Education in Crisis; American Diploma Requirements & Then There’s the British! Part 5

I recently read an interesting article on the real costs of public education in the Unites States. It is called, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools”, by Adam Schaeffer. Adam B. Schaeffer is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of “The Poverty of Preschool Promises: Saving Children and Money with the Early Education Tax Credit,” Cato Institute Policy, Analysis no. 641, August 3, 2009.

Mr. Schaeffer makes the case that the real cost to educate our children in an average public school system is equivalent to the cost of a private school education. If  this is true then why are we required to educate our sons and daughters in a public system that is generally mediocre, run by teacher unions for their benefit, that costs as much as private schools, and which doesn’t produce  scholars, problem solvers, innovators, or serious thinkers, and whose dropout rates are staggering? Maybe, if we gave that money back to the taxpayer they could use it to send their children to private schools that are exceptional or above average and their children could receive an education that prepares them to meet or exceed life’s challenges.

Since it is proclaimed that we have worldwide dominance in education, let us compare the U.S. public educational system with that of the United Kingdom. We need to begin with the high school graduation requirements for the United States as calculated by the National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education:

Grades 10 thru 12: The educational system calculates “credits” in the Carnegie unit, which is a standard of measurement that represents one credit for the completion of a 1-year course. (All States differ in their requirements.)

Mathematics; 3 credits – Algebra I, II, and Geometry

English; 3 credits – Grammar, Literature

Science; 3 credits – Biology I, II, and Chemistry (Physics or Astronomy if offered can be selected)

Social Studies; 2 credits – American History, World History (State & Federal Government, Civics or Geography if offered can be selected)

Foreign Language; 2 credits

Electives; 3 credits – Physical Education, Art, Music Appreciation, Theater, Vocation or Technical Classes, if any of these are offered due to budget cuts in high schools across the country

The average American school day usually begins at 8:00 am and ends at 3:00 pm. This is 7 hours of school per day for five days. However, there is one hour for lunch, so that leaves us with 6 hours of teaching. Most high school teachers have to take roll and get class settled. This takes from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the teacher. Best case scenario of 5 minutes, we now have instead of 6 hours of teaching, 5 ½ hours of instruction, this is 27 ½ hours of classroom instruction per week.

The American concept of a school transcript is unfamiliar in the UK. Schools in the UK do not generally rank pupils within their year; currently, the principal standards are the GCSE (3 years), AS-Levels (2 years) and A-Level examination results at the end of the 2 year AS-Levels.

The UK instead teaches for comprehension. The first level of education is called the General Curriculum for Secondary Education (GCSE) and the exams are taken after 3 years of general education and, if passed, the student proceeds to the next level of education, AS-Levels. All of the knowledge they have acquired in the 10 or more subjects they take for 3 years in the GCSE level is tested on that one important exam for each subject. The GCSE exams are rigorous and require not only questions and answers, but also written essays, which evaluate the level of subject comprehension and integration within the 3 years of instruction. The GCSE is a single-subject examination set and marked by independent examination boards.

There is no official method of equating British and American primary and secondary educational qualifications. The educational systems are entirely different and attempts to compare them must be done on a strictly conditional basis. However, in general 5 GCSE passes are considered to weigh closest to the three-year American high school diploma.

Now let’s take a look at the British system of education. It ranks among the best in the world and is where many foreign heads of state send their children to be educated and to learn English as a second language. The British philosophy of education has a different perspective and produces different results when compared to the American system. Their school week is usually 40 hours of classroom instruction, includes Saturday, and there are required extra curricula activities above this.

National UK Curriculum Core subjects are: English, mathematics, and science; Foundation subjects are design and technology; information and communication technology; history; geography; modern foreign languages; music; art and design; physical education; religious education; and citizenship.

Below is a quote from a UK boarding and day school:

“The pupils here work hard and are worked hard and it is important that they leave us with the best possible examination results. Most do and that is as it should be. None of us though must forget that there are many fundamental qualities which are not examinable: curiosity, shrewdness, initiative, an awareness of beauty, a sense of humour, a sense of responsibility and a gift for friendship. These and other basic qualities need to be developed in an institution which regards itself as educational. The development of many of these qualities requires time and commitment.”

The first year in the British system, called the “F Block”, somewhat equivalent to our 9th grade in the American high school, includes the following hours per subject per school week:

English, 4 hours

French, 4 hours

Mathematics, 4 hours

Sciences, 9 hours

History, 3 hours

Geography, 3 hours

Creative Arts (a modular course), 4 hours

Divinity (study of all religions), 1 hour

Option A (may select from German, Spanish, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

Option B (may select from Classics, Music, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

All students are expected to participate in Games, physical activity, at least twice a week after school. These games last for several hours and are generally team games. Each week there is a 45 minute meeting in small groups that is led by a staff member and it covers an informal discussion of issues such as smoking, drug abuse, healthy eating, as well as personnel issues such as friendships, home-sickness, relationships, loss and death.

Upon completion of the GCSE exams, students may leave secondary schooling; alternatively, they may choose to continue their education at vocational or technical colleges, or they may take a higher level of secondary school examinations after an additional year of study known as AS-Levels. Following two years of study, students may take A-Level (short for Advanced Level) examinations, which are required for university entrance in the UK. The A-Levels are equivalent to our freshmen year at American universities. Many students take a “Gap Year” (a year off), which includes travel or rest, after completing their A-Level examinations and before entering their chosen university. They need it! My sons attended Rugby School and they needed it after 5 years of hard work. After their Gap Year they went off to MIT in Cambridge, MA.

Do we have the best public educational system in the world, as has been often said by our politicians and many educators? If so, how do we explain dropout rates, graduates who cannot fill out a job application, graduates who cannot calculate the square footage of their house so they can buy carpet, or the graduate who has no employable skills or technical knowledge?

Can we as a nation continue down an educational road that leads to dead ends and flawed results? How do we justify 27 ½ hour weeks of instruction in our dilapidated schools, where teachers generally teach to the test and where children are not required to solve problems, analyze or think?

We MUST do better than this!

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