Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels.  It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country.  But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be.

I’ve long been worried about the US approach to science education in particular.  When I was at school in the UK, we started studying physics, chemistry and biology in parallel from the age of 13.  It didn’t suit everyone. But I wouldn’t be here as a science professor and department chair in a major university without this early start.  It was key to me getting hooked on physics at an early age, while gaining a broad and integrated understanding of how the different disciplines complemented each other.  In contrast, both of my kids have been following a sequential science track – biology (grade 9), geophysical science (grade 10), chemistry (grade 11) then physics (grade 12).

Seeing physics pushed back to 12th grade still breaks my heart.  It makes some sense if you view students as a blank slate to be written on. But for those students who are primed to fall in love with discovering how the universe works and just don’t know it yet – they’re lucky if they don’t have that capacity for awe crushed out of them before they get to the really interesting stuff (if you’ll forgive my bias).

The same goes for chemistry and biology, and all the ill-defined areas that cross between the three big disciplines.  With biology, how can you possibly inspire students with an intense year of teaching when they are just 14 years old, before dumping it as you move on to geophysical sciences the next year?  My daughter was potentially interested in biology.  But a year of didactic teaching five days a week (they didn’t do labs) wore her out.  And that was it – her one and only shot at being hooked, blown.

Them came chemistry.  Up until this last year, my daughter had done minimal chemistry, and no real lab work at school.  She took chemistry as she is interested in studying medicine.  And because of this she took the Advanced Placement (AP) course – the equivalent of A level.  In other words, an A level in 12 months.  With minimal preparation.

This would have been tough, even with the best teacher and resources.  But to make matters worse, she was in an overcrowded, under-resourced class in a school that doesn’t think much of science, surrounded by kids that seemed to adopt the school philosophy.  And remember, this was her one-shot chance to get the chemistry bug!

I admit, when I visited the class at the beginning of the year, I nearly cried.  There were half a dozen lab benches at the back of a small room with a smattering of tired equipment that were being stretched to serve a class of over 30 students.  And this was the only AP Chemistry class in a high school with over 1600 students. It was a shambles compared to the chemistry classrooms I had at a mainstream comprehensive school in the UK 30 years ago.  It did not inspire confidence.

Then the classes started.  I’ve spoken with my daughter’s teacher and I am convinced she was doing the best she possibly could.  But is was quickly apparent that my daughter would not come out of this class knowing much about chemistry – and certainly being no-where near what was needed for a chemistry-related degree course in the UK.  Labs were the worst.  This was the first time my daughter had actually carried out experiments on a regular basis in a science class.  Yet these were little more than chemistry recipes – instruction sets with no explanation of what was going on or why, and minimal tie-in with class work.  And no lab write-ups!

Early on, my daughter told me she would get an A in this class and not understand a word of chemistry at the end of it.  She got an A-, and I’m pretty sure she would admit that she still struggles with some of the most basic concepts in chemistry!

So rather than endure a final year of US high school getting and education that is little more than worthless in the UK, she is heading back to study for A levels.  This means doing an extra year at school.  And it means living apart from the rest of us for two years.  But if she wants to get into a UK university and do anything remotely connected with science, it’s the only option at this point.

Of course, I have no illusions about British schools or A levels.  Fortunately the school she will be attending has a good reputation – and are very responsive and accommodating of their students.  Likewise, to judge the US education system on one school would be foolish – although you might have expected more from a state school co-located with one of the top US universities.

In the meantime, we have another related challenge – my son.  He is at the same school my daughter is leaving, and is heading into AP Chemistry next year.  Unlike my daughter though, he has discovered his inner enthusiasm for science, independently of anything the school has done to prevent this.  And because of this, I think he will do fine.  But despite the system rather than because of it. He indulges his interest in science outside the school.  He reads widely, and participates in Science Olympiad – one of those US initiatives designed to inspire young people.  But where in other schools his extra curricular activities might be supported and applauded, here they are ignored.

Earlier this year the Science Olympiad team got to State, and did well.  This was ignored in a school that applauds every minor sporting and musical triumph.  I asked about this and was told by one official that the school is good at everything, and so you couldn’t expect this one event to stand out above others.  This is rubbish.  But what is worse – the students know it’s rubbish, and privately scorn the school and the system that strives to keep them down.  (I was also told by the same person that I could always teach my son myself if I didn’t think the school was up to it, but that’s another story.)

