By Margarita Assenova
Because of their heavy curriculum requirements, European students regularly
surpass their American counterparts on international tests.
Rigor, the fourth R: Curricula in Europeon classrooms, such as this one in
Aschaffenburg, Germany, have a far bigger dose of academic subject matter
than those in the United States.
hen English is your second or
third language, it's certainly not easy to take the college-admission Scholastic
Assessment Test (SAT)--let alone do well on it. Yet many European students score
at the highest levels in competition with their American peers for admission to
Ivy League schools in the United States. Western Europe has the resources to
provide for elaborate public education, but the reality is dramatically
different in eastern Europe, where teachers often wait for months to be paid.
Nevertheless, according to the latest international survey, seven east European
countries surpassed America in student performance in mathematics and science.
While European instruction is
generally not as creative as that in the United States, it is certainly much
more academically rigorous. At a time when U.S. teachers are attempting to
develop higher standards of education, some European practices might provide
valuable tips for the reform effort.
"I have never taken physics
in my life," said one of my journalism fellows at Stanford University,
explaining why, after years of a successful career at the New York Times, he
decided to take this subject during his midcareer fellowship. His words invoked
my memories of the three huge physics textbooks I had to study thoroughly in
high school in my native Bulgaria.
Students who did not achieve an
A or B had to take a written graduation exam on the entire contents of all three
textbooks--the so-called matura. The requirements were the same for mathematics,
chemistry, literature, and foreign languages. Yet, we felt lucky that we did not
have to pass the Russian matura--exit exams on all subjects studied in high
school--or take the complicated O level and A level exams of the British
Big Curriculum Differences
hen my son announced last year
that he was not planning to take precalculus, chemistry, or geography because he
could meet the Maryland diploma requirements without these classes, I realized
graphically how much the American and European public school curricula differ
from each other. "Students' choices to take more rigorous academic classes,
which are not required for graduation, are determined by families, culture,
social pressure, and the college admission requirements," said Charlotte
Boucher, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Richard
Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland.
The majority of European schools
require at least three years of each of the following academic subjects: native
language and literature, mathematics, two foreign languages, history, geography,
physics, chemistry, and biology. Subjects such as logic and psychology, art,
music, physical education, and vocational training are also mandatory for
graduation, though the number of required credits is smaller. European students
take most courses
two or three times per week, with the exception of math and literature, which
are everyday subjects. Such a curriculum is built on the concept that a less
intensive but more prolonged process of accumulating knowledge on complex
subjects leads to longer-lasting results. This is why students in Europe begin
taking higher-level courses in middle school.
For now, the current status of the comprehensive public school with
relatively low diploma requirements presents a serious challenge not only
to students but to their parents.
For example, the binomial
theorem, which is part of precalculus, a course taken by only a third of
American high school students, is often taught in the seventh or eight grade in
Europe. Milena Nedeva, a junior at Miami University in Ohio, recalled that she
had to use a U.S. college physics textbook during her eighth grade at the
American college in Sofia in order to meet her country's graduation
requirements. Her class scored a remarkable combined 1380 on the SAT three years
ago (out of a possible 1600, which includes a possible 800 points on the verbal
half of the test and a possible 800 on the math half). The average among U.S.
test-takers for 2002 was 504 on the verbal part and 516 on the math, a combined
total of 1020.
Does this mean that the European
public secondary education system is better than the American way? Not exactly,
because the two systems are built on different concepts and each of them has its
own valuable features. While the U.S. system is much more flexible and allows
for individual choice of educational direction, something consistent with the
national spirit of America, the European system with its academic rigor is a
consequence of the educational traditions of the old Continent. The two systems,
however, have plenty to learn from each other.
Public Versus Private Schools
he comprehensive high school,
which offers relevant curriculum to diverse student groups based on their
preferences, professional goals, and achievements, has a relatively short
history in the United States. Before 1900, less than 10 percent of 14- to
17-year-olds were enrolled in secondary schools, which at the time were elite,
college-preparatory academies. Historical and demographic changes at the
beginning of the twentieth century, caused a significant increase in the student
population. The need to provide practical knowledge without abandoning the
smaller group of high achievers led to the creation of the contemporary
secondary school, which offers both high-level academic classes and vocational
training under the same roof. Regardless of their different interests, the
groups of pupils are not separated in any way. In recent years, more students
tend to participate in both vocational education and the college preparatory
Catholic schools and most
private institutions of learning, however, remained faithful to the concept of
classical academic training. The Catholic Church argued that developing the
student's ability to reason is "necessary to grasp fully the established
understandings of person, society, and God," in the words of A.S. Bryk, V.E.
Lee, and P.B. Holland, writing in the 1993 book Catholic Schools and the Common
Good. This concept is the closest one to the popular model in most European
countries. As a result, Catholic institutions, which faced the same demographic
changes as the public schools, eventually resolved the debate quite differently
and remained much more academically rigorous.
Although the Catholic schools
educate similar groups of students and sometimes operate in the same school
districts, studies show that their students generally demonstrate
higher-than-average proficiency in a range of
subjects compared to the average level of public school students. (In the 1999
National Assessment of Educational Progress test, for example, 17-year-olds in
private schools--of which Catholic schools comprise the lion's share--outscored
those in public school by 7 percent in reading, 5 percent in math, and 6 percent
in science.) Catholic academies, however, are private and thus not always
accessible for many families with low incomes. Many believe that since the
United States still has a solid system of private elementary and secondary
education and has established some of the best universities in the world, it
should not take long before we see precollege education fully reformed.
