At School in the US – a Danish View on American High Schools

No two schools are alike in the US. To claim otherwise would be foolish as school boards and regional differences in legislation may affect the teaching. Hence the following observations cannot be absolute generalizations; they are merely common denominators, but for at least a number of schools. Over a decade all of my four children have attended US high schools in three different states (Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas), and since they have experienced much of what I saw in my own school in Washington State as well as in many of the schools I visited in Oregon in 1990/91, certain features stand out as typical of American education.

American high school teachers teach the same classes year after year. If a teacher's classes are sophomores and seniors, s/he will teach sophomores and seniors every year. This way a teacher specializes in certain grades, and over the years s/he will have accumulated a great amount of teaching material as well as testing material aimed at a specific level of teaching. The education of American high school teachers corresponds roughly to that of the Danish "seminarium" colleges rather than the academic training at our universities (American M.A.s do no not teach high school). In a similar manner the specified requirements for getting a high school diploma do not correspond to the Danish requirements. In practice, what the two systems have in common is rather the age group of youth (15/16 through 18/19) than the required skills and learning.

Since most of the students’ grades are given on the basis of written assignments prepared at home and class room tests, students will not have their assignments back as other students might copy them and thus ruin the teacher's testing material – instead students are only allowed to look them over: not to learn anything from the grading (since there are no comments) but to "witness" the grade they have been given, usually written in the top right hand corner of the front page. The grade is calculated according to the percentage of correct answers. Assignments are then collected and shredded.  This corresponds to the nature of the test: what is measured is how close a student gets to mastering the "what's" concerning a certain subject or topic, not the "why's" or "wherefore's", not to mention the discriminating eye regarding any bias in the textbook's presentation of facts that may not be facts after all.  When turning also the humanities and liberal arts into a matter of "true" or "false", little is left for discussion.  And if a sufficient number of questions are answered correctly, the student passes the test and will never again be "bothered" with questions relating to the topic in question. Thus the tests are "non-progressive" in the sense that what wasn't passed this week may be made up for over summer or even in a later year (I taught the same boy in both my sophomore and senior classes as he didn't pass the sophomore requirements when he attended the sophomore class the first time.) This blunt proof of focus on the acquisition of knowledge without personal development borders on idiocy.  The ideal objective of education should not be the ability to remember and rattle off facts, but to apply them in one's own thinking.

Multiple choice
Test questions are often asked in the fashion of multiple choice: students will choose between a small number of specified answers to a given question.  Even if statistics say that only students in the know of things will pass in multiple choice tests, this kind of test does not train the students' ability to see or find the inherent problems in the text or anything else worth a comment, nor do they test the students’ ability to express themselves as the test gives away the right answer written out in full. On the other hand, multiple choice test are easy to grade which may very well be the reason why they are so favored in American education.
   Most students leave their (heavy, hardcover) text books at school and only take them home at the end of the week to prepare for a test in the topics taught during the week – they "study".  The rest of the week they may go to school, but they don't study.  Instead they take notes from the teachers' monologues.  Oral participation in class (i.e. discussions) is still limited to certain subjects and not found in many schools.  Once I heard a Math teacher "chant" his way through class by reading aloud from the overhead projector sheets he had prepared years ago; the students' told me that it was the same every time the class had Math.  Those who didn’t follow didn't pass the tests, but nothing was explained twice or repeated for the ones who were absent, they would have to make up on their own.

In most schools the system sits hard on students and discipline is strict: if a student wants to leave the room (to go to the library or the bathroom), a "pass" is required. In the halls and corridors are positioned people who monitor the students’ whereabouts – they are supposed to be in class, so they must have some proof of their "right" to be outside the class room.
   Between classes students are usually allowed a passing time of 3-5 minutes which may be too little if the school accommodates 2,500 students who must all go to their lockers to exchange the books from the previous subject with the new ones.  If a student arrives too late for his/her new class, s/he will be given a "tardy", a warning, and three tardy's may trigger some sort of punishment, e.g. an "in school suspension" which means isolation in a special room where the student will work with written assignments and tests the whole day – just like the rest of the students, only alone.  In many schools the main doors are locked during school hours to keep outsiders (i.e. drug pushers) from entering.

