – comparing results from one country on a standardized test to results from another country is like comparing apples and oranges. Someone brought up the international math and science tests of achievement – not all countries follow the instructions for administering the test like schools in the US and Canada do. Moreover – it measures factual knowledge and the ability to perform arithmetic operations. I don’t know about you guys, but I wouldn’t want my children’s teachers to teach math by having students perform operation after operation. Some of that is OK, but what would a math program that consisted only of that type of teaching teach my kids about understanding math? The bottom line – is that beyond the subject area, we don’t know what skills the tests are measuring.

Any teacher can prepare a class to do well on a standardized test – but that doesn’t mean that they’re learning anything valuable. It just means that the teacher will spend more learning time preparing students to be able to answer specific questions, which prevents teachers from actually teaching. For example, in Ontario there is a literacy test and it is a requirement for students to pass in order to graduate from high school. Any teacher could prepare their students to write the components of the literacy test – by having them practice writing a news article and opinion paragraph over and over again. But that holds teachers back from teaching other really important stuff, like actually how to read and write.

21. Covelli says:

[8/16/2007 - 2:35 pm]

What a subject, apples and oranges. But lets not look at the differences in continents.

I would think that the role of the educators of the world is to prepare their students for life in the working world. Academics are the foundation of their working career. Showing an employer that you have the ability to think and learn makes you valuable.

This is the goal of education, preparing the young to be productive. Everything from making widgets to life saving medicines. The ability to think, reason and create is the goal. Look at the companies and industries and their requirements for capable workers.

Are the schools supplying proper employees? Microsoft for instance, said they need more guest worker visas because there were not enough qualified people here. We are not supplying skilled workers! So I think that you need to find out what they need and structure the education system around that criteria. Of course there are many more fields of endeavor for all students to study but if they are unable to do the basics what good are they for employment. I think more intense study in Math, Science and Communications is the key for success.

The U.S. is getting beat by other counties because the curriculum is not structured this way. It seems esteem and feeling good about yourself has taken over but if you want someone to feel good about themselves, teach them something useful and esteem will follow.

Another problem that I see is attitude. Most elementary age students have much better attitudes than older ones, why? The culture is bring them down. The culture of anti-white brings black students down. Some make it, but in my county, 60 percent fail or dropout before they graduate, and I think they have the wrong attitude toward education. Negativity passed from generation to generation. Music, movies and the drugs effect us all. Until these items are fixed, there will be no helping us.

If you want someone to have a chance, teach them something useful, I am sure that everyone wants options, and no one wants to be limited to where they want to work.

If we do not change we will spiral down, another incarnation of Rome, headed for greatness but torn down by our own deeds.

22. Tony K says:

[8/17/2007 - 3:35 pm]

To all Americans, just admit it, you are stupid. How can the richest country in the world have students actually rank 25th on international tests, slightly ahead of Italy. The collapse of the american empire is certain and widely agreed, because of severe economic problems, social problems, health care issue, imperialist foreign policy, and of because, stupid citizens.

23. Todd says:

[8/17/2007 - 4:52 pm]

How can we hold America accountable for an international test its schools and teachers know nothing about, most of its citizens have never heard of, that is not widely advertised, and that offers no released test questions in an effort to prepare its takers? And Covelli, to dismiss the differences in continents, differences in cultures, and differences in world views is to suggest that they aren’t important enough to explain any portion of the differences in academic performance. My argument is exactly the opposite: those differences are more than enough to explain the disparity, constituting the basis of the faulty comparison mentioned in the title of this post.

Tony K, you’re going to have to marshal up better thinking that than. Your stereotyping is ignorant at best, hateful at worst, and unacceptable either way. Stick to fact-based arguments (or at least well-explained opinions). For instance, explain your “the collapse of the american empire is certain and widely agreed” argument. First off, is it really an empire? Secondly, where is the wide agreement about its “collapse”? Engage in the discussion instead of just throwing out insults as a way to simplify a complicated issue.

