Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education

by Andrew Maynard on July 29, 2012

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.

1 Julie July 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Not all rosy in UK science teaching, though. Hope things have improved since this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7750717.stm

2 Andrew Maynard July 29, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I realize that – there’s also a lot of variability. But flaws and all, there’s still quite a bit to be said for education in the UK

3 Kevin July 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm

As someone who has always struggled with lower level mathematics, much less the sciences, I might not be the best person to comment on this. However, given the fact that I took several AP level biology courses in high school, one of which was taught by the golf coach and the other a student intern who made us watch episodes of ‘ER’, I can agree that much of what passes for science education in the US is shockingly inadequate.

Fortunately, for those who are so inclined and have the grades to apply, there’s a partnership with one of the local universities to skip two years of high school and instead start in early on college-level math and sciences. This does seem to be a pretty implicit statement that the lower level classes are a waste of time, though I’d say that applies not just to math and science, but so much of public education in general.

When only 300 of the 1000 students I entered high school with were even still around to graduate, we’re dealing with a much larger problem, and that was 17 years ago.

4 Angela July 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm

That’s shocking with 12th grade. I did all my school education in Germany. I was 10 years old at the most when I started Physics in state school. Had the subject for a total of nine years (you had to take a minimum of 6-7 years). I’m still drawing on what I learned there for my research (especially nuclear/particle/quantum physics). They are even talking about teaching it at primary school.

5 Andrew Maynard July 29, 2012 at 8:05 pm

I can understand where schools might prefer to do integrated or general science at an earlier age to give kids who aren’t that interested a basic grounding. But there needs to be more to hook the children who have the seeds of a hunger for knowledge in them!

6 Christine July 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm

When discussing your daughter’s ill-preparedness to go from a US high school to a UK university, it appears you are making two distinct arguments as if they were one 1) the poor science resources and options at your daughter’s school and 2) the American curriculum decisions about which classes to teach when.

As an educator told me once, “the decision to teach one subject (or aspect of a subject) is the decision to not teach something else.” So, while yes, Americans students learn sciences at different times than their UK counterparts, the expectation is that MOST of those high schoolers will continue at a US university — and therefore not be at any distinct disadvantage since their peers would have had the same education.

I would expect for example, that a UK high schooler coming to the US would find that his or her preparation might have gaps given the choices of the UK curriculum. Perhaps not, but again, the decision to teach one thing is the decision to not teach something else.

7 Andrew Maynard July 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm

You’re very right Christine, and this is a distinction that my rather hurried piece didn’t pull out. Certainly there are wonderful strengths in the breadth of the US education up to the later years of your first degree, and when it is done right (and some places do do it right) it works well. The trouble is, a broad but bad education potentially does more harm than good. What we often forget is the students who are disenfranchised or poorly served as they are overshadowed by the few that succeed – sometimes despite the system.

8 Brian Robinson July 29, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Interesting. I was in high school in the UK in the 1960s, and at that time I had to decide at age 14 what subjects I wanted to take for university. They “streamed” me on the science side, and I took math, physics and chemistry for A level. I also wanted to take English literature, but they said no. My UK university experience, by contrast with a good high school experience, was awful, the kind of thing your daughter seems to have suffered at her US school! It turned me off from any kind of future in science proper, though I did end up writing about it. I think I would have profited from a more liberal US university experience, and a chance to have changed majors.

9 Andrew Maynard July 30, 2012 at 6:35 am

Without a doubt, the flexibility of the US university undergraduate system has significant advantages over the UK system for many students – in fact, many of the top students acknowledge that high school is something to be survived to get them into a decent college, and then their education can really begin (this is part of the disconnect between moving between the US and UK when transitioning to University). That said, for students who have some idea of what interests them, there are some fantastic degrees/universities in the UK.

10 monxton July 30, 2012 at 10:15 am

This A level streaming which Brian describes is one thing which has improved in the English system (for the benefit of your US readers, I do not say UK because the Scottish system has always done things quite differently to the English one). His desired mix of Humanities and Science at A level would be quite normal today.

11 Andrew Maynard July 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Thanks for the reminder that Scotland does things differently!

12 Joanne Manaster (@sciencegoddess) July 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for this post. Best of luck to your daughter. It’s so wonderful to open her horizons.

