|By Valpal (Valpal) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 01:11 pm: Edit|
I've had this question for a number of years, and think I might obtain some insight from those of you here: Why do American colleges and universities enjoy such an internationally reknown reputation, when our grade schools and high schools are so commonly disparaged? It would seem to me that a college or university can only be as good as the intellectual abilities brought to bear by its (majority) student population. For instance, you could not very easily teach courses requiring higher level thinking to students who have never exercised the concept.
I often hear that European high schools are much more academically demanding than their American counterparts. Why then, would so many International (especially Asian) students desire to be college educated in America---so that they'll look like geniuses comparised to all the under-educated Americans? Obviously, I'm missing something here. I'd appreciate you insights on this subject.
|By Marite (Marite) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 02:03 pm: Edit|
I'm a product of French schools. Yes, schools in many other countries have far more rigorous curricula. For example, everybody in France is supposed to learn some calculus in 12th grade; how much depends on whether one is in the literature and languages track; social sciences/economics trac; or math/science track. Here, many schools require only 2 years or 3 years of math (algebra 1,2 and geometry). Most demand that students take science every year during all high school career; again, US schools require only two years of lab science. And so on.
So why do US universities enjoy such high reputation?
One reason is the unmatched facilities: the best equipped labs, the classrooms with audio-visual equipment, the availability of textbooks, the up-to-date libraries.
Another reason is the fact that American students work very hard in universities. By contrast, many Japanese students feel that having been admitted to top universtities guarantees them a job. In European countries, the exigencies of daily life (no campuses, horrendously expensive accommodations, unwelcoming libraries, crowded classrooms, little or no support from university administration for struggling students) all these mean that university students do not perform as well as they might. I arrived in Paris one year in the middle of a university professors' strike. They were protesting their working conditions by holding classes in metro stations, abandoned warehouses, etc...
The interdisciplinary nature of US academic life has become the envy of non-American universities which are more fragmented both in terms of discipline and geography.
The most important factor, though, remains the superb technology available in American universities. it is not surprising that the majority of foreign students go into math/science/technology fields.
|By Coureur (Coureur) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 04:17 pm: Edit|
Another big reason why US schools enjoy such a high reputation is due to the huge amount of research that goes on at them. This stems from two decisions made by the US government in the post WWII era. One was the decision to pour a lot of federal money into research, and the other was to fund most of this research at universities. The result: The US has shot to the top of the research world, especially in science and medicine, with the resultant harvest of recognition --> Nobel Prizes, etc.
The European model is very modest government funding with most of the big-time research being conducted at research institutes instead of universities.
I know that we here on CC we search for the ideal teaching environment and shudder at the prospect of sending our children to research oriented universities, but it is that research that is largely reponsible for the high reputation the US schools enjoy.
|By Perry (Perry) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 04:46 pm: Edit|
Perhaps there was something good to come out of the Cold War after all. The federal government began pouring massive amounts of funding into higher education primarily to counter the Soviet threat after WW II. The government sought both to expand research in the sciences for space exploration, defense, and industry, as well to bolster expertise in languages, history, and other disciplines that would enable it to understand and spy on its allies and enemies. The explosion in federal funding and university programs especially in the 1960s (after Sputnik) was truly extraordinary. It does not seemed to have slowed down much since then.
|By Shennie (Shennie) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 06:50 pm: Edit|
I must add some things here. When American educational systems are compared to European systems, you are really comparing apples and oranges. Marite talks about French schools having all kids take some calculus. What she doesn't mention, and what most people fail to understand, is that not all European or Asian kids have the opportunity to attend an academically oriented high school. At the end of what we consider to be 8th or 9th grade, most European and Asian kids take a test. Only the best and brightest go onto academic high schools. The rest attend vocational type high schools. Of course, in the US all kids attend academic high schools and it many just wouldn't be ready for calculus in 12th grade.
When US kids are tested, they test ALL kids, even those with special needs. That isn't true in European countries. Also, there is a wide variation in how different states compare to foreign countries.
Finally, the other thing that must be remembered when looking at US schools, is that US schools are often very heterogeneous. We have kids from many different backgrounds, cultures and languages, all studying in school together. European and Asian schools have much more homogeneous populations which make targeting the curriculum much easier.