How can the last two commentors post here without responding to Sarah‘s ideas? Those are just begging for explanation from someone on the other side of this issue. I think she’s just about right on the money. My problem with her comment is that it implies standardized teaching and “actually teaching” are two different things. If done well, teachers prepare students for standardized tests by teaching “really important stuff.” They are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, the hard part of teaching is figuring out how to do both at the same time.

24. Áine says:

[9/7/2007 - 6:48 am]

Todd,
The international assessments you are talking about are probably administered by the IEAE or the OECD. My main problem is that you are comparing the education systems of an entire continent to that of just one country. In Ireland all pupils go to secondary schools. In 11+ has been abolished in the UK. In most European countries when there are different levels of secondary education e.g. grammar (type A) and vocational(type B) both schools will teach the same up to a certain mandatory level with the type B school ending there with a certificate and the type A school continuing. Any international assessment of pupils which I have ever seen has been of pupils aged 12 – 15 or there abouts. In other words, assessments are done of pupils who have not been streamed. Ireland usually turns up in these lists yet I have never known anyone who has taken part in one nor known anyone who has been prepared for them.

A problem you have not looked at in the US education system is that pupils take a bit of this and a bit of that over one semester. n Europe a student is most likely to study the subject in full and fully understand their subject because of this.

25. Angela says:

[9/19/2007 - 6:37 am]

I have three young children in the public school system in NYC. According to the city wide testing system, our school district ranks as “the best” in NYC. ( real estate sales people use this as a pitch to sell houses in our area all the time.) What many aren’t aware of is that from the day these kids walk into the classroom in September until the day they take the city wide exam, the kids are taught to take “the test”. They are not taught to learn, but taught how to pass the test, which make their schools look good. By the time the kids take the exam, they know it so well that they score very high. Is this a accure measure of what our children are capable of? How will it benefit them when they are up against foreign students competing for college placement?

26. james says:

[10/8/2007 - 2:19 am]

I will not post my opinion on the actuall matter here, mainly because it is still forming, but i am now attending a community college in the U.S.(one of the lowest educated states) in hopes of someday becoming a pharmacist, if that gives any insight on how i am beginning to think. What i do want to note is your attitude Todd. You deffinately have a very good knack for argument, however you tend to repeat your positions when you are not able to prove someone wrong. And that is exactly what you are doing Todd, trying to prove people wrong, without any actuall care as to what to do. Not once in your retorts to these peoples comments have you offered a solution based on new information or even that which you already stated. You simply argue for the sake of arguing. I am not going to be you and say that you are wrong, but I am going to call you out point blank on being closed minded. You started this post by implying that Stossel was not taking all of the frightening “variables” into consideration, not that one man should have to, and then when some of these are explained to you from first hand experience(the unknown international test) you simply repeat that it is unknown and do not acknoledge that it was given to you in detail.

“I don’t know what to tell you about that international test other than I have never heard of it, the standards that it assesses, or any released test questions. I don’t know of any other teachers who are busily preparing their students for this international test or who even know that test exists!” –7/12/207 8:48am

Look im not saying that Stossel, Maureen, Linda, or even I are beyond criticism. What im saying is neither are you.

27. Todd says:

[10/8/2007 - 8:01 am]

And I would never say that I am beyond criticism. However, when I read arguments that don’t seem to take into consideration the things that I’ve already said, you’re right that I’m going to repeat myself. As for those who have used first hand experience, I use that same type of experience right back: I’ve never heard of the test, none of the students in my classes has heard of that test, none of the parents I’ve talked to in my district have heard of the test, I’ve never seen released text questions, my credential school never mentioned the test, my district does not ever emphasize or mention the test. I’m arguing because I believe in things. What do you believe in? Maybe we agree.

When we distill things like “Best Educated” and “Worst Educated” down to performance on a single test, we’re in trouble. You want me to offer a solution? Stop basing the quality of education on single tests taken by small test populations as stand ins for entire nations.

A single man certainly does have to take into account all the variables. That’s Stossel’s job when he creates a report like this.