I’ve always preferred British science TV programs to the US (current US ones, to be exact) since they are slower and more measured (even in videos compare Periodic Videos to SciShow). I wonder if that ability to have a sustained focus on science is due to better training in schools and if the UK may see this erode eventually, too, as it has in the US as the attention span diminishes due to the change in the nature of how media is presented.

This is just my out loud musings and not anticipating anyone having answers as science literacy is tangled in so many levels of where things go wrong (or right).

13 Andrew Maynard July 30, 2012 at 6:40 am

Interesting – I don’t know is the answer, although I suspect that the reasons may be more complex than just considering science education in the UK. But there has long been a trend in science programming to move from satisfying a thirst for knowledge to grabbing the attention and entertaining – and it’s a trend that looks set to continue. Of course this could just be me getting old and nostalgic for the good old days of James Burke, Tomorrows’ World and Horizon as it was!

14 monxton July 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

I’m sure the school you have chosen for your daughter is an excellent one. However the attitudes you describe are following into English schools, and it is quite normal for a school not to offer Chemistry, Physics and Biology as separate subjects at GCSE, with only double-award Science GCSE on offer.

The take-up of “hard” subjects, including languages as well as Maths and Science, at A-level continues to decline, in favour of “soft” subjects.

One particular change, which will affect your daughter (unless she is going to a school which takes IB or Cambridge Pre-U), is the AS exams taken in the summer of the Lower Sixth year. These have the effect of making A-level study much more modular and dominated by cramming and repetition, with module resits often taken. In my opinion this is much to the detriment of actual learning.

15 Andrew Maynard July 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Interesting Re: the AS levels. I did notice that that these are now pretty much standard, but wasn’t sure what to make of it.

One thing’s for sure – the next two years are going to be as interesting for me as I see differences between the US and UK, as well as my own UK education, playing out, as they will be for my daughter!

16 David in Cincinnati July 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm

It’s difficult to know what is common in US high school education from just my own experience. But I think you should count blessings if your local high school features music AND sports! Also, my high school physics was all friction and inclined planes. There was not the slightest hint of the 20th Century physics that unfolded prior to the coming discovery of SU3 symmetry. Somehow, though, I wove my way into physics following an intense interest in chemistry and ability in math, despite various teachers. So it’s not obvious what the influence of inadequate formal education is relative to a personal curiosity and desire to find out on one’s own.

On the other hand, some people not destined for careers in science (or music) are no doubt severely missing out on the excitement. My neighbor just now finished her 12th grade (US) physics course. I asked her about how they covered the subject of quarks. She wasn’t sure her physics instructor had heard of quarks.

17 Skepcheck August 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

monxton: Unless things have changed in the last year, then schools in England are obliged to offer triple sciences at GCSE.

18 Jonathan August 3, 2012 at 8:55 am

You can’t find a school in Michigan (or the rest of the US) that offers the International Baccalaureate?

19 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 9:49 am

There’s one just outside Ann Arbor that is just gearing up to offer IB. This is what my daughter wanted when we moved here 2 years ago – no local options then though sadly.

20 Zane November 5, 2012 at 8:09 am

There is one IB school in Michigan that has been ranked as nation’s #1 IB school almost every year in the past 10 years.

http://www.iatoday.org

21 steve August 3, 2012 at 9:43 am

I trust that you have chosen the school in the UK carefully.

Unfortunately many examining bodies have adopted a modular approach. Unlike in my day when we had an intense period at the end in which everything is examined, even in the UK students can re-sit modules with an approach of complete and move on. I also imagine that many of the schools choose the syndicates on the basis of improving their pass statistics.

For me it was interesting over the two years of studying a-levels how the stories evolved and how for example the maths – physic – chemistry became inter related, possibly due to my school’s science department’s organization of these courses. I’m not saying that this was the case in all schools.

I hope that your daughter has a great time studying in the UK, that she is able to find a positive productive environment. But similar to Jonathan I am surprised you were unable to find a school in the US.

22 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 9:53 am

We vetted the UK school pretty carefully – it’s actually my wife’s old school!

We lived in Fairfax County VA for a time and the schools there were very different. They still had their challenges, but I think that we would have been comfortable with my daughter graduating from there, then going to university in the UK (she was actually doing IBs in VA). So certainly a lot of variability here. But with public schools in Ann Arbor, there’s not a whole lot of choice!

