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America's Absolutely WONDERFUL Education System

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
© 2014

The more I travel and see other nations' educational systems (or lack thereof), the more proud I become of the system we have here in the United States. So many Americans do not appreciate how wonderful our system is. I think it truly is the best school system in the world.

I spent several weeks this summer doing a series of education conferences in Namibia, South Africa and Botswana. The situations and people I met there really reinforced my long-held belief that the United States is doing far more right than wrong in educating our children.

While we hear the media and politicians complain that other nations are outscoring us on tests, they fail to point out the fact that that may actually be a good thing - not a bad thing. For while other nations may take a few of their citizens and educate them exceptionally well, the United States takes ALL of its citizens and educates them reasonably well. And that's the trade-off.

I met parents in Botswana who worked multiple jobs and went without food on the table many nights, just to scrape enough money together to send their children to independent schools. There are government schools in Botswana, but those are filled with classrooms of 60 - 70 children and taught often by teachers with only an elementary school education. The parents see the expensive independent school system as the only hope for educating their children.

In South Africa I visited with a team of therapists who provided occupational and speech therapy to students in the independent school system. They were asking me how parents scheduled and handled getting their children to and from speech therapist offices in the United States. "Why, they don't have to take them anywhere, " I replied, "The therapists are in the schools as employees of the school system."

"Really?" came their surprised response. "How do they handle the billings and payments then?"

Imagine their shock to learn that the parents in the United States don't pay for things like occupational therapy and speech therapy for their children. It is provided free to all children, by our government. They were flabbergasted.

Again in South Africa, most parents see the only viable option for education available only through the independent school system. The government system (which also charges tuition) is overcrowded, poorly run, and has no services for children with any type of exceptionality. Any special education programs are handled through the independent schools. Children with any type of learning challenge, or with parents without funds, have no school option at all.

In Namibia I met a young man, David, 22 years old, with autism. David lives at home with his parents. He does not speak. He cannot read. He has no skills which could lead to him serving a productive role in society through his adulthood and no way to get them. David grew up in Namibia, a nation with no organized special education program. Luckily David had strong parents who had the means to send him to a private, independent school and pay for therapists and teachers to teach some basic self-care skills to him. With little access to qualified medical and special education specialists, David is still very much involved with autism and will remain dependent on his parents, probably for their entire lives.

I sat through dinner with this beautiful young man and his dedicated parents. I watched his mother order for him, cut his meat, spoon feed him and hold his cup so he could drink his cola. I watched him rock to the piped-in music and shout periodically. All I could think about was how different David might be today had he been born and educated in the United States.

Is Japan Doing it Better?

I realize that schools in southern Africa may seem too distant to hold in comparison to the United States. But what school system can we find that we would like to aspire to?

We hear a lot of comparisons to Japan. But look at the Japanese system and tell me if that is really what we Americans want for our children. Japan's education is compulsory and funded until grade 9. But starting in primary grades, children take exams to determine which junior and senior high schools they can attend. Schools are assigned to those earning appropriate scores. Children have no choice in which schools they attend, what program or whether or not they can even continue. It's all based on their exam scores at this young age of 9 or 10.

Many students spend countless hours every afternoon and evening attending "cram schools" in order to better prepare themselves for these exams. Most children require some type of additional after-school tutoring, cram school, or study program to ensure entrance exam scores high enough for their select junior and senior high schools. This of course leaves no time for leisure activities such as intramural sports and summer camp.

Children with any type of learning challenge may attend special programs at either special primary schools, or occasionally "mainstreamed" in their local school, but in separate classes. They have no secondary options.

European Schools?

Switzerland is another nation often held up as a nation of better scoring students. Perhaps we should model after their schools.

In Switzerland, after primary grades, the children are split or tracked out based on their intended career path and ability levels. About 20% of the students are allowed to attend a secondary program designed to give them access to the university system. Children are also separated into schools based on their native language.

Children with any learning challenge are educated through grade 9 in special programs.

How many among us would like the career path of our child determined by their score on an exam at the age of 13?

Most of us know dozens of children with learning challenges, who learned to overcome them and or compensate to become amazing contributors to the adult world. Think of our twice-exceptional children - the ones who while challenged in one area, are highly gifted in another. How would their lives be different if a paper and pencil test in grade 5 determined their future?

Who Does it Better than America?

I've visited schools around the world, in developed countries, emerging nations and third-world countries. I've seen poor village schools run by community members in Uganda and huge well-appointed and well-endowed independent schools designed to educate the children of British royalty and Fortune 500 executives. I've seen independent and public schools in every corner of the globe. Yet, I have never seen a country with a school system I prefer to our own. Never.

For while there are a lot of nations who may look better on paper when comparing test scores, the reality is that those scores represent only a small percentage of their population. The select few, chosen by their system at an early age. I know of no other country that allows any and all of its citizens to attend an open public school, on a university option track, through a full 12 years, regardless of parental income, ability, or learning challenges. It's spectacular. It's fantastic. It's cause for celebration.

Next time you hear a politician hold up another nation's test scores as higher than ours, be proud. For when faced with the option of having the system choose a few select students to educate extremely well, or letting all of our children be free to choose their own education (though it may be just "pretty good") we chose the latter.

Because America has always been about freedom and that includes our school system.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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