28. Education-Comparisons « Premanand’s Weblog says:

[11/24/2007 - 1:33 pm]

[...] There was also another discussion on the same blog about USA education vs Europe http://www.toddseal.com/rodin/2006/02/faulty-comparison-american-public-schools-versus-the-world/. There are many such comparative studies on the internet.  But here general conclusion is always that Europe is definitely lagging US.  Some studies are even aimed at finding the cause for this. Example http://www.oenb.at/de/img/paper_krueger_tcm14-10448.pdf. [...]

29. Amarie says:

[4/6/2008 - 5:36 am]

I was trying to find some information about the international testing of students and where it is administered or what it is comprised of (language skills, math, geography, etc.) and I came across this blog. I know that this posting will most likely be ignored, but hey, I got to get this off my chest. I have been reading all of the comments posted and I must say something as a student of the U.S. school system and a teacher in Europe that an international test of secondary schools in Europe and the U.S. is not a realistic comparison. These are different systems and different cultures, which focus on different subjects and have different requirements.

Students in the country where I teach are placed into different schools according to their test results, and their family’s guidance early on. They will either go to a trade school or to a university preparation school. Their classmates progress with them and there is less choice, or room for extra-curricular classes i.e. political science, criminology, photography, film, auto mechanics, debate, etc. The students study for the final examinations that they take during their last year. This last year is the equivalent to the senior year in U.S. secondary schools. The students are placed in a classroom that stays together as they progress. The students know what is needed from them to pass these tests and they progress with a group, which also gives them a sense of comradery. This is completely different from the U.S. school system. It is like comparing the public schools to the prep schools in the U.S. Who do you think is going to come out on top?

Something that is quite rare here is the combination of both school and work. It is very rare to find someone who is in secondary school and working. There is a clear dedication to studies without the distraction and stress of a job on the side. Not that they do not have free time, there is a lot of that, but students here tend to not risk the responsibility overload.

I disagree that if you take people from the same age group in both parts of the world that Europe would still come out on top. The school where I work is a private institution that helps people prepare for that same exam that is taken in the “prep schools”. The difference is that my students are those that chose not to go to school, did not pass the exam, or did the trade school instead, but then later decided that they wanted to go to the university. The majority of the students in the school are similar to the GED students in the U.S., because it is also the same concept.

Schools in the U.S. do differ. I remember being ahead of my age level in science while in Alaska, because that level was taught at a younger age in my school in Washington. My history classes were better in Alaska, but it’s all relative! I cannot say that all schools in Alaska are bad or that all the schools in Washington are better. It was one teacher, one school and one year to compare with another, and that does not make me an expert on anything. But I do know that if I am going to blow my own horn about how superior my education was or is then I would check my spelling and grammar before posting my comment.

30. Amy says:

[10/8/2008 - 6:23 am]

i want to know how the international academic comparisons are faulty.(base on the point ‘unfair’)

31. Eric says:

[2/10/2009 - 8:08 pm]

I’m a former teacher from Colorado who spent three years teaching in a public high school in Japan. After that I spent five years working in Germany. I’m a dual US-German citizen and spent time in both education systems.

While I too question the results of the several international educational comparison tests I have seen differences in the outcomes of each of these systems. My observations are purely ancedotal but I believe the general population of Japan does in fact seem to be more educated than their US or European counterparts. News programs, print media and the like are significantly more sophisticated and detailed. It seemed to me that virtually everyone I met was able to converse on a wide range of topics. The culture of Japan places high value on education. Teachers are very well regarded and the ‘cool’ students are frequently those who are the top academic performers.

In Germany and throughout most of Europe I did not find any significant differences with the US. Germans who attended a university prepratory school (Gymnasium) are generally well educated but beyond that I was underwhelmed by the product of their education system. By the time I lived in Germany I had changed careers and was working for a financial institution. Many of my German colleagues, even university graduates, lacked what I considered basic skills in mathematics.

Take my comments for what they are: simply opinions.

For the record, I moved back to Colorado because I prefer my 8-year-old son attend school here rather than in Germany.