In Germany, the well-established professional associations have
strongly influenced the educational system.
For now, the current status of
the comprehensive public school with relatively low diploma requirements
presents a serious challenge not only to students but to their parents. The
system calls for parents to do more than assist the child with regular
schoolwork or extracurricular activities. It demands their participation in his
education in a fundamental way, as educators: in advising about curriculum
structure, evaluating the child's learning abilities, and making decisions about
which classes are important to his future. The fact that graduation requirements
in most states differ significantly from college admission requirements does not
make this task easier.
As education scholar Philip
Cusick wrote in 1983: "There are high school students who are either very
mature or have sufficient parental guidance to help them make their choices. But
for those who are neither mature nor receiving any parental guidance, such a
system may further disadvantage the already disadvantaged." His
observations are even more valid today as the pace of life is becoming faster,
further shrinking the hours that families spend together.
s the debate about developing
comprehensive standards for each level of education unfolds, more educators are
seeking comparison with other countries in order to find the best examples and
practices. University admission officers throughout the United States agree that
most of the international students who compete for merit scholarships at U.S.
colleges generally score higher in mathematics and science than the average
American students. It is not unusual to discover that 20 or more students from a
single economically disadvantaged eastern European nation are studying on a full
stipend at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton.
"Most European students are
ahead of their American peers, because they take 'college' classes in high
school," said Ilona Teleki, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington, D.C. She noted that one of the reasons for
the high numbers of bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States is that many
American students essentially complete their secondary education in college.
The Third International
Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995 found that while U.S.
fourth-graders performed well in both mathematics and science compared to
students in other countries, eighth-graders performed near the international
average, and twelfth-graders scored among the lowest of the TIMSS countries. The
1999 repetition of this study, conducted among eighth-graders from 38 nations,
placed U.S. students right in the middle, behind 18 Asian and European countries
and Australia. Seven of the leaders were eastern European countries with poorly
funded secondary education systems, where students often have longer winter
vacations because of insufficient heating and teachers must wait months for
their salary checks.
Although rigorous curriculum
undoubtedly is one reason for foreign students' higher proficiency, the
constrained curriculum approach found in the United States can work as well. A
1998 study by the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrated that
when a school limits the availability of low-level courses in math and science
and offers more rigorous academic classes instead, the average achievement of
its students rises.
Another factor contributing to
positive results in some foreign countries is the differentiation in school
curricula. By setting up specialized secondary schools in math, science,
languages, ancient cultures, art, music, and religion, the system encourages
students to pursue their individual talents and simultaneously meet graduation
standards. Usually, such programs are longer by a year or two than regular ones,
and admission requirements include tough entrance exams. Such schools, similar
to the charter schools and "magnet" (advanced mathematics and science)
programs in the United States, produce individuals with the finest education in
In Germany, the well-established
professional associations have strongly influenced the educational system.
Students may choose to join a professional school at virtually any point in
their secondary education. The requirements for a diploma, however, remain the
Rethinking the Curriculum
tatistical data show that during
the last 12 years, the average number of science and mathematics courses
completed by U.S. public school graduates increased substantially. As a result,
the proportion of students completing the recommendations of the 1983 National
Commission on Excellence in Education rose almost 15 times--from 2 percent in
1982 to 29 percent in 1998. The remaining 70 percent of high school graduates do
not meet the criteria for excellence, which are relatively moderate compared to
those of most European or Asian curricula.
Authors R.J. Murnane and F.S.
Levy, writing in Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating
Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy, pointed out in 1996 that the workplace
which young people now enter looks very different than it did years ago. They
concluded that all students need strong mathematical skills to function in the
workplace of the twenty-first century, whether or not they plan to attend
college or are intellectually curious. A solid base in math, however, cannot be
built with only two years of classes in the subject, as required by, for
example, California, which has the largest population in the nation.
In many urban centers, the
demand for better education based on a more rigorous curriculum is growing
steadily. Over 1,000 students apply each year for 150 openings in the IB program
at Richard Montgomery High School. The number of public and private schools
offering this internationally recognized program has expanded to reach almost
400 in the United States. The IB and magnet schools have introduced entrance
tests to select the brightest students, who later often enter the best colleges.
Gradually, the U.S. public education system is becoming more differentiated.
"We need to break up these
huge public high schools, which look like enormous factories, into smaller, more
manageable, and differentiated schools," said Howie Shaffer, managing
editor of the Public Education Network, a national association of local
Educators fear that if the bar
is raised too high, many children will not be able to learn at a higher pace and
will be left behind. Maybe the answer to such fears lies in the experience of
organizations such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which trains
educators to open and run academically rigorous independent public schools in
educationally underprivileged areas. The schoolchildren, previously neglected
and considered slow learners in the middle schools of Houston and the Bronx,
soon started to attend school regularly, score at or above average, and read 13
to 14 novels a year. Almost all KIPP students attend college preparatory high
schools. As Mashea Ashton of KIPP's Chicago office stated: "We rely on hard
work and high expectations for academic achievement from each student, but there
is no magic bullet."
Margarita Assenova is a Bulgarian-born journalist and political analyst who
now lives in Washington, D.C.