Saturday, January 11, 2014

What do foreign exchange students say about America's schools?

To the extent that American education experts cite the countries that outperform ours on international tests, it's often to confirm their pre-established ideas about what works in education rather than to examine what's actually happening in foreign schools. Thus:

-overlooking the rigor that picks up in the later grades, they emphasize how formal education in Finland doesn't start until age 7.

-confusing homework load with homework rigor, they emphasize how students in Finland have much less homework than American students do, ignoring how much easier, if more time-consuming, American homework assignments are, and how many fewer extracurricular school activities (sports teams, marching bands, proms) Finnish students engage in.

-confusing rigorous research projects with the mushy, interdisciplinary, art-based sort that predominate in this country, they claim that Finnish education is based on American-style project based learning.

-confusing group work with whole class discussions, they conclude that Japanese students learn math in groups rather than in teacher-directed lessons.

-confusing a math education that focuses on rigorous math concepts with one that emphasizes language intensive word problems and trivial, if convoluted, applications of math to daily life, they claim that those countries that score highest on international tests use curricula more akin to American Reform Math than to traditional math.

--confusing truth with fiction, they suggest that countries in India and East Asia make more use of educational technology than we do.

Perhaps our best informants on how other countries actually compare are students who have studied in both American classrooms and classrooms abroad. Unfortunately, because America's foreign language instruction is so poor, comparatively few American exchange students are able to survive very long in foreign schools in non-Anglophone countries--ending up instead in English-language classrooms in international schools. So most of our eyewitnesses are foreign exchange students.

Some of these students are interviewed in Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World. I have yet to read the book, but have read a number of reviews, including this one by Joanna Daneman on Amazon, in which she cites one of Ripley's exchange students, a male high school student from Finland:

Having aced an algebra test, the student is completely flummoxed that anyone would fail it. "How could you NOT know this?"
...The Finnish student remarks that school seems like elementary school--a lot of making posters rather than intensive coursework.
An equally compelling informant from Finland appeared a few years ago in an article in the Wall Street Journal:
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen... spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn't translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: " 'Nah. So what'd you do last night?'" she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Another source, via, is Felix, a UK exchange student attending an America high school:
The UK curriculum I think is harder, and stricter but probably a better education. But I prefer the American system for it's [sic] lenient style and how grades are determined by also your work ethic, while in UK it's based solely on the results you get on tests and assessments.
A community newspaper article about exchange students at a high school in Door County, Wisconsin cites a Chinese student as remarking that "math and science are super easy." And another community newspaper article about exchange students at a high school in Mille Lacs, Minnesota cites a German student as calling the American school system as "a lot easier" and a Taiwanese student who
agreed with her fellow exchange students that some subjects taught here are much easier than back home, such as math, but that others are more difficult.
One has to wonder how much of that extra difficulty comes simply from the linguistic challenges of reading and writing in high school-level English when it's not your native language--which is much less an issue in math than in other subjects.

Consistent with this, here's is more of what Finnish student Elina Lamponen says, this time on NPR's The Takeaway:
I had a bit of a culture shock at first there. It took me a couple of weeks to realize it at first – on the first courses I thought it would be really hard and difficult for me, but it was only because of the language. In a couple of weeks when I caught up in the language, it was fine and I was fine and then I really knew that I was far ahead. It was probably it was in math class where ... when they showed us what we were going to do and gave us homework and we did problems in class, I realized that I’d already done this a year or two ago. So I really got that it’s ... it’s not that difficult. So I had – the math course I took was Algebra 2 which was the hardest math class in the whole school, and then I knew everything on the tests and then I always got like 105% on the test because I just knew everything. The American students, they were really surprised how I could get 105 because they were struggling with the tests.
Interestingly, the big picture has long been known to the more rigorous of America's education researchers. Here's an excerpt from a 2001 study by the Brookings Institute:
Overwhelmingly, the foreign exchange students found U.S. classes easier than classes in their home countries. More than half, 56%, described the U.S. classes they attended as much easier and 29% as a little easier. In contrast, only 5% found U.S. classes much harder and 6% a little harder. Even considering that exchange students are excellent students, as noted above, while in the U.S. they usually attend above average schools and take the toughest classes that American high schools have to offer. Compared to the classes they are familiar with back home, which probably serve high achieving students, the American classes do not seem very rigorous.
This perception is widespread among students coming from our subsample of high scoring countries on TIMSS. The percentage of students describing American classes as much easier: Sweden 55%; Hong Kong, 60%; Japan, 61%; Russia, 67%; France, 73%. It’s clear that students from the highest achieving countries in Europe and Asia regard American high schools as less demanding.
So the facts have been out there for quite a long time. It's just that few of us Americans want to take note of them, much less to think very hard about what they imply.


Anonymous said...

If Algebra 2 was the highest level math course offered at the exchange student's American school, how is that a fair comparison? That sounds like a low performing school even by US standards. I believe most of our city's public high schools offer math through Calculus, with some offering AP Statistics.

Katharine Beals said...

Right--it's just one of several anecdotes. That's why I also include the Brookings study. How fair a comparison this particular anecdote suggests depends on whether there exist counties in Finland that, like Colon County MI, don't offer public education in math beyond algebra 2.

Unknown said...

You should read the book. It has some excellent insights about what really needs to change in America before our schools can possibly improve- the author basically determines that we currently have the schools that we want because most Americans still don't believe our kids are competing globally.

Auntie Ann said...

That's why the Global Report Card is important. It shows that even the best school districts in the US are still weak when compared with our competitors' schools overseas.

Anonymous said...

I'm willing to bet that most countries spend a tiny fraction of what we spend on spec ed and they don't admit the most severely handicapped to regular schools. Most countries also don't pretend that all kids are college material and significant numbers of kids never enter academic high schools, but go to vocational programs of to work. A high-stakes test is a common method of separating the two groups.

Anonymous said...

I think your report is from the Brown center, not Brookings.

Katharine Beals said...

You're right: now that I look more carefully, I see it was only posted on the Brookings site, but did not originate there. It's still a really important study, however.

Catherine Johnson said...

The Finnish student remarks that school seems like elementary school--a lot of making posters rather than intensive coursework. - See more at:

5 years ago, two Honors English students I know were given the option of making a poster or writing a paper.

In Freshman Honors English.

In a district spending ~$30K per pupil.

I don't know whether the poster option is still in effect.

TerriW said...

Making a poster or decorating a tissue box or making a diorama should fall squarely in the "When will I use this?" camp, displacing algebra.

Tytti said...

"How fair a comparison this particular anecdote suggests depends on whether there exist counties in Finland that, like Colon County MI, don't offer public education in math beyond algebra 2."

There are no "counties" like that. All high schools follow the same (minimum) curriculum and all students take the same exam (the matriculation examination) at the end of their studies, though you can choose between "regular" (min. six courses) and advanced (min. ten) Math. That exam, btw, lasts six hours and you have to answer eight questions, IIRC (or was it ten?). Still, if they expect you to spend over 30 minutes to one question, the calculations are probably not easy.