Observations from abroad

For the last two weeks I have been traveling in Europe (not that I’d call it a “vacation”—it was more like “slightly less work than usual, but in a series of lovely, historic cities surrounded by 13th century churches”). While I try not to talk shop with the strangers I meet while traveling, it often ends up coming up. And basically regardless of where these strangers are from—on this trip I talked to folks from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Australia—their reaction to the structure of the U.S. education system is the same: it makes no sense.

Now, this could be because of how I describe things, or it could be that they sense my position on these matters and agree so as to not be disagreeable, or it could be because I only attract like-minded socialists when having conversations with strangers. But when I describe, for instance, our set of 50 state standards under No Child Left Behind (or the fact that a few decades before that we didn’t really have even state standards to speak of), our 10+ thousand school districts each operating with their own policies and procedures, or the fierce resistance to even the slightest effort to create more uniformity in our systems in order to improve equity, they uniformly respond with incredulity.

Of course it makes no sense to have different math standards in every state (let alone every district or every school, which is what many want). Of course that kind of system exacerbates inequality rather than ameliorates it. Of course our system is wildly, hopelessly inefficient. It’s just so obvious to them, as it should be to all of us. They also tend to think our testing system is odd—especially the fact that our tests mostly have stakes for schools and perhaps teachers but not students [1].

Anyway, there’s no great revelation here, just something I have noticed repeatedly when I talk to people from around the world. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right and we should make our system into France’s, but it does underline the already serious questions in my mind about the possibility of systemically improving a system that is structured as ours is. And of course, none of this changes the fact that the folks I talk to all love America (at least to visit) and recognize that, even though we have many problems, we’re still a unique and important nation that profoundly influences the rest of the world (especially culturally).

Glad to be home, and back to my regularly scheduled blogging.


[1] The other two things that are most obvious to everyone outside the country that I talked to are a) Obama has been a great President and we don’t give him the credit he deserves, and b) the single clearest example of our craziness as a nation is our gun issues.

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