Right about when the ’70’s were warping into the ’80’s, when TV shows like “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Happy Days” made up the popularized school template, and when, according to observers of the US educational system, grade inflation was just puffing its bellows, sending the hot air balloon of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” into the clouds, I graduated from a US public high school. I’d just turned 16. I had solid enough grades. And, hello world? I was done.
But was I educated?
On paper I was. I had a GPA that merited entrance into a solid university. But what did that GPA mean? From the broad palette of course offerings in my school, I’d chosen classes in which I knew I could get an “A.” Symphony orchestra. Student government. String ensemble. Debate and competitive speech. Theater Arts. And a favorite: Driver’s Education. In these classes, an “A” was doled out to all the squarely solid students, folks who showed up and did the course requirements. A “C” was the same as failing. A “B” was saggy. Given that I showed up, I didn’t sag too much.
I passed high school without much sweat. I could have taken more challenging classes, but one AP English course was enough for me. The system didn’t demand that I be extra academically inclined or even terribly hard-working. It was designed, I’ve come to conclude, to give me choices, including the choice to pass. As such, it meant I could pick courses that matched my natural gifts, and I’m quite sure I rode the crest of grade inflation. Part of the logic of that early grade inflation, as I have come to understand it, is that the US had lots of babies from our post WWII Baby Boom, and we had to get them through the system. Scholastic standards softened then sunk. People like 16-year-old me waltzed through the diploma line, but not necessarily with the world’s most rigorous education under our belts.
I knew kids in high school who, when they didn’t get an “A,” (the top grade in the US system) plea-bargained. They would actually approach an instructor. With cookies. And negotiate. I didn’t do this as a high school student (I lacked the nerve, not to mention the baking skills) but I experienced this on the other side of the equation when I taught on the university level and later instructed at a college on the eastern seaboard of the US. Students came to me every week, it seemed, contesting grades. Their pluck (and illogic) struck me. In European universities, as I’d witnessed it, professors rarely if ever even spoke privately with students. Contesting grades? There were none to contest: you received exactly one for the course, and that was for the final exam. Negotiations, like addressing a professor without her or his full title (Herr Doktor Professor Spinkelfürstenmeyer)? Never.
Now the US finds itself in a different phase from that of Vinnie Barbarino and Richie Cunningham. With the “globalization” of the world (the speed and ubiquity of technology and concurrent political shifts) and with the precipitous economic rise of the four Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea) plus the emergence of the fifth Tiger (India), the worldwide market is a far more competitive place. US high school students are not only competing for slots in college, they are in a race against the whole developed world for jobs.
What’s happening now in the US high school system in terms of rigor/ease? In terms of grading procedures and weighting of performance? In terms of that (darned almighty) GPA? In a 21st century which has some kids white-knuckling it through high school, others groveling for college admissions, many fearful that there will not be employment at the end of the tunnel of formal education, is there another kind of grade inflation going on?
Two recent conversations come to mind.
The first, was last week’s lunch with Irina and one of Irina’s three adult sons, Nicolas. Irina is Bulgarian-Czech-Russian-Swiss, and all her sons are a handsome composite of the same, with a big dose of English and Italian thrown in. The younger two boys attended, for some time, an American international school in Paris, which is where I first met them all. Having known a broad variety of educational approaches, they are able to make comparisons. Irina, for instance, at 18 and freshly arrived from eastern Europe, enrolled at the Sorbonne. Later in life, both she and her oldest son instructed in international schools.
“This full IB track is so intense,” I launched in, hoping for sympathy, “and it feels more intense here, I’m finding, in a Swiss context than it has been elsewhere like France and Germany. There’s no breathing room at all. And not quite as much support as I’ve seen elsewhere.”
“But that makes total sense,” Nico said, “It’s Swiss. You’re supposed to manage solo. But you want to see really ruthless? Try the Swiss Maturité,” Nico went on. “Twelve killer classes. High level proficiency in three languages. Loads and loads of memorization. That’s why it takes a whole extra year beyond the IB to even finish the basic coursework of the infamous Maturité.”
At which point I didn’t bother describing to them my own high school days.