23 Mary Beth August 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

Yep, chemistry at Pioneer sucks (the technical term). My son was so turned off he NEVER TOOK ANOTHER SCIENCE COURSE–despite being National Merit, summa cum laude in college etc. You probably could find better in the States, even Ann Arbor, but good luck no matter what!
PS: Biology at Pioneer was pretty darn good, however–heavily DNA-focused….

24 Adrianna McIntyre August 3, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hm. I wonder how much the curriculum options vary district-to-district, even within Michigan. When I attended high school (2004-2007, Utica Community Schools) I felt like I had a plethora of science classes to choose from, with some flexibility in the timing. I definitely see how taking chemistry/physics/biology consistently/concurrently would be useful. From 9th to 12th grade, I managed to take two years of biology (9 and 12-AP), two years of chemistry (10 and 11-AP) and one year of physics (11). I had the option of taking AP physics in grade 12 but opted not to. For all of the science classes, it was expected that you’d taken the “honors” sequence prior to enrolling in the AP class… I think you actually had to get special permission otherwise. At any rate, I was sufficiently prepared to pass both the AP biology & chemistry tests.

That said, my district restructured the school day during my senior year in a way that limited scheduling like this, by changing from a 7-”hour” school day (seven 45-minute class blocks) to a 5-hour day (five 60-minute class blocks). The change (budget-motivated, of course) caused quite a stir, but I haven’t kept up to see how that affected the district’s curriculum. It would be interesting to see, though… and maybe take a look at AP score trends, hah.

25 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 10:57 am

Thanks Adrienne. I suspect that from within the system it’s hard to imagine science at high school working in any other way. But there are alternatives :-)

26 John August 3, 2012 at 10:37 am

I went to a public high school in Minneapolis, but was lucky to participate in a state program that paid for me to concurrently attend college (Post-secondary enrollment options program in Minnesota). I remember taking chemistry in high school in 10th grade, and not understanding any of it. We spent most of our time calculating how many calories we would burn if we drank 10 cups of ice water. I didn’t understand why (or how) anybody would go on to study this in college, let alone get a PhD in it. Needless to say, I got an A in chemistry without a real understanding of even what the field of chemistry was.

The following year, I signed up for the intro chemistry course at the University of Minnesota to meet one of my generals. I was lucky to have a chem prof that was really engaging and interested in getting students to love chemistry. I started doing chemistry demos for children at local elementary schools, and ended up majoring in chemistry for my undergrad.

High school is a joke in the US. Scientific concepts get watered down (in my case, quite literally) to a point where they’re not even recognizable or representative of the field that you’re actually studying. When I got to college, I remember being amazed at what chemistry actually is… You mean to tell me that you can actually *see* an atom? And before you could see it, you could deduce the properties of different elements? What exactly does this have to do with burning calories from drinking cold water?

Needless to say, I think you’re making the right decision to send your daughter to the UK.

27 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

Interesting that it sounds like you had a similar experience. To be honest, I think you can survive in the US if you make it to university with good grades and still retain the capacity to be enthralled by science. But if you don’t have a stubborn science-streak or are moving to a country that expects you to know something coming out of high school, you have a problem.

28 David August 3, 2012 at 10:42 am

Such a shame. It used to be said about the better districts in Michigan, of which Ann Arbor was one, that, “our public schools are better than your private schools,” and it was true.

Those in wealthier progressive districts tend to blame Engler, the GOP, and school of choice measures that fought the union and prevented some of the increasing disparities. Administrators in poorer districts committed fraud and bled the state dry at the same time.

Ann Arbor was one of the last places in the state that I would have considered resettling in, but I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that as the boomers retire and the brightest of my generation seek opportunity elsewhere, the result is an abrupt decline in standards. I’ve also heard that UM students increasingly come from out of state.

29 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

There is also the problem that you can graduate with a high GPA and still know very little! OK if it gets you to the university of your choice – not so good if you have the quaint notion that school should be about learning and understanding.