The school looks after the parents’ children, also in the afternoons when everybody is doing sports or club activities at school. Thus most of a student's day is full from the time s/he boards the school bus in the morning till the bus lets out the youth at home in time for supper.  Parents are thus used to relying on the schools' taking care of their children from morning till late afternoon which explains the strict discipline (because of the school's liability) and why school buses may not be overtaken on the road.

Foreign languages
Americans are not taught foreign languages the way Europeans are.  Many schools do not offer foreign languages, and if they do, then only a limited number of languages (mostly Spanish due to the immigration from Latin America).  But even when a foreign language is taught, the aim and focus of the teaching will not be on the literature of the mother country of the language, but on what we would consider "tourist" lingo.  This corresponds rather well to the overall teaching in many subjects: what is important is not so much the in-depth study of the phenomenon, but the mere knowing of its existence which can be checked in a multiple choice test that pre-formulate the problem for you.

Teacher exchanges
But even though American teaching may seem less "advanced" than for instance the Danish equivalent, it far exceeds that of many other countries.  This is probably why the Fulbright exchange program for teachers was established: to let teachers from non-American educational systems benefit from experiencing American school life and teaching while at the same time their American exchange partner is busy spreading the American "gospel" to their students back home.  Both teachers are paid their usual wages by their ordinary employers, and they swap houses; thus there are no public costs to the exchange apart from the airline tickets.
   Needless to say, I didn't feel there was much for me to learn – in fact, I thought it was the other way round:  I felt that I could teach them a thing or two about education (other Fulbright exchange teachers from Denmark, France and England felt much the same way they told me when we were gathered to learn more about American education and exchanged views.)  What bothered me the most was that I was sent to fill a void, viz. where my American partner used to teach as the American teacher is picked first and the foreigner last.  All in all, this kind of exchange doesn't really work well with Danish high school teachers, and on request from Danish teachers in recent years the Fulbright exchanges have been made with American college teachers whose teaching is much more in line with Danish high school standards.

Hierarchy of schools
However, no two American schools are alike, and I did visit a school which reminded me of a Danish high school, nay, the American students were, in fact, more motivated and skillful and talented than the Danish students I have known (in many schools across Denmark).  Later it turned out that this was a special private school, sought by advanced students.  A further proof of this was that the teachers of that school were paid less than other teachers in the area, but the students’ motivation more than made up for the minus in dollars – they were a pleasure to teach.
   Of the schools my children attended, the ones in Indiana stood out in offering good teaching and in demanding an effort from the motivated students, not unlike what is seen in Danish high schools.  However, the schools were not typical as they took pride in their high ranking position in the ISTEP tests, but it is a comfort to know that such schools and students do exist; if not, the US would soon be going to the dogs.  On the other hand, if schools are that different, not only will there be no "equal opportunity" for students to pursue careers; the future rulers and "captains of industry" will be recruited from a small number of schools, not unlike the British hierarchy of "public (= private, not royal) boarding schools", which was one of the things that Americans wanted to abolish in 1776.

Getting around the rules and back at teachers
The Danish tradition that "you do not learn for school, but for life" is reversed in the US where meeting Friday's demands (tests) seems to be the guiding star for most students.  To them life is a contest (test scores are sometimes posted in class or even in the local papers), and the teacher is the immediate adversary.  Thus students will lie to your face if they think they may benefit from getting away with the lie; and if disproved, they will just shrug their shoulders and say with a grin, "Well, I did try (to get off scot-free), didn't I?" The general mistrust between teachers and students is so massive that students apply much of their time to figure out ways to get around the rules.
   Since the '70s Danish teachers have tried to act as friendly mentors in a very low profile, anti-authoritarian key which implies a friendly pat on the shoulder now and then, even a hug after an outstanding achievement on the student's part as both students and teachers are working together toward the same goal.  In the US I was warned not to touch any student for whatever reason as such a gesture might be misinterpreted and used against me.  In the same way I was warned never to let any student (especially a female student) stay behind after class behind closed doors as she might take advantage of the fact and try to blackmail me right there and then or later.
   Similarly, there is no Danish dress code for students nor teachers: you are what you teach, and there is thus no need for "plumage".  On the contrary, if you dress up, but are a lousy teacher, most likely you will be considered a fool - the students will se through you, and a pompous authoritarian attitude will be ridiculed. In contrast, most American schools demand that both teachers and students look "decent", i.e. teachers must dress up in a suit and tie.