I beleive that educational systems throughout the world have strengths and weaknesses and we can all learn from each other. But before you can do that you have to understand that the basic belief systems of who should be educated and to what degree are vastly different from country to country.
Getting back to your original question, US unversities are made to serve American kids with American educations. They do well in American colleges. I think that overall, our elementary and secondary education systems are not nearly as in bad shape as everyone says that they are. Just my opinion.
|By Marite (Marite) on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - 10:11 pm: Edit|
Just came back from a forum with our school superintendent.
I agree with Shennie that in many countries, most kids do not finish high school or repeat grades. The French baccalaureate fails about 1/3 of the students each year, and students routinely repeat 9th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade. But those who do finish high school and pass the baccalaureate are better prepared for university than the vast majority of US students. This is why students who have passed the baccalaureate (on which the IB is based) are allowed into American universities as sophomores. The same applies to British students who have earned the requisite number of A levels. When I came to this country, it was suggested that I might even come in as a junior!
The number of students who are directed toward vocational schools in foreign countries is decreasing. Even in Germany, the system of vocational schools is being rethought.
I personally think that American middle schools are extremely mediocre. In no other country I have lived in is the notion that middle schoolers ought to be coddled because they are going through adolescence. On the contrary, middle school is when the pace of learning picks up.
One strength of the American educational system that I did not mention in my previous post is that American kids are encouraged to think for themselves. It stands them in good stead at university.
But I still think that what makes American universities attractice to foreign students is the incredible amount of resources available. Perry pointed out rightly that in many countries, research is separate from teaching. In the US, tenure, especially at elite institutions, is based on research more than on teaching. This may not be attractive to students and parents who want professors's attention focused on the students, but it enriches the teaching and ensure that professors are not recycling lectures from 10 years back. The academic support available to university students, including sections, writing centers, tutors, advisors just is not there in many countries. When I was considering university, I knew that in France, students did not have to go to class from one end of the year to the other (they just had to take end of the year exams) and they could buy class notes from professional students. This had the virtue of alleviating the space crunch (though not entirely, since there was a big strike which I witnessed in the late 1970s).
In some countries, instructors must lecture to 100s of students, sometimes without a microphone, and with the windows open. I met one instructor who had a permanent hoarse voice because of this.
The US does try to educate a more heterogeneous set of students, but it also has far more resources to devote to the task.
|By Sac (Sac) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 12:09 am: Edit|
Another theory: Perhaps one reason American universities are attractive is that in some other countries, your future is much more determined by whether you get into a particular program or faculty at a certain university than it is here. Since students in other societies not only go through more rigourous middle and high schools, but specialize when they apply to colleges, the undergraduate degree is much more determinative than it is here. Students who do not get into those key programs (whether Oxbridge in England or a policy institute in France or the top engineering school in Istanbul), or believe that they will not, may seek their opportunities at American universities.
|By Valpal (Valpal) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 12:33 am: Edit|
This is all very interesting. I had been laboring under the assumption that American and European systems of higher education functioned relatively the same. The insight being offered by Marite, Shennie, Perry, et al. (Thank you all very much!), has answered many questions and spawned a wealth of new ones.
It sounds to me as though the European system of elementary and secondary education serves as a winowing-away process, separating early and rather severely, the "wheat from the chaff". The American system, on the other hand, is one of multiple "second chances", functioning under the assumption that most students are "wheat", and can excell given the right opportunity. I suspect that this springs from an optimism that may be uniquely "American". Compared to most of the world, we are not as comfortable with the concept of "classism" (if that is indeed, a word), preferring instead to view ourselves as egalitarian in our ideals. We are a nation of potential Horatio Algers, and proud of it---well, at least I am (LOL!). I may, however, be laboring under yet another false assumption.
Marite, how is the French system in terms of "second chances"? Once one has failed to merit a seat in one of the academic high schools, is there a possibility of re-taking the exams to earn an opportunity to go on to university later in life?