30 Bill Kojola August 3, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I attended a public high school in the Minneapolis, MN area from 1965 through 1967. I took science classes sequentially – biology in ’65, chemistry in ’66, and physics in ’67. I’m not sure whether it matters so much as to sequential or simultaneous approaches. What I am sure about, however, is the quality and skill of the teacher and the excitement that is generated about the subject. My biology teacher was extraordinary – turned me on for a lifetime that propelled me in that direction in college and ultimately a career/profession in science. The high school chemistry was dismal and physics only slightly better (sorry Andrew!). I overcame the deficiencies in chemistry and physics at the university – and continued the spark that my biology teacher ignited in me in the biological sciences. If it weren’t for the 10th grade biology teacher, I’m certain that my so-called career in “science” would never have materialized. I can only wish that your daughter – and your son – wherever they go to high school, have science teachers that turn them on.

31 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I know there’s a bit of a backlash against the myth of the super-teacher (rightly so), but inspirational teachers are critical – I could name a small handful of teachers who I suspect changed the course of my life through their inspiration. Messed up as the US sequential system is (said a bit tongue in cheek), more inspirational teachers would go a long way to un-messing it! (same could be said for the UK of course)

32 Richard August 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm

This is quite thought provoking. I always figured there were good to excellent private schools in Ann Arbor and surrounding areas even if the public school system was having problems. Do you feel the same way or are there issues with the private schools you looked at?

33 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I must confess that I have a strong aversion to private schools apart from the $$ I feel quite strongly that a good education shouldn’t be for the privileged. But I do have to be careful what I say, having just opted out of the Ann Arbor public schools with one of my kids!

That aside, I hear reports that private education in A2 is better than public.

34 Richard August 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I agree that good education should not just be for the privileged. It also means paying twice for education, through taxes and direct to a private school, which is not very efficient. That said, it is obvious you are willing to go through great lengths for a good education for your kids. I imagine some people only have the option of throwing money at the problem (oh to have that luxury) as they cannot fix the system on their own.

35 Michael Darling, colorado August 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm

How to tell?

If the past 20 years are any indicaiton, 40 or 50 % of the jobs that will exist in 10 years (about the time my eldest will be college complete) don’t exist yet.

He’s talking about ETH and probably the easiest path to entry is to graduate from a local canton school. Otherwise, while learning German and doing the best he can with what he’s got here, which is a lot cheaper.

?

I think part of the problem here (USA) is the emphasis on one size fits most.
If the class is too hard – or, heaven forbid, an entire curriculum, than only a few students have even the chance to do it. If we make it easier – a broader curriculum – then everyone can do it. Or at least more.

But how do you get to just send a student off to the UK?

36 Andrew Maynard August 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm

This is where I made shameless use of being a UK citizen and having family there where my daughter could stay. If it wasn’t for this, we would be looking at US-based workarounds – which to be frank might have had to include a first year at university in the US, followed by a move to a UK university.

37 Michael Darling, colorado August 5, 2012 at 11:23 am

Well done you.
I’m not sure the workaround would not have worked- but you do the math and act accordingly.

You have variables your daughter can have advantage of – pay it forward. She leaves everything better where she can.

38 Sheryl August 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm

I’m an Australian who was an exchange student at an elite Hungarian School, the principal of the school had previously had experience with North american (mostly american but a couple of Canadians) students. He would not let me enrol in senior (anything above year 9) math classes based on his previous experience. I managed to convince him to let me sit a couple of tests and prove I’d survive.

The US system (not that I’ve been a part of it) seems to place the incentive to motivate and engage in extracurricular activities (science club, scouts, olympiad etc). There is no wonder of science introduced in school. Chemistry/biology even physics can be taught in the kitchen – there is no need for expensive equipment and facilities – sure they make it easier but a motivated teacher or parent can overcome that issue. Finding the motivated teacher in any country is the hard bit.

The international reputation of american schools in pretty low in the Maths/science area. There is an expectation that high school graduates will know little about the field they have studied and in many respects be ill prepared for life outside of their town. There are some that are able to overcome the deficiencies their education had – and they are some of the most interesting people I’ve met – but rarely have I met that kind of person inside the US – I normally meet them in some foreign country.

But these are comments from someone who hasn’t studied within the US system – and was inspired to a PhD in biology by my highschool physics teacher. I did science experiments from grade 3 – not frequently but occasionally science was a compulsory subject from 8-10 and divided into streams for 11 and 12.

39 Andrew Maynard August 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

Interesting non-US perspective Sheryl – thanks. I agree btw that the wonder of science can be inspired with remarkably little investment in fancy equipment.