32. Nan says:

[9/26/2009 - 9:17 pm]

You brought out many good points, Todd. What is scary is that we Americans call our schools failures based on data that is misleading and faulty. To my knowledge any data comparing American schools does not show where specifically we lag behind and where we excel. Yet we feel we have to “fix” our schools based on this poor data.
Our schools, of course can be improved. We have many weaknesses. But in order to make any improvements we need to have accurate data. We need to analyze and acknowledge our strengths so that we can keep on succeeding in the areas that we do well. This doesn’t seem to be something that anyone wants to do.
In my 17 years of teaching in America is seems that a lot of what we once did well has been taken from our schools in the interest of the quick fixes that we now must endure. In California, elementary students have to spend a set amount of hours studying language arts, math, and PE. Once we meet these requirements, we have the last half hour of the day to study history, science, and art. But that is okay, because our schools are only concerned with state test scores in language arts and math.

33. Kushiev Jahongir says:

[12/29/2009 - 12:56 am]

Dear Sir/Madam

My name is Jahongir. I am from Uzbekistan, Siyrdarya Region, Gulistan. I am 15 years old and my education is secondary education(среднее образование). I study at the academic lyceum in our town. I want to study some lyceum/college at aboard.
Give me some information about study at the aboard. I ready to exam. I wrote some article about salt lands, water, RRC. I work at Regional Research Center(RRC) in Gulistan. There are biotechnolgy, labaratories, GENBANK in RRC organization. If you interested to RRC, I may send much information about organization and my articles. I you have any grants to our old, please, send me some information to E-mail.

KUSHIEV JAHONGIR

34. Meke says:

[3/6/2010 - 10:02 pm]

RE: Nan

Check out the PISA Study on the OECD website. This is probably the best international achievement examination and its methodology is explained in detail on the website. I see nothing in the form or content of the examination that would disqualify it from serious consideration.

The TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is the most comprehensive examination of science and particularly mathematics education. The notes associated with this examination answer exactly what you claim to have never seen – specifically where the US lags the leading nations in science and mathematics. The researchers even include an analysis of the best practices from each country.

One example is that in US schools, students are taught to solve equations while the top performers CREATE the equations. In algebra, for example, American students may be given an assignment to solve for ‘x’ fifteen times. The students are given little if any reason for why they would ever need to solve for ‘x’. Students in Japan, Finland and Singapore would complete an assignment requiring them to build an equation that would help them know an unknown number. They would do so only after direct instruction of how to use this in a real situation. Very little “drill and kill” takes place. Very little review takes place. They just build equations. Solving the equations is easy.

I was a graduate student in economics before I ever learned WHAT ON EARTH a quadratic equation could be used for. I memorized the thing and could solve equations well but had absolutely no idea why.

As a teacher I asked an exchange student from Japan if he had ever learned the use of a quadratic equation. He spent the next ten minutes in broken English explain in detail all the possible uses and how and why one would choose to use it.

35. anna says:

[7/30/2012 - 7:47 pm]

This is stupid.
You can’t compare the American education system with the European education system.
Europe is a CONTINENT the USA is a COUNTRY.idiot.

it means the education sysytems are different all over Europe.
I live in Belgium and I am a Belgian student.
Our system is pretty simple.You begin school at the age of 2 or 3 years old. Then you go to a ‘basis school’ until you are 12 or 13 years old. After that you go to a ‘middelbare school’ at the age of 13 until you are 18. after middelbare school you choose if you want to go a university or not.Universtiy’s are divided between a ‘real’ university (different sciences,etc) or a ‘hogeschool’ (things like art,sports,economic studies,architectural studies…)
Each level is divided in 6 years

basis school
first year – sixth year

middelbare school
first grade : years 1 and 2
second grade : years 3 and 4
third grade : years 5 and 6

You can take a 7th year in the 4th grade if you wish but it depends on what you follow.

you can choose between a general school (ASO), an artistic school (KSO), a technical school (TSO) and a practical (BSO) school system.