I was quite shocked to hear of the logistical difficulties European students face on a day to day basis. The scarsity and expense of housing, decentralization of campuses, difficulty accessing resources, and indifference of university administration, etc., sounds like the the norm, rather than the exception. If that is the case, it is no wonder that many American colleges and universities offer such appeal.
|By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 08:20 am: Edit|
The French system does grant second chances, but it is also much harsher. After the 9th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade, there are exams. Students must pass the exam in order to proceed to the next level. Each exam tests students in every field (literature, history, foreign languages, all three sciences, math, even phys ed). Grades are weighted according to the track a student is in (e.g. more weight for math in the math/science track). In order to pass, a student must achieve a cumulative average of 10/20, but in no field must the student get a grade of 0 ( my father, who had never taken a class in English but was a math prodigy, was pushed by his professor to take the baccalaureate exam at 16. He crammed for a couple of hours before the test and got a grade of 0.25/20 in English, which averted disqualification. His overall average being pulled up by his math grade, he received his baccalaureate and got an M.A. in math at 20). If a student does not achieve an average of 10/20, the student has to repeat the whole grade, even in those fields where the student did receive a higher grade.
It is very common for students to repeat grades and retake the exams. In fact, there is not much stigma attached to repeating grades and failing exams. Anybody who has passed the baccalaureate is entitled to go to university. University is free. There is no tuition, and families typically do not save for university, but the cost of living away from home is high, so many students live at home and go to local universities (which vary in quality).
At university, students specialize right away. My niece, who took her baccalaureate last June, is beginning first year in architecture. Should she change her mind and wish to study political science, she would have to change "faculty" (school) within the Paris University system, and start from scratch. This is very unlike the American system where students can change majors multiple times and still graduate in 4 years.
Some Asian universities are harder to get into than HYPSM, by the way. All the effort is expended into preparing students for admission into university. This is why international comparisons have put some of these countries ahead of the US academically, most famously the TIMSS study that compares math and science education among various countries. For more information on TIMSS, you can look it up on the Boston College website.
But once in, students do not necessarily get a better education in Asian universities. To be a graduate of Todai (Tokyo University) for a long time was a meal ticket for life, and Todai students were known to spend their time at university recuperating from the rigors of their high shool preparation. By contrast, it seems that it is at university that American students really focus on their studies. By the way, extra curriculars are not a feature of high school life in most countries. My French niece, who spent one year at our high school, was absolutely fascinated by the wealth of clubs, teams, sports, etc... to be found there.
|By Electricmonkey (Electricmonkey) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 10:26 am: Edit|
I think Shennie pointed out something important. Of course, I can't speak for the European school system (although, my French and German classes in school sprinkled in culture studies, so I did read about how only the brightest and most academically minded go to German Gymnasiums--the "academic" schools), but in Asia the "bright" students are represented much more heavily in the testing pool (just for future reference: I'm Korean and I attended California high schools), and there are entrance examinations for middle school and high school. As opposed to American high schools, who test anybody who wants to be tested and for the most part put everybody together. But it evens out in college, because then those students who are either not intelligent enough or a hard worker (and I don't mean to insinuate that anybody who doesn't get into college is an idiot, because of course there are various reasons for not going...but this is an example of saying, "All A are B, but not all B are A") tend to drop out of the education bracket.
Of course, this is all just a sweeping generalization on my part. What do I know? :-)
|By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 10:59 am: Edit|
It's actually very hard to compare rates of participation in tests. Despite the fact that in France, many students leave school before 12th grade (but are not allowed to unless they have passed the 9th grade exam), those students who do make it into 11th grade are all expected to take the baccalaureate, part one. And those who pass part one take part two. In the US, the proportion of students taking the SAT (in no way comparable in rigor to the baccalaureate and testing only two subjects) varies enormously from district to district.
To give one example advanced yesterday by our superintendent to explain why our district posts abysmal SAT scores yet has excellent students:
60% of our public high school students have higher scores than the state and national averages. But 31% of our bottom 25 percent take the SAT compared to 7% for the state and 5% for the country.
It is already quite difficult if not impossible to compare students on the basis of SATs vs. baccalaureate or Abitur, or A levels, let alone different proportions of the school populations of different countries.
I do know that it can be more difficult to be admitted into Seoul National University, Hong Kong University and Tokyo University than to be admitted to Ivies--which is why cram schools such as Kumon Centers originated in Asia.
|By Shennie (Shennie) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 02:58 pm: Edit|
It is also interesting to note that Japanese school systems have begun to visit American school systems because they see some things here that they are interested in learning about. Specifically, the Japanese are beginning to see how stressed out their students get and would like to see how they can decrease that stress to some extent. They are also interested in getting their students to do more divergent and creative thinking - areas where American students tend to excel.