40 robert August 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Yes, but … another anecdotal counter-example: my kid (and others in his school) had quite different experiences than yours in our local public school. Great Biology, great Physics and Math from middle school on, supplemented by the extra-curricular activities you already mentioned. Inspirational teachers. Many kids have gone on to science-based careers driven by this early enthusiasm.

The larger point seems to be the variability from place to place in the US. This, it seems to me, is the real difference between K-12 in the US and in New Zealand, where I grew up. In the latter, curriculum is (mostly) uniform for the entire country. Teachers move around between schools all over NZ. In the US, the curriculum is determined to a much greater degree by the local school board, which might be great and might be abysmal. Most of the school experience in the US, from what I can tell, is determined in large part by the quality of the district school board and the level of funding available locally.

41 Andrew Maynard August 4, 2012 at 10:32 am

I may be wrong, but I do get the sense that there is a relatively uniform core curriculum across many US schools. But I agree – the variability here is huge. If we had stayed in Virginia, my son would have had the chance to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School – a public school, but the top rated one in the country as far as science and math go. Having looked around the school, I would have been thrilled for him to go there – although the school has problems at the other end of the spectrum, where it caters for over-achievers in STEM.

42 Jonas Betters August 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Ranking of patent filings per capita shows that Japan is at #1, South Korea #2 and the United States #3. The UK comes in 9th.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_patents

For ranking of Nobel Prizes per capita, the UK comes out better, at #9 vs the US’s #15. However, it should be noted that the top two rank positions belongs to the small Island nations of Faroe Islands (between Scotland and Iceland) and Saint Lucia (which is afro-carribean).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Nobel_laureates_per_capita

43 Tony Kennedy August 3, 2012 at 11:57 pm

As a former Associate Professor at a Japanese university, my wife and I decided to return to Australia for our daughter’s education. Was it the right decision?
Like you my with science education in the US and UK, we too feel that our decision was a good one. But do have some hesitations, the main two are with acceptable behaviour in a classroom and school lunches. Japan remains the best in terms of these two matters. Also, developing a community spirit is what Japanese schools excell at. So, if our daughter wanted to return to the country where she and her mother were born, I aid have no hesitation in allowing her to.
I wonder how science education in Australia and Japan compare to that of the US and the UK? Both my wife and I have science based careers here in Canberra, Australia.
We wish your daughter every success.

44 Andrew Maynard August 4, 2012 at 10:45 am

Thanks Tom – interesting that you faced a similar challenge. Life would be easier if the consequences of decisions were a lot more black and white :-) (but not as interesting…)

45 Gaythia Weis August 5, 2012 at 10:14 am

Life is full of these challenges. Best wishes to your family in surmounting them. It sounds like your daughter already has independence and drive, further developing those skills should serve her well.
In terms of these sorts of decisions, I believe that the best one my husband and I made was at an earlier stage, removing them from the local one size fits all philosophy public elementary school, and enrolling them in a public school in Boulder, CO that allowed the acceleration of the math program, had an active science program, and more importantly, didn’t treat advanced students as odd and exceptional. Like some above, we found high school IB to be an excellent program. The group of students interacting together as peers was part of what made this program special. It is a ridged program though. Math for example, didn’t (at least at that time) cover calculus at an analogous to AP manner, (it did add statistics) and there was no way to take the senior year program earlier. v we supplemented this with an online Calculus programhttp://asoutreach.okstate.edu/registration/calculus.htm Junior year. It isn’t for everyone, some advanced students with more specific interests may not be as willing to go along with the breadth. Despite an emphasis on breadth in IB, we always had a difficult time fitting such things as orchestra in. In fact, one offspring didn’t get the actual IB degree, having substituted a senior year AP English for the IB version to make the schedule work. I’d point out to other parents that that didn’t seem to matter to colleges and Universities at all. Might have even helped, as a demonstration of initiative.

It is hard to balance ones desire for the best for ones own children, with a desire to live in a society that provides equal opportunity for all. I’ve always tried to be quite involved in local school district issues, and support . I also have been active on curriculum committees and such in an effort to improve programs. With election season coming up I’d point out that local school board elections, funding levies and state boards of education all are quite significant, and frequently are targeted by those with agendas that do not involve support of quality science education.

