Chung-Te Wang had never seen a calculator in school before traveling to the U.S. this year as an exchange student.
“We always calculate with our brain. No offense,” said the 16-year-old from Taiwan, spurring laughter in a room full of reporters at the Education Writers Association’s recent seminar on covering U.S. education in a global context.
Wang, who goes by “Andy” at the School Without Walls, a magnet school in Washington, D.C., he’s attending this year, was on a panel with fellow exchange students from Germany and Poland. Also participating was a Colombian-American college student who studied in Japan while in high school.
The use of calculators was just one of many differences the students highlighted during the hour-long discussion led by journalist and author Amanda Ripley who wrote the 2013 book, “The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way.”
Although U.S. student Valentina Tobon never saw a calculator at her Japanese high school either, the exchange students from Poland and Germany said calculators are used in their classrooms back home. However, Lili Hofmann, 16, a German who is studying at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia, this year, said the calculators used here are much bigger.
“You have these really huge ones where you can graph everything,” she said.
In Ripley’s 2013 book, she examined efforts to improve educational achievement in high-performing nations, and followed three U.S. exchange students to Finland, Poland, and South Korea to help tell the story. Ripley noted that the choice of student-panelists for the discussion this month was very deliberate.
“One of the reasons we chose these students … is that all of these countries outperform the United States in math,” she said, adding that it’s not simply their average scores that have drawn notice, but also the focus on educational equity and opportunity.
Kamila Mundzik, 18, the Polish exchange student, said she finds the math at her high school in Leonardtown, Maryland, much easier than at her school in Skarzysko, Poland.
Hofmann also touched on the issue of academic challenge, saying that, in general, she finds it easier to get good grades in her Virginia public school than back home in Berlin.
Ripley was not surprised to hear such impressions. As part of the research for her book, she surveyed high school exchange students, both Americans who traveled abroad and those who came to the U.S.
“One of the things they most agree upon is that school was easier in the United States,” she said. “Nine out of ten.” But, she added, “It depends what you mean [by easier].”
How Much Homework?
Students noted stark differences in the amount of homework, tests and quizzes they were used to seeing: American schools give more, by far, they said.
“In Germany, … we may have to take four tests in one subject a year. Here, it’s like every second week, a test,” said Hoffman.
A study by the Center for American Progress last year found students in the United States are tested as frequently as twice per month, or as much as 20 times per year. Similar reports prompted President Obama to call for schools to significantly scale back testing time earlier this year.
When it comes to homework, Tobon saw a big contrast between Japan and the United States, but she said the volume of homework doesn’t tell the whole story. “In Japan, most students didn’t have a lot of homework, but … they still spent most of their time studying,” she said.
In fact, a lot of students would stay after hours at school to study, and then go to “cram schools” in the evening.
Wang said that’s very common in Taiwan.
“They go to tutoring after school, and that’s another time to learn,” he said. For students who are behind, it’s a chance to catch up. “And if you are learning well in math at school, you’re trying to learn more to be an advanced student,” he said.
The emphasis American schools place on sports — and especially football — took some getting used to, said Hofmann. In Berlin, where she’s from, it’s unusual to mix school and athletics, she said.
The Bathroom Pass
Also different is the level of autonomy students experience. Ripley drew the comparison using the example of a bathroom pass. All the students said such a pass is required in their American school, but not back home.
“For me it’s like a sign that they don’t trust me,” said Hofmann.
Ripley said a lot of American exchange students report feeling they had more autonomy abroad.
“One of the things I hear a lot from students that go to other countries is that for all the problems — and they all have problems — they seem to buy into school a little more than kids back home,” said Ripley. “Just at a very basic level, one of the most important things that motivates human beings of any age is autonomy. … So I think the bathroom pass probably matters.”
But the American education system also has its strengths, as the students and Ripley pointed out.
The students, for example, emphasized the higher level of classroom interaction in their U.S. schools — almost as though teachers in America try to befriend their students.
“Here, I saw there are more conversations between teacher and students, and the speed that teachers teach math is lot slower, I think, because here teachers are trying to get every student to know the math,” said Wang. “In Taiwan, teachers teach really fast. If you miss something or you’re lost, you can ask the teacher, but you are afraid to ask the teacher.”
Tobon could sympathize. The atmosphere was similar in her Japanese school.
“When the teacher walks in, students stand and bow toward the teacher. The classes are fast-paced, students are just taking notes and just listening,” she said, with hardly any two-way communication.
“I think this is actually, potentially, a great American strength,” said Ripley in response to these observations. “When you have teachers who are actually interested in what you think, you have a chance at learning higher-order, critical thinking skills.”
Another positive dimension the students highlighted was the vast spread of elective courses they have access to in their U.S. schools.
For example, Mundzik said she’s enrolled in a class where she’s learning to cook and sew, and Hofmann is involved in theater.
“I just wish we would have that at our school in Germany, … something besides academics,” she said. “All of our schools just focus on basic academic education.”
Tobon said: “Here in America, we can choose the classes we want to take, so it’s easier to get ahead. … But in Japan, you stay with the same students and you have the same schedule with them.”
All four panelists also agreed that there was far more technology in use at their American schools. Ripley said that view is widely held among exchange students.
“Even with very digitally sophisticated places like South Korea and Finland,” she said, “you are unlikely to see the volume of SMART boards, iPads, laptops, and other shiny objects that you see in American schools.”