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Sizing up American Schools

By Anne P. Copeland, Ph.D. and Georgia Bennett

School shootings and low math scores. Those are the stories about American schools that get printed in newspapers in other countries. So it's no surprise that prospective international transferees are asking their human resource managers a lot of probing questions about how their children would be educated in the United States. If they don't get satisfactory answers, they simply don't come.

Even after they've agreed to consider the assignment and to visit U.S. schools, they see all sorts of things that confuse them. First grade teachers who tell their students not to worry about spelling. Math students getting credit for using the 'right operations' even if they got the wrong answer. Elementary school teachers refusing to discuss which child is at the top of the class. Science teachers asking students for their own theories rather than teaching scientific facts.

In the United States these scenes happen every day. Americans accept them as evidence of good teaching. But they surprise and worry many international newcomers because each is rooted in an American value they do not understand. As in every country, American teachers are preparing their students for success in their own educational system and for life in their own culture. Without understanding these educational and cultural values, nothing that the newcomer sees in a classroom makes sense.

Before you hand your international employees a list of local schools, it will be helpful to explain a few of these values and expectations. Once they understand these, they will be able to size up the schools in your community and choose one that will provide the best educational experience for their children. Instead of looking for an American school that is 'just like home,' they can begin to look for one that will give their children an interesting and enriching experience. (See Sidebar for a list of these basic values and expectations.) Here are some answers to questions you might hear:

How can I learn about schools in my area?

  • Call your state Department of Education for information about public schools. Many have some kind of Parent Information Center that will send you complete data about a town's school size, money spent per student, performance in reading, math, science, social studies, and writing, college-entrance exam scores, teacher salaries, etc. Or ask your public librarian to help you find such information.
  • Look on the Internet. Each state has a web site (www.state.__.us; insert your state's two-letter abbreviation instead of the '__') that will include some education information. And many communities, cities, and towns now also post comparative educational statistics. Because every state designs its own web site, however, educational information may be a challenge to find. Again, ask your public librarian or any local school official for help in finding the best site for your community.
  • Try www.theschoolreport.com for information about individual school districts.
    Ask the people you meet - colleagues, neighbors, real estate or rental agents and others. Just remember that these sources of information may or may not be reliable, share your values, or be out of date. Some of these people may have no direct experience with the schools they recommend or with those they find lacking. Even if they are parents, the educational goals and expectations they have for their children may be quite different from yours.
  • An independent education consultant is often the best resource for providing an objective overview of all the schooling options available. An experienced consultant is familiar with a wide range of schools and works directly with families to identify the best possible match for each child.

    What should I look for when I visit a school?

  • Ask for a meeting with someone (like a guidance counselor) who can answer your questions. Is this meeting easy or difficult to arrange? Does the school seem interested in your child's academic background and level, or will they make a class placement simply on the basis of age? Do you feel you can be partners with the school staff in your children's education?
  • Do you like the philosophy of education and educational goals at this school? Try to understand how it differs from what you have at home. It will surely be different. Unless you go to a school run by educators from your country, you should not look for an exact match of philosophy, because every country's education system is different. Instead, ask: Would you like your child to have the experience of being in this particular system? Can your child benefit from being in this kind of school?
  • Are you confident about the quality of the school? Public schools will be required to meet statewide quality standards. Private schools should be accredited by at least one respected accreditation board. You should ask how long the school has been accredited and by whom.
  • How big is the school? What does this mean in terms of class size and available resources? Sometimes larger schools (private and public) can afford more extensive support and facilities than smaller schools. On the other hand, some smaller schools effectively use connections in the community to make up for their small size. Ask about class size, and about programs for children who need extra help or extra challenge.
  • Is there a 'sense of community' at the school? As you visit the school, ask yourself whether this school would be welcoming to your child, and whether he/she would feel included and valued. Are there opportunities for students to participate in and contribute to the school community? Is the social climate of the school one that would be comfortable for your child? Is the student body homogeneous or diverse in terms of social, ethnic, religious, or nationality? Do you feel confident of the leadership and faculty at the school?
  • Has the head/principal set a positive and consistent tone for the school community? What is the condition of the school building and grounds?
  • This can be an outer sign of the financial status of the school. The quality of education offered by a particular school is not necessarily related to its physical appearance, but its condition can be a good indication of the financial health of the district or school. Does it look as if there is enough money to keep the building in good shape, to pay the teachers well, and to support educational programs? Will you feel your child is safe at this school?
  • Tragic stories of violence in American schools are understandably worrisome to newcomers. It is important to remember that these incidents, while horrible, are very rare. Schools have already responded in many ways. Some high schools have started to use metal detectors, like those in airports. Severe punishments are given to students who bring any kind of weapon to a school building and to those who threaten anyone, even if it is meant as a joke. Teachers and guidance counselors have received increased training in how to respond to children in need and to prevent bullying. If you have specific concerns about your child's safety, ask about the issue when you visit. Are there other international children in the school?
  • If there are no (or very few) children from your culture in the school, your child may feel isolated, at least for a while. On the other hand, if there are many children from your culture, your child may be slower to learn English and to make American friends. Ask what is done to integrate newcomers from other countries into the school. And, if your child is not a native English speaker, ask about English classes. For private schools, what will the tuition, fees, and other costs be?
  • Is financial assistance available? Is there an extended or deferred payment program? Are tuition insurance plans available?
  • Other Questions: Is the school in a convenient location? Will your child have any neighbors who go to this school? Does the school offer the curriculum/activities that your child wants and needs? Is there an after-school program? Does the school provide transportation? Does the school provide lunch?