46 Kevin September 27, 2012 at 8:45 am

I think it’s important here to clarify, as some pointed out, just how different the philosophies are between the US vs the UK when it comes to the last year of high school and the first year of college/university. In the UK I believe students enter university with a course in mind, and begin focusing in that course immediately, which of requires a strong base. In the US, as you say, students don’t develop this strong base in a subject until the first year of university but they are afforded more academic freedom. This is the core of the liberal arts education, and why undergraduate degrees in the US are typically 4 year programs rather than 3.
Perhaps a more fair comparison of the two systems would be to compare a US student after the first year of university and a UK student in the last year of high school.

Time and scheduling must also be an important factor. At my (public, in Illinois, class of 2004), and I think many high schools in the US, we had the same classes every day, so a chemistry class or lab could be at maximum one hour long. At the university level, students often have incredibly rigorous chemistry and physics courses in their first year, with lab components could have 3-4 hours reserved. I think students greatly benefit from more in-depth sessions than several short sessions. The first-year chem and physics courses at US universities are often what help students to find their passion for a future in science, probably partly because of the longer sessions.

I have no data either, but I also feel that the system is quite good for those who are interested and committed to science. This is course the fault of the “tracking” policy of many US elementary and high-schools. In my case I was on an “honors” track–a biology course, followed by chemistry, and two years of physics. Others could have taken a remedial science course and never progressed to any physics or chemistry at all. As one of these “lucky ones” I had a great high school physics teacher who convinced me to major in physics in college, which turned into having great professors. Now I’m in a physics PhD program and several of my high schools peers have been successful as well. For those who the system doesn’t identify as top students, the effort isn’t to make them top students in science or to communicate how important it is, but instead to push them through more basic courses. The interesting science is largely forgotten, which is really unfortunate.

Perhaps more than unfortunate, it should be alarming that more effort isn’t made to instill respect for science in all our youth. Identifying a problem, researching, collecting evidence, and drawing reasonable conclusions seem, to my biased viewpoint, as an excellent way to go about solving problems. It’s particularly unnerving not only when politicians disregard fact and evidence in favor of ideological “solutions”, but also that so many others in the US hop on that bandwagon, unable to identify that lack of evidence or fact.

47 Andrew Ekstrom October 16, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I was a student assistant at International Academy (IA) High School in Bloomfield, Mi. The students that went to school there took a minimum of Calculus 1, 2 years of Chem, 1 year of Physics and Bio, among all the other classes they had. They would take 8-9 classes per term. They took AP level classes in the 9th to 11th grades. The students that started AP classes sooner, ended up taking “college level” classes in the 11th and 12th grades. All the general education classes Americans take in college were taught to these students in highschool.

Most of the students at this highschool were there foreign born and wanted to attend college in their home countries. They couldn’t attend regular public school nor private schools because the level of the American school are so far below the European, Japanese, Canadian standards. This school used the IB program. There were 30+ students in each class I subbed for. The students used pages copied from different textbooks as their textbooks. A Bloomfield public school couldn’t afford to purchase proper books for all the students they had.

When I hear people complaining about how we need smaller class sizes and more money to make American schools better, I don’t get the argument. We need students that are willing to learn. We need students that think knowledge is the way to college, not football, basketball or any other sport. Sports are fun to play but, they are not life. ( I say this while watching the Tigers play the Yankees, thinking I should go to the gym for a workout.) The students at IA wanted to learn. In any one class you could hear students swear in 6-10 different languages. IA had an ESL program. The students at IA were the same as any other school, other than they really wanted to learn.

With all of that said, I know of several EHS students, from foreign countries, that are required to take Calculus, Organic Chemistry, and other Gen Ed classes because those classes don’t appear on the college transcripts. In Europe, China, Taiwan and elsewhere, those classes are highschool level. So they will never appear on a college transcript. I would hope that someone who understands foreign education systems would be able to say something to the people that evaluate transcripts in the department.

Hope you daughter does well this year. If she wants to come back though, there are schools for her here in Michigan. You might have to move to Novi or Farmington. But, an internationally recognized, higher quality than Detroit Country Day, high school is here in Michigan. And it’s free.