Guns, not books
It came as a great shock to all Americans that instead of books American youth started taking guns and bombs to school with the intent to kill teachers and fellow students.  America has always had its share of maniacs, but that children started killing children seemed inexplicable.  Many Americans have expressed their concern, and a great many suggestions have been made regarding the reasons for the problem and how it may be solved.  But although the critics seem sincere in their quest for truth, they also seem to overlook the obvious: that in a competitive society, for every winner you proclaim, there are many more losers.  And the fact that a scorned loser will seek revenge can hardly be a surprise. Almost every single one of the children involved in the killings has suffered some sort of loss of face or prestige, most of them hated sports, many of them had strict parents who would punish them physically or psychically, and they all tried to win some of it back by standing out from the crowd in less competitive ways than being "winners", just "special" (e.g. by focusing on anything German as in the Columbine killings, or by worshipping subculture icons).  See more details on this issue in "Our Killing Schools".
   The children's ways of "getting back" or "paying back" also points to the horrifying fact that "fame" has become all-important to young Americans, no matter how, which is exemplified in the media's obsession with criminals. (See also Arming America)

Popularity contests
The ensuing suicides point to the low expectations to life that the young killers share.  Again, a society governed by competition and producing losers calls for desperate outbursts from people who have given up.  It is indeed sad that if life doesn't turn out a success right from the start, the only response seems to be retaliation through killing innocent bystanders as well as the people who brainwashed you to think that you are yourself to blame (cp. the Puritan work ethics).  A girl in my eldest son's class committed suicide while he was an exchange student, but nobody talked about it - the fact was ignored (or accepted?)
   The many semi-official popularity contests (Captain of the Football Team; Home Coming Queen; most likely to succeed; and the elaborate dating system at graduation dances as well as the number of appearances in yearbooks) all point to the importance of making it in the world.  Arthur Miller's Willy Loman (in Death of A Salesman) is a case study in point.

Textbooks and curriculum
Another point in question is the "approved" textbooks.  For a foreigner it is interesting to see what texts are thought fitting for young Americans, and which are not (e.g. texts banned by school boards).  Apart from the fact that mobility between schools is made easier through the use of (almost or) identical textbooks, the books also serve as a uniform means of raising American youth.  An analysis of the prescribed texts will show that many of them deal with overcoming physical difficulties – not surprisingly so in a country like America – but they also abound in examples of "success" urging students to face and overcome mental and social challenges.
   For somebody not in the know of things it may come as a surprise that the Danish high school curriculum is equivalent to the American as far as the quality of the literature is concerned, but with the exception that the required in-depth study and understanding of literature in English (novels, drama and short stories plus student essays on the same) is generally deeper in Danish schools (see example of Danish curriculum).  It may be a further surprise that Danish students should study American texts that propagate "the pursuit of happiness", but the point is, of course, that we study American literature to learn about America and Americans to understand world politics.
   It is my sincere hope that Danish politicians don't look to America for renewal in Danish schools.  But I am afraid that pressure from other member states of the European Union may result in changes.  After all, the Danish system of class discussion versus the American one-way lectures is expensive, and grading essays takes much longer (and is thus more expensive) than counting errors in multiple choice tests.

High school and college
Isn't there anything that speaks in favor of American education?  It is true that the American total of twelve years of free schooling for everybody is to be preferred to the Danish mandatory minimum of nine or ten years (which is actually ten or eleven years if we add the year spent in pre-school after kindergarten.  And if Danish students opt for further free education, they may stay another three years in a Danish "high school" which in it's essence and requirements corresponds to American colleges rather than high schools.
   But even if American education requires a minimum of twelve years
1) many American students drop out of high school; and
2) among those who stay, many don't study, but they are still allowed to stay.