No not all student graduate at the age of 18 but the don’t have to. if you don’t score high enough at the end of eatch year you will do your year over until you succeed or you have to choose another school system.
At the end of each year after the summer exams you will recieve
an A-attest : witch means you passed
a B-attest which means you’ve passed with a warning and can not follow certain studies or you can choose to do your year over again
a C-attest which means you must do your year over or choose another studyfield

36. anna says:

[7/30/2012 - 7:50 pm]

sorry for my grammar and writing skills

37. Jemmy says:

[8/15/2012 - 10:05 pm]

anna – There is no “American Education System” because like the nations that make up the EU each state has its own education system.

Calling other people idiots isn’t the proper way to convince others that your opinon is correct. It reduces your credibility.

38. Svetislav says:

[8/30/2012 - 3:18 pm]

Hello. I came across this website and due the fact that my daughter just started kindergarten, I feel I could say something on this matter. I come from Europe, from one small and at the time messed up country. Elementary school last 8 years and after that you can choose if you want to go 3 or 4 years trade or 4years gymnasium and then particular college. I went 4 years trade (electronics) plus 1 year specialized in the same field. Got my diploma, then I went to military school 2 years and got diploma in field of mechanics for combat and non combat vehicles.
Now, that being said, under no circumstances I do not wish to represent myself as a “smart ” person. That is not my intention nor objective, i only wanted to give a little bit of background on myself. But in my opinion there are few key factors that (again in my opinion) make education system in Europe way better than it is here in US. just to name few:
1st, my whole life back home, while I was going to school, I have heard nothing but this from my parents :”you need to go to school and do excellent cause without education you wont accomplish whole a lot. If you want to be someone and something you need to go to school. Do you wan to struggle like me and your father? “. Believe me this is a great motivation. Here in the US I honestly don’t see that kind of attitude, cause despite everything its still good in US.People dont realize how good they have it here. And most ppl are driven by the thought that even without good education “…i can still work at the fast food place…” (maybe not good example, but in that context).
What i am trying to say that is that school in general is not, how would i say, valued as much or even better, appreciated as much as it should be. If i look at the elementary schools here, i can say that its turned pretty much in fashion show-place rather then place to fuel and get the gears going in those beautiful young minds.
2nd, lets take college for example. If you want to go to college here either sponsorship or if you cant get any then you are pretty much left to take a loan and put yourself in outrageous debt to be able to attend college and finish it. And we all know how it works when you get out of college, its hard to get a 1st real job, and on the other hand you need to pay off the loan.
Now in Europe if you wish to go to college its well known fact that it is somewhat expensive if you are to pay on your own (nowhere near like in US though) but here is the catch, if you lets say had excellent grades throughout the elementary and high school you get in for free, government pays for it. So motivation is excellent. So you already know what you need to do. And of course you are always fueled by your parents to do better and better and better in school.
So i think one of the main differences is overall, should i say-awareness (can really find better term at the time) of school in general.
And i really honestly thing that US needs to bring standards and expectations few notches up.
I wish to make a point here, i agree that there are many factors to be taken in considerations when doing comparison of this type, and international test is not the way by all means, but we all need to agree on basics. And one of the main is We need to demand higher standards and higher expectations.

I do not wish to start argument with my comment, it is simply my personal opinion which is only based on personal insight onto here given matter. Thanks

39. PeggySue says:

[2/16/2013 - 12:58 pm]

I have to say that, first of all, just because you don’t know about a test doesn’t mean that you won’t necessarily do will.
I have been to several different schools in several states, and the differences there alone are significant. In my senior year of high school, we had a Regional Occupational Program (vocational training) that was optional. The following year my sister went to a high school that offered both the R.O.P program as well as Technical Career Training; both were mandatory for graduation. It was the goal of this school to graduate students ready to enter the work force. This SHOULD be the standard for ALL high school in ALL states. I know this is only one area in which our schools are lacking.
I also know several people, my father included, that went to school in Europe. They start learning earlier, study longer, have to learn a minimum of three languages (and not just taking one year in high school.) They also learn vocational skills, or prepare for University.By the time they graduate, they are ready to take their place in society. Can we say that much?

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