Another interesting feature about Japanese schools is that they have a national curriculum. You can go to any school in Japan in any grade and know exactly which text books they are using and exactly which page they are on during any given day. This is one reason that tutoring has become such a big deal in Japan. The curriculum is very strictly regulated and teachers cannot slow down if the students are not understanding, so a lot of the kids go to tutoring after school everyday so they can make sure they understand the material that was presented and are prepared to move on tomorrow.
|By Perry (Perry) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 03:04 pm: Edit|
Just one additional comment. I think one of the most important characteristics that distinguish the American system of higher education is the long-standing, post WW II partnership that exists among the federal government, industry, and academia. The partnership between industry and academia has frequently come under criticism. When I was a graduate student at the Univ. of Wisconsin -- Madison, I recall stories of the bombing of one of the University's main buidlings in which research was being performed for Dow Chemical during the Vietnam War. I may be wrong, but I don't think this kind of arrangement between government, industry, and academia exists in Europe or Asia to nearly the same extent. It's been interesting to read about the differences.
|By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 03:15 pm: Edit|
Most other countries have a national curriculum. The joke in France is that if it's tuesday 8am, you know exactly what 3rd graders are doing no matter where they happen to be. But there are no cram schools as there are in Japan, Korea, Taiwan.
I recently read an article which mentioned that the Japanese Ministry of Education is rescinding its policy of relaxation. Apparently, students were not learning as much, and parents were upset. As long as university entrance requirements do not change, there is little chance of Japanese supporting the lowering of standards in high schools.
But I agree that American students do learn to debate and discuss, partly as a function of class size. Even in my niece's prestigious private lycee in Paris, class size never dropped below 40. It is also partly a function of culture. It is just not done to disagree with one's elders or to express divergent views in many societies. As a result, many Asian students have great trouble expressing themselves in American university classes not because of language problems but of cultural constraints.
|By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 03:26 pm: Edit|
You are absolutely right about the divorce of research and teaching in most countries. And it's not even a case of scientists vs. teachers. I recently met a historian at one of France's most prestigious graduate institutions, the Haute Ecole Pratique des Sciences Sociales. He told me that his duties involve going to the HEPSS to meet with his students once every two weeks! He lives in Tours and goes up to Paris on the TGV every two weeks for one day. Talk about inaccessible teachers. Even better is the CNRS (Centre National de Recherce Scientifique) where no teaching takes place.
In some countries where there is not such a divide between research and teaching, lack of government funding and thus lack of graduate students has brought many academics to the US. That's been the case of a number of British academics.
|By Sac (Sac) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 03:50 pm: Edit|
My experience at a British university many years ago really made me value our system. During the first few weeks I was intimidated by how articulate the students in England were, and by how much they knew. Imagine my surprise when, turning in my first essay based on knowing practically nothing about the topic, I was complimented on taking a different point of view and arguing it. Basically, complimented on thinking.
I always thought that the perfect student some combination the products of English and American education -- someone who could think and argue combined with someone who actually knew some facts on which to base the argument.
Another distinction I saw there was the elitism of systems other than others. They get subsidized university educations because only a small percentage of them are allowed to get to universities. Many students there couldn't understand how Americans could pay so much for college, but they also couldn't understand why college was an option for so many Americans. They considered this a waste, like casting pearls before swine, as opposed to reserving university for the creme de la (intellectual) creme. Of course, they considered themselves the creme. It never occurred to many of them that socioeconomic background might have had a little something to do with it.
|By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 04:13 pm: Edit|
Actually, my French niece had a similar experience, but in our high school! She decided to spend one school year here. Despite her limited English (her 5 years of English not having produced fluency), she got an A in her first paper. It was written in bad English but expressed divergent opinions (well, they would havee diverged if she had known what her fellow students were thinking. As it is, she was not saying anything earth-shakingly original in a French context). She did enjoy very much the opportunity to debate and discuss in class, something that was not possible in her French lycee with its 40+ students per class. She would have liked to attend an American university, but alas, my brother had not saved for an American private university education.
I think the elitism you refer to is peculiarly British. There is a real pecking order of universities (Oxbridge, St Andrews vs. red brick universities). There is also greater attempt to match university admissions to perceived needs. Remember the case of the young woman who wanted to study medicine and was rejected at Oxford despite her stellar grades? Apparently, the decision was made not on the basis of merit but perceived need for doctors.