If I should point to any one thing in particular that I did like in America and which I think should be included in the Danish high schools, it would be subjects like Speech and Debate, especially since most of our exams are oral.  The daily practice of oral presentation in Danish schools may be why such subjects are missing from the Danish timetable, but students would still benefit from more formal training in presenting an argument (including a study of the great Greek and Roman orators.)

Geography and politics
In the 1960s and '70s the average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was 19, and since there were quite a few soldiers above that age, there must have been a reasonably great number of very young soldiers.  Many of these soldiers didn't know where they were in the world, and when asked to draw an approximate map of their whereabouts, some of them put Vietnam just off the West Coast of California, i.e. they didn't know they were in Asia.  In 1988 geographical tests published in NEWSWEEK Magazine (August 8, 1988) revealed that among 18- to 24-year-olds (from Sweden, Japan, Germany, the UK, Italy etc.) American students scored dead last in identifying 16 geographic locations.  In fact, 14 percent of the Americans couldn't pick out the US on a world map.
   Now, not knowing about the geography of the world may not mean a lot - there may be more important things to study - but there's more:  According to the article in Newsweek the Gallup test scores reveal that in 1988,

"Only half [the Americans] knew that the Sandinistas and the Contras have been fighting in Nicaragua, and that the Arabs and Jews were quarreling in Israel.  One in three [Americans] cannot name any of the members of NATO - 16 percent think the Soviet Union is a member of the group.  And 5 percent don't know that Washington is the nation's capital." [Newsweek]

Perhaps one can't expect the common people of the world's leading country to know about world politics, but didn't Vice-President Dan Quayle think that people in Latin America speak "Latin", or was the story of his brushing up on his Latin just a cruel hoax?  Could he have been witty?  Not very likely as Quayle also offered this deep statement when visiting London in 1989: "Space is almost infinite.  As a matter of fact, we think it is infinite."

Or consider the following absurd statement by Pres. Gerald Ford when campaigning against Jimmy Carter during the cold war (1976): "The countries in Eastern Europe are sovereign states, and there will never be any Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe under a Ford administration."  One wonders if he knew anything at all about the political map of the world.  (Incidentally, most of the American ignoramuses on international politics are Republicans.)

Know your classics
Every time the Olympic Games are held, a special souvenir coin is minted.  Last month the Australian organizers of the Millennium Games 2000 in Sidney, issued a coin that bears the picture of the Coliseum (or Colosseum.)
   The original idea was to depict something that would represent Greece, the birth place of the original games, e.g. Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, the Coliseum is in Rome, Italy, and was never used for sports events, at the most for sacrificing Christians to the lions in "unfair fights" (Roman sports events took place at the stadium, and Circus Maximus, which held an estimated 250,000 spectators in the terraces, was where the popular chariot racing took place.)   But apparently one pile of ruins looks as old as the next one. (See also Rome)
   In the same fashion, a boy in one of my children's History class in the US thought that Adolph Hitler was a Chicago gangster in the 1920s.  My American sophomore students maintained that A.D. means "after death" and wouldn't accept that the Greek word "sophomore" literally means "half-wit" (i.e. there's more to learn.)

I smiled when for the first time I saw a US produced map of the world with the Americas in the center and Asia split up to the far left and right.  "How self-centered and conceited" was my immediate reaction until I realized that the usual European way of representing the world is equally conceited with Central Europe in the center.  I guess we are all ethnocentric, yet I wonder what a world map made in Australia looks like?
   Still, a great many Americans are just plain wonderful.  Their ethnocentrocity (sic!) may be a shortcoming, but their emphasis on and belief in their own values also creates a refreshing "drive", a trait not often found in a Europe where philosophical doubt sits in our backbones.

And then there are all the other wonderful Americans who do not fit the above description, in fact they might be Europeans in their outlook and attitude to the world's affairs.  As is the situation in any country, citizens come in every shape and form.

See also "American Scenes".

Erik Moldrup