48 Priya November 19, 2012 at 7:25 am

While trying to find out the differences between the US and UK education , I happened to reach your blog…quite an eye opener for me…an Indian expat now living in Dubai…. My children are going to an Indian curriculum school where we do have a lot of science and math to do starting grade 5… We do aspire to send our children to study in the US having heard so much about the choices to be made at undergrad level. Right now the debate on at home is if we should switch over to an American Curriculum school . I seem to have got a lot of answers from this page.. What’s your take on Indian students at college level who come straight from India? My son is a bright chap , seems to be good with science…we do physics , chemistry and biology from grade 9..consistently making good grades..enjoys the lab as well…like me…ahem!!!

49 Moneiphae March 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

hello my name is moneiphae I have read your article and I have a question. I have been attending us schools since age 3 but now I am in the 12th grade and my father lives in jamaica. I want to move there in a few weeks but with only a month and a half left of high school im wondering would it harm me in anyway to move before graduation. I have heard that that education in jamaica mirrors the U.K education. Which is more advanced than the education in the u.s. Please reply and thank you for reading.

50 Mabat April 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Hi, I am looking a high school in England for my daughter. I was wondering how did you find the school and the family? Thank you.

51 Donna June 18, 2013 at 5:47 am

Hi,
Having lived in the UK and the US I have seen issues with apathy in both public systems. When we left the UK four years ago was people moving house so their children would have access to a “good” school because there is so much variation in the system. This is reflected in the OFSTED reports. I have also found the quality of the pastoral care at the school is highly dependent on attitude and ability of the head teacher (principle in the US). We are currently living in Dubai and the schools are high quality, but the fees are very high and getting higher every year.

Since graduating from an IB program myself twenty years ago I think school standards are becoming more equivalent internationally, especially with the more schools adopting IB and the introduction of the IGCSE. Unfortunately this does not always make transferring systems easy for students as the availability of international programs is not available where you have to move to and this continuing urge of educators wanting to “put students back a year” in case they miss something. For expats who move frequently that could greatly affect the age at which they finally complete school. I have found it to be completely unnecessary with bright younger kids as they tend to “pick up” any small items they may have “missed”.

Increasingly, more education options are available by correspondence /distance learning, especially with advances in technology. Both the US system and the British system have private companies that offer distance education where students can work at their own pace with advice and assistance offered by tutors over the phone or email. We have personal experience with an excellent distance education school in the US and I would recommend all expats who are struggling to provide their children with a good education to explore these options before resorting to the heart-wrenching situations of enduring in-school abuse by teachers or fellow students, or entering into crippling debt from school fees or sending your young children to another country without you.
US: Laurel Springs School, Ojai, CA (K-12)
UK: Oxford Open Learning (Year 7 – A levels)

Best of Luck to all parents and students.

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53 Nash July 3, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Hi, thank you for this information i do appreciate it. I wanted to know if it is worth it for me to go back to the UK, i know that neither systems are better than the other since there are a lot of variables that are to be considered, but i am sort of leaning towards the UK plus i am a UK citizen since i was born there. I am currently on summer break heading to my senior year of high school in the US and thinking about moving back to the UK, and from this info it looks like i would have to spend an extra year in school. So I am asking if its worth it, or should i just stay in the US and go to college/ university? I know the obvious answer would be to stay, but i really would like to know if i can get a better education over there and broaden my horizons, even if I do spend an extra year in school. I have other reasons for going to, but education is most important so its really up to where the best education for me would lie. One more thing, since I’ve been brought up in an american school system i feel i am kind of ill prepared for such a transition. I am basically looking for some insight from an adult who knows a little about both systems. Please reply and thank you.

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55 rich October 14, 2013 at 5:36 am

Your article is very British in expectation and misinterpretation.

Whatever the problems where you are–There is no such thing as a US Educational system, first off, so your analysis is wrong from the start.

There is vast choice able to accommodate whatever level of failure makes you comfortable–or to encourage a student to develop EC skills that actually work in the real world using the school knowledge set as a base. Many HS use infused teaching and block courses. They have a considerable cross-science knowledge by 5th grade.

US Colleges increasingly expect people to prove or get 2 years of the old college core before studies demonstrated by CLEP or AP type tests. Your UK BA is increasingly facing a US BA that’s really wider and with MA level number of credits who has raised money, organized groups, likely started a small enterprise, can think across disciplines, and run a federal republic which the UK has yet to master.

Jimmied foreign tests and Euro use of trivia facts to argue points notwithstanding, my experience in both Europe and the US is this: US students blow everyone else out of the water, and the top ones run the world.

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