    If parents have questions or worries (now or later) about school policies or services, be sure to encourage them to ask for help. They may not be told all that they need or want to know without asking. But they should expect to have all their questions answered.

    Before newcomers try to select an American school, they must understand some basics values and expectations:

  • American teachers are trying to train individuality. The U.S. is among the most individualistic countries in the world. It got that way because adults train children to speak their minds, to expect lots of choices, and to have their opinions sought and valued. So in the classroom, American teachers let students choose the topics they will study. They encourage debate in the classroom. The praise well-articulated opinion more than memorized facts.
  • American teachers are trying to train social equality. There is a high value in the U.S. on 'being a regular Joe.' No one wants to be thought of as snobby, or of having unearned privilege. American teachers do their part to teach this value by allowing students to call them by their first names, and by encouraging students to argue with and challenge them. This comes across as offensive to newcomers from cultures where 'respect for elders' is very important.
  • American teachers are trying to train direct verbal communication. In many countries, a 'good' communicator is one who is subtle and gentle, careful never to let anyone 'lose face.' In the U.S., a 'good' communicator is one who expresses feelings in well-chosen words and who articulately states positions and opinions. American teachers begin to train this skill during kindergarten's Show and Tell period, and continue through the high school Debate Team.
  • American teachers value creativity. Americans are proud of their 'Yankee ingenuity.' So teachers encourage creative problem solving. They ignore poor spelling if the story is interesting. And they'd rather teach the concept behind a math problem than a rote method of solving it.
  • American teachers assume middle-class students will study all subjects till age 20. In most countries, students are required to narrow the focus of their studies by the mid-teen years. In the U.S., high school and university students of the liberal arts all study math, science, history, literature, and more, regardless of their future occupations. So American teachers in the lower grades, knowing that most of their students will study each subject again at a later age in more depth, may not insist on as full mastery of concepts as newcomers might expect.
  • Competition for university admission is not as stiff in the U.S. as it is in many other countries. There are more than 3,400 colleges and universities in the U.S., many of which - not just one or two - are considered 'top ranked.' Any reasonably good student who wants a university education (and can afford it) can get one. This has several consequences for children in American schools. While many American parents put pressure on children to do well so they can be admitted to a good college or university, school-based competition, especially in the lower grades, is not as intense as in many other countries.
  • American teachers value being 'well-rounded. American teachers consider 'good mental health' to be a critical basis for learning. In addition, during the university admission process, factors other than exam scores and grades have become important as a way to stand out from the crowd. And so, in addition to academic excellence, American teachers emphasize sports, arts, music, and community involvement, as well as leadership and good social skills.

    This article originally appeared in Mobility , February 2002

    Dr. Anne Copeland and Georgia Bennett are co-authors of Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked Questions, available from The Interchange Institute (www.interchangeinstitute.org or (617) 566-2227). This book includes a full discussion of how American schools work, with international comparisons to other countries' systems, and the answers to 75 questions commonly asked by newcomers to the United States.

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