Understanding American Schools

The most ambitious, and likely most useful, of the three books from the Interchange Institute is this one, “Understanding American Schools”. For any family with kids considering a move overseas, schools rank among the top areas of concern. Again, as a fictional Human Resources manager at an American company that brings workers in from overseas, I'd have a copy of this book handy.

We take so much knowledge for granted at times about our American educational system, things like that curriculum decisions are made locally, not nationally, or that our kids go to the public school nearest our home and sending them to another public school in the area is usually not an option. Though there is some movement otherwise in public schools, typically our kids do not wear uniforms, do not buy their textbooks and will usually be able to buy a lunch at school.

This book takes on the monster task of explaining all this and more. The focus is largely on public schools, though laying out the choices between public and private education is covered. Chapters focus both the mechanics-will a school teach English as a Second Language?-and broader issues about whether a U.S. public education is better or worse than what could be expected back home. What can a parent do when the U.S. school is too easy? What if the U.S. school is too rigorous?

A lot of explaining is needed, and included, to detail the way most American teachers teach. In some countries the teacher simply stands in front of the group lecturing, even in elementary school. The idea of student-teacher interaction is, well, foreign. Creative U.S. teachers may create lessons without using a textbook, or skip around in a text, rather than marching on a year-long plod from Chapter 1 to Chapter 9 and 3/4. Parents are given tips on attending parent-teacher conferences and a nice plug is included on the value of the arts in schools.

If you want to do a newly-arrived foreign colleague with kids a favor, suggest s/he pick up this book. About the only criticisms I can come up with are that if you're not in the target audience the book is mostly stuff we Americans mostly know, and again, that the book is available only in English. If the writers published this in say, Spanish, German, Chinese and Japanese to include those groups of international workers, they'd have a real hit to wrestle with.

Sounds good? Understanding American Schools, by Anne P. Copeland and Georgia Bennett, is available for purchase online from Amazon.com.

Not sure yet?

Here are some comments by the author to give you a flavor for her writing…

“In my daughter's neighborhood public school, 33% of the students do not speak English at home. Over the years, these international students' parents have asked me many wonderful questions about why American teachers and parents do what they do. Answering them has taught me a lot about the US. (This is why Georgia Bennett and I wrote Understanding American Schools.

“Here's some of what I've learned:

“We take a very long-term view of education in this country. More secondary school graduates enter university or college programs in the US than anywhere else in the world. So teachers, at least teachers of middle class children, know that the topics they teach will be covered again later in the students' lives. For better or worse (or both), this takes the pressure off the teacher of younger children to teach everything the student will need to know for life. The result can look like ‘school lite' to a newcomer.

“Our school system allows – in fact, requires – very late specialization. In many countries, students start to narrow what they study (say, to ‘sciences' or ‘arts') in their mid-teen years. In the US, all high school students must study a full range of science, math, arts, and social studies, regardless of whether they intend to become doctors, painters, or human resource managers. Our emphasis on liberal arts at the university-level further pushes forward the time at which students have to decide on a specialty. As a consequence, in-depth learning of a single subject comes later than many newcomers expect.

“We believe that a child's emotional well-being is important for learning. Teachers watch out for a children's ability to make friends, and bolster their self-esteem by writing ‘Brilliant!' on their papers and hanging their artwork on the walls. It is part of the American educational philosophy that children learn best when they are emotionally healthy and when they love learning. Newcomers who don't share this philosophy and who are looking for learned facts and skills are often disturbed by what looks, to them, like a waste of time and the promotion of low standards.

“I don't mean to say that our school system is perfect. We have some serious problems. But I do think that newcomers who understand the big picture of the American system and its underlying values are better able to make the experience work for their children.”

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