Wallach: Other countries offer valuable lessons in education

The Common Core, outlining the essential skills that students are expected to learn in each grade, has focused the spotlight on education. It’s time to face how we measure with other countries — a rude shock long coming. No country has all the answers but those at the top of the list have much to teach us. No one is born equal when it comes to native intelligence, genes determine that, but how it is developed to its highest potential is what defines good education.

Heading the list worldwide according to PISA (Program for International Assessment of 15-year-olds tracked for reading mathematics and science) are Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau (China). The United States is No. 36 (within states, Massachusetts and Connecticut top the list). That Asians lead reflects a historic reverence for scholarship, hard work by teachers and students and parents’ deep involvement in their children’s education. Strict discipline in class permits concentration on studying. Respect for teachers starts in kindergarten. Singapore is a typical example. All classes are taught in English, the official language. By the time they reach pre-kindergarten, 50 percent of the children can read in English. Primary school starts at 7 and how they progress is based on tests indicating which high school they will attend, academic leading to college or vocational leading to Singapore Polytechnic. Intellectually gifted children are given enrichment programs. Special needs children are exempt from attending school and are home-schooled.

Germany tops European schools according to OEDC (Organization for Economic co-Cooperation and Development) worldwide. Though ranking below Asians, Germany and other countries follow a similar pattern of multi-tiered secondary system that tracks students aged 15 into different groups or schools based on their performance. By 15 students have shown how academically proficient they are. Britain has followed this formula for well over a century. In German and French vocational schools students attend general education classes and serve internships in companies learning the special skills needed later for jobs. Businesses contribute financially to these schools knowing they will profit from a well-trained working force. Students with learning disabilities study in schools geared to their needs. Academic schools teach pre-college subjects. Vacations are shorter, class days longer, uniforms are required. Parents are more involved. State funds to schools are allocated according to needs. The school curriculum is the same across the country. Pre-kindergarten is a must. Teachers are highly trained and well-paid although not always more than ours but highly respected as professionals. Free in-school health and social services are available.

In Asia especially, teachers, boards of education, parents all take responsibility for the child’s education, no empty PTA meetings there. Not every student is college material. Our own dropout rate of college students proves it. Across Europe 43 percent of students repeat a grade or transfer to a less-demanding school. These countries have faced the fact that it is hard for a teacher to conduct a class combining gifted, regular and developmentally disabled students so they group them according to intellectual ability either in the same class with teacher aides or in a separate school. Discipline and special training for inner-city teachers especially keep disruptive students in check.

Could any of their ideas be considered for our country?

1. We can start with equal funding for all schools in each state. It is disgraceful that one town should have few resources while another has unlimited funds.

2. Pre-kindergarten for all children is vital to equalize skills when entering first grade later. A child who is not reading fluently by end of the third grade is deemed four times more likely to drop out of school.

3. One-third of American high school students drop out, one of the highest rates in the world. Grouping students according to ability is a remedy.

4. Common Core is a start but all curricula should be similar across the country so that if a child moves from one state to another he can pick up where he left off. Napoleon first created that in France. We are a mobile society, parents go where the jobs are.

5. European unions are far stronger than ours yet inadequate teachers are quickly dismissed. A master’s degree for both primary and secondary grades should be required as in Finland and other countries.

6. Uniforms. Our private, Catholic and charter schools know that uniforms from the first-grade to the 12th are a great equalizer — no more T-shirts on poor kids and cashmere on rich ones. It fosters school spirit. It was a pleasure to see students from the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy in their blazers and plaid skirts (all the same length no less!) visiting with President Barack Obama at the White House.

7. Longer school days and shorter vacations go a long way toward improving a student’s progress.

8. An idea to investigate is to encourage regional industries and businesses to work with local vocational schools, offering summer internships and sponsoring programs in school. North Carolina has originated this approach successfully offering vocational training geared to the bio-technology industry in the state. North Ireland has copied this example.

9. Now we come to the elephant in the room, a subject that only in this country is deemed politically incorrect to discuss: the family. George Bernard Shaw said that “Parentage is a very important profession; but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.” No one can argue with that statement. A child spends the majority of his time at home, from mid-afternoon to the next morning, weekends, holidays, summer vacation. The best outcome for a child is married parents, a stable home, a nurturing environment stressing learning. None of these cost money yet are in short supply for minority children. If Asian children seem to be always at the top of the class even in our own country regardless of income, it is because their culture reveres knowledge. Sacrifices are made. Their parents don’t allow TV and videos until homework is finished and watch their children for signs of drugs or gangs. They share their responsibility for education with teachers. Over half of Vietnamese parents are in constant touch with teachers.

It’s been shown that a child’s success in school depends more on family structure than on income or race. Personal choices influence outcome. True, poverty makes it harder but it cannot always be the excuse as seen in members of the Supreme Court or the president and his wife as well as countless others who used education to rise from poverty to success. The need is great for more teacher aides to visit at-risk children’s homes to ascertain problems that might be handled by social services or arrange for time after school to do homework with volunteers helping. Truancy is a problem for school and parents to solve together. Unfortunately, in the case of African-Americans, “parents” usually mean a single mom who faces working and raising the child alone. Knowing that the school is behind her with these programs would help reduce the drop-out rate. Involvement rather than indifference on the part of parents is a major factor in a child’s education. This cannot be stressed enough and is a top priority with Asian and European parents.

It would help the next generation of parents if juniors and seniors in high school were to attend parenting classes teaching the importance of participating in the education of their children and how to achieve it from birth through high school. In Finland, new parents are given two books: one for them (with instructions on parenting) and one picture book for the baby to get him started on reading. This class could be a follow-up to sex education. Pregnant girls still in school would especially benefit from such a class.

10. Today in California Hispanics make up more than half the population. In 20 years (2043) according to the Pew Research Center, this country will be majority non-white. Too many children start kindergarten knowing little if any English. To help them, home visits should stress to parents the importance of speaking English at home, view TV programs in English, read books to their children in English, be involved in P.T. meetings and conferences with teachers. Young children have amazing power to learn a language when exposed to it. Starting first-grade speaking fluent English is crucial for success in later grades. Build a strong rapport between schools and Hispanic families to make them feel vital in the education of their children, which they are.

These are goals to aim for, far from easy to implement, too many factors to consider, but if we wish to remain the most powerful and richest country in this age of globalization, we would be wise to give serious attention to those countries that are getting closer to what we all want for our children, an education second to none. This is not an area where we should allow pride to stand in the way. Money is not the answer. We spend more than any other country per child yet we come in 37th worldwide. We need help.

Carla Wallach is a resident of Greenwich, author and journalist in national publications and newspapers including The New York Times and a columnist in Greenwich Time.

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