Britain has a tradition of private ("public schools") feeding into private universities (Oxbridge). In France, you can count the number of private schools that are not parochial practically on the fingers of one hand. My niece's prestigious lycee costs a grand total of $1,000 per year. Compare that to $20,000 at Boston University Academy (non-boarding) or $30,000+ at boarding private schools.
In France, all baccalaureate holders have the right to university education, though the most prestigious faculties require an entrance exam on top of the baccalaureate. That can lead to incredible crowding.
|By Massdad (Massdad) on Thursday, October 16, 2003 - 04:26 pm: Edit|
Sac, to truly understand British elitism, one must remember the Cyril Burt story. Burt was one of the folks who provided a "scientific" foundation to Britain's educational tracking, by claiming intelligence is inherited (and so the lower classes inherit lower intelligence etc. BTW, I'm not making this up!). At any rate, all this came unglued shortly after Burt's death in 1971. To quote: "The first formal, public accusation of fraud against Cyril Burt came in 1976 from Dr. Oliver Gillie, the medical correspondent to the London Sunday Times. Gillie became suspicious of Burt's work after he read Kamin's The Science and Politics of IQ, and began to investigate. He set out to find two of Burt's research assistants: Miss Margaret Howard and Miss Jane Conway. Despite a thorough search, he was unable to locate either, and was forced to conclude that they were fictitious names."
Imagine, inventing not one, but two research assistants, and having it go undetected for many years, and having fudged the data to boot.
|By Sac (Sac) on Friday, October 17, 2003 - 02:47 pm: Edit|
Great story, Massdad.
The class system was alive and well when I was in England. I did not attend either Oxbridge or a red brick, but a "plate glass", a newer university based more on the American system, University of Sussex. Even though there were few students who had come from public (that is, private) boarding schools, there were even fewer with working class accents. I remember two, and whenever anyone talked about them, they would comment on how nice these students were and what a shame it was that they had such awful accents. At first it baffled me that nobody in social situations ever asked about my family background, what my parents did, what kind of community I'd grown up in. Then, I realized they didn't have to ask those questions of each other. The moment people opened their mouths, everyone could place them by how they pronounced their vowels. I hope things have changed a little since then.
|By Marite (Marite) on Friday, October 17, 2003 - 02:55 pm: Edit|
It has now become fashionable to have regional accents. If you listen to the BBC, many correspondents no longer have the standard BBC accent which were de rigueur in the 1970s.
I have to say though, that when I was in college here 30+ years ago, I heard people commenting pityingly about a professor's Texas accent that came and went with her efforts to lose it or at least disguise it.
|By Massdad (Massdad) on Friday, October 17, 2003 - 07:13 pm: Edit|
Come to thing of it, at Harvard Medical School, I've never HEARD a southern accent among the faculty. Same at U Cal and U Chicago when I was in grad school. I wonder if southerners lose their accents or just never make it north or west?
|By Sac (Sac) on Friday, October 17, 2003 - 08:20 pm: Edit|
They become president of the United States.
|By Massdad (Massdad) on Saturday, October 18, 2003 - 08:50 pm: Edit|
True, but only after they spend their formative years (in the case of GWB) or at least college and law school up north, as a kind of finishing school?
I also think at least one of these chaps may have developed his accent a bit later in life? So, should he even count as a southerner?
|By Marite (Marite) on Saturday, October 18, 2003 - 09:13 pm: Edit|
Well, SAC has it right. There was LBJ, then Jimmy Carter then Bill Clinton and now Bush, all from the South, by way of Ford (Mid-West) and Nixon and Reagan (CA) and Bush pere (CT). Bush fils may be putting it on, but LBJ's accent was the real thing.
|By Vadad (Vadad) on Sunday, October 19, 2003 - 01:56 pm: Edit|
I was born in Georgia, schooled in Virginia, and moved to Baltimore for 17 years after law school. Took about 3 months to lose accent, according to my Georgia friends. As the country song says, to get ahead you've got to "talk like the man on the 6 o'clock news."
Of course, I never lost it according to my Bawlmer friends. It's the hard "i"; you just never seem to get rid of that.
My wife used to make fun of me on road trips to visit family. She said my Southern accent got more pronounced at every filling station (good Southern term there) on the trip down I-81 until it fully returned crossing the Tennessee-Georgia border. Reverse happened on the way back.
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