I’m hoping that my son will continue to thrive despite the system and the school, and that he will succeed without anything as radical as leaving home at 16.  For my daughter, this is a move we will just have to live with.  Fortunately she will be living with family in the UK, and with today’s inter-connectivity my guess is that we will remain closely connected (I’m envisioning daily homework help requests over Skype!).  It’ll be interesting to see how her experiences in a US high school compare with doing A levels in the UK.  And it will be exciting to see where she ends up going to university in two years’ time – and what she ends up doing.

But it remains sobering that a 16 year old is leaving for the UK to complete school because the local US education system failed her.

Update 8/3/12 – this piece was written quite hastily, and on refection there are a few things that I probably should clarify:

1. There are two primary issues here (I think one of the comments below identifies this) – the US approach to science teaching generally, and the ability of one specific school to teach it well specifically.  On the former, clearly the US system isn’t completely broken, otherwise there would be fewer incredibly talented science majors graduating here.  But there are indications that the heavy lifting in science education in particular is done in the first year of college, and that as long as you graduate from high school with good grades what you actually know and understand doesn’t matter so much.  This is OK if you stay within the US – but a problem if you don’t.  I also suspect (but have no empirical data) that the US system favors the top fraction of a percent of highly self-motivated students – especially in the sciences – and does little to either encourage more students to follow a science-based career, or to provide a valuable baseline education in/enthusiasm for science.  On the latter point, it would clearly be a mistake to judge all US high schools by the performance of one college town high school, although I had naively expected the schools in a town with a leading university to be a little better!

2.  The UK has it’s own problems with pre-university education, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am blind to this!  I’ve been out of the country long enough that I am probably out of touch with some of the changes that have come into the A level curriculum over the past couple of decades.  But it is still reasonably clear that the current UK approach to education is a better match for what my daughter is looking for (and likely to respond well to) than the US approach.  More importantly though, my wife and I were pretty thorough in checking out and vetting the school she will be going to.

3.  This is where irony kicks in – the initial impetus for us exploring my daughter moving back to the UK was the need for her to get a good chemistry education if she was to study medicine in the UK.  However, her experience with chemistry in the US was so traumatic that she has dropped it for next year!  (She is wisely going to be doing A levels that keep her future options open while playing to her strengths). Despite this, we are still 100% behind the move.

Update 7/23/16 (yes, four years later!).  Since this post was published, I’ve had a steady stream of emails from parents and students asking questions about whether I would recommend similar moves like this from the US to the UK.  My reply is always “it depends”, but here’s how things worked out for us:

My daughter successfully completed sixth form in the UK in 2014, with three A levels.  However, despite the option of going on to a UK university, she decided to come back to the US – and is now doing well at a major West Coast US university.  

One day, she promises me she’ll write her own account of her experience.  But at the end of the day, one factor in the decision to come back was that – having been in the US since she was 5 – she lacked a common cultural background with other students in the UK.  This included not having a good sense of how British society – including the political system – worked (ironically, given how many native Brits seem to understand this), while being pretty grounded in US culture and politics.  I also got the sense that not having grown up with the same TV shows and cultural experiences was part of this.

The good news in moving back was that her A levels counted for almost a year of credits – effectively allowing her to graduate in three years here instead of four.

Looking back, I’m not sure that the UK school she attended (and the education she received) was any better or worse than a US school – it was just different.  This surprised me – part of my motivation as I mention above is my disappointment over science teaching in particular in the US.  But having seen the current state of A level teaching (admittedly only in one school), I’m far less hung up on the differences between the US and the UK.  Not that this means that I think either couldn’t be a lot better – although to be fair, quality on both sides of the Atlantic is highly dependent on schools and school districts.

There were some differences.  In the UK, my daughter was treated more like an adult (and as parents we found the school’s administrators far more approachable and personally invested in the students than at my son’s hight school).  Unlike most US high schools, she was responsible for when she was on campus or not, instead of being tightly regimented (in this way, sixth form is more like college).  But on the other hand, she did mention on a number of occasional that the intensity and expectations around A levels in the UK seemed lower than for AP courses in the US.  

All in all, at the end of the day I suspect, it’s less helpful to compare attending a US high school and a UK sixth form, and more helpful looking at specific schools and circumstances.  But at least our experience indicated that it’s possible for motivated students to switch back and forth between the two systems.  

Andrew Maynard