Another talk was just this morning with Valérie. Raised and schooled in central Europe (Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland) and in Vermont, she is now a teacher at the international bilingual school where my two youngest are enrolled.
“I got to Vermont,” said Valérie as we strolled with her daughters around a local lake, “and it looked just like here. Gorgeous. Pines. Mountains. All that nature. I thought, ‘No brainer, I can slip right in here.’ But I struggled at figuring out how things worked with grades in high school. Where I’d come from, a ‘C’ was a totally respectable grade. It meant you were faring well, meeting course expectations. Where I’d just been in central Europe, a B or an A [or their European equivalents] were rare, reserved for ‘extreme’ students. When I got a ‘C’ in one of my classes and didn’t totally flip out, it was my American classmates who flipped out. ‘You mean you’re okay with that?! A. . .a ‘C’?'”
Irina, Nico and Valérie know that what merits a top grade in one system, country, or course won’t necessarily do the same in another. On the other hand, they also know that “hard” or “ruthless” or “overload” doesn’t always equate with a healthy education. All of them, having experienced it, appreciated the sports, arts and leadership opportunities afforded by a system which, one could perhaps argue, can be comparatively “soft” on the “hard” subjects.
But let’s pretend we take identically “hard” courses and administer them as equally as possible. When it comes to grading procedures, they are subject to cultural influences as well. Here is another conversation, this time with my husband, based on research gleaned from the business world:
One measurement of corporate effectiveness relies on country-wide employee engagement surveys. You take the managers from individual countries (let’s say Mexico, Japan, the UK and the US) and ask them to “grade” a recent corporate initiative. From purely quantitative scoring (let’s say a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the high end) which country do you think tends to score highest on such surveys? Which lowest? Which in the top quartile? Which always toward the bottom?
History has shown that in these surveys, respondents from Mexico nearly always give the highest numerical scores. Qué bueno!
Japan nearly always rates at the very bottom. A 44% for the Japanese might be considered, in their eyes, generous, even complimentary.
In contrast, a 78% in Mexico would be considered a low or unsatisfactory score.
The UK is quite exigent, as is Japan. Interpreted, the British like the Japanese are not easily impressed, are temperate in their judgment, slow to score something off the charts. Reserved.
And the US always scores (wait for it) in the uppermost quartile. What could that mean? Does something in the water feed an inflated expression of satisfaction? Or do Americans by nature lean towards optimism, cheerleading, exuberance. Even faith?
I’m not saying that either mentality is inherently bad or good. What I’m saying, (with caution, because I hate to paint in sweeping strokes) is that when you get a panel of Japanese, British, Mexican and American teachers together, they might very well grade according to certain cultural norms. Some will give you a well-deserved C. Some, for the same work, will give you a well-deserved A.
And now. . . for my final “conversation” with Heather, one of my readers who has commented in a pervious thread here on the blog. In her 7th year raising children as expatriates, and going through the IB, she notes some basic concerns I have felt:
One frustration we have is that my daughter is competing, on paper, with US students who might have the same GPA as she has, but don’t nearly have the same academic intensity. Some universities weight the more rigorous classes, some don’t. Yes, they want to see core classes on report cards, but comparing an IB SL* class with a US AP can be tricky. I have a niece in an AP English class in Utah. Her teacher sends her out for donuts at least once a week. Whenever she feels like it, she asks her teacher if she can skip to work on her student government job or to go home to nap. She gets an “A” in that class. How do you weigh that “A” against my IB HL* English daughter’s “A” with all the IA’s*, orals and World Lit papers? Some university admissions are sensitive to the differences between schools, but some are just looking at the numbers. What’s ironic is that she qualifies for the best universities in the UK, including Oxford, St. Andrews and Kings College University of London because of her predicted IB scores, but US universities don’t care about her predicted test scores! These are tricky things about the IB that international school students deal with that US based students don’t.
What have your experiences been, if any, moving from school system to school system?
What does it take to be well-educated in today’s world? And what does a “hard” education have that a “soft” does not?
How has your own education differed from the education you are providing for your children?
What is your personal philosophy regarding “intelligence”? What is it? How does one gain/increase/apply it? What is its value?