The Awesomeness and Awfulness of American Schools

Before we moved here I thought I had a reasonably good knowledge of the education system as a teacher and from the multiple films and children’s TV shows set in schools

Educationally my impression was that American education was less academically challenging with lots of multiple choice tests. I vaguely knew you had to pass classes rather than exams and that it was therefore also possible to ‘fail’ classes. But I hadn’t really processed the significance of that.

From films and TV I knew that there were yellow school buses. That students had classes with lots of different students rather than mainly staying in one form. That sports were a big deal. That in public schools there was no school uniform and that clothes went a long way to defining who you are and where you fit in. That there were strong social hierarchies and groupings. That people ‘graduated104 days‘ from high school with a lot of hats been thrown in the air and the top student (normally the star of film or show) giving a speech. I also heard all sorts of names for different school years which I didn’t quite understand: freshman, sophomore, senior. I also knew, what all UK kids consider to be the huge plus of the US school system, that there was a huge summer holiday or as they say on Phineas and Ferb ‘104 days of summer vacation”.

When we moved here I soon learnt that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know. In many cases I was unaware that some things even existed or unable to imagine their practical consequences! Some of those things are awesome and some are awful and a surprising number are both.

So here goes my list of the Awesome and Awful Parts of American Education.

Awesome Things

  • A broader education. I didn’t realize that even into college people have to take a broad range of subjects to get their first degree. A computer science major would be able to take history or art as part of their degree. Now some people might also put this in the Awfulness column as it also means  a film studies student would have to take Algebra as part of their degree! But as I teacher I think a broad education is a good thing. Most importantly it avoids the pitfalls of early specialization that happens with A Levels in the UK. In the UK choices made at 16 years old can cut off many career and educational pathways. Its really wonderful that doesn’t happen here in America and indeed it is almost the norm to change your college major once you get to college! You see things differently when you are 19/20 than you do at 15/16 and have a clearer idea about what you want to do with your life.
  • New-Uniform-pics-010
    My kids old school uniform!

    No school uniform. life is too short to spend half an hour looking for a school tie every morning or searching multiple shops for the regulation school skirt. Whoever thought that school blazers were the right clothing to learn in should come and see what kids wear when they can chose. Not a single blazer in sight! School uniforms are expensive and uncomfortable. My kids uniform in Wales even had a woolen tank top! As a teacher I would much rather be checking someone’s book than their shoes.

  • More choice Even in middle school ( what would be year 7,8 & 9 in the UK) kids get to chose some of their subjects. This includes a range of athletic and artistic options. My daughter does dance for her PE option which she loves and my son does sports fitness (the option for the kids not on teams or majorly athletic) which he tolerates a lot better than PE in the UK. But he doesn’t have to take it at all in  8th grade  (year 9). In the arts students can do Art, Theatre, Dance, Choir, Orchestra, Band, News media, Yearbook.
Canyon Vista Middle School Orchestra
  • A higher importance for Art Subjects As someone who thinks creativity is central to education, a middle school timetable in which Theatre and Art are given exactly the same time as Maths or English, is wonderful. Students can even spend nearly half their day being creative. Out of her 8 hour long lessons my daughter spends 3 lessons doing Art, Theatre and Dance.

Things that are both Awesome and Awful

  • The same subjects and the same teachers in the same order every day ( or on alternate days in High School). The good part of this is that it’s simple to follow. Kids get to practice skills everyday and don’t forget about things between lessons that are spaced days apart. No problems in remembering which day you need your PE kit or to bring in your Art Portfolio or homework. Initially I thought this was all good. Till over time the wider consequences became clear. If you have a teacher you really don’t get on with (or a class you hate) you have them (or it) every single day. No good days and bad days. And one subject always gets the taught at the worst time (either the last  period before lunch or at the end of the day) something as a teacher I understand really clearly. When its a demanding subject like maths this really makes a difference as you only get to learn it at the end of the day when you, your class mates and your teacher are tired (like my son has done this year).
  • Long summer holidays- yes there is a down side to this! The summer holiday is pretty much the only holiday. Well I slightly exaggerate but there are only 4 full weeks holiday across the whole of the academic year. The Fall Semester (Autumn Term)  starts in the 3rd week of August and they don’t get a holiday till Thanksgiving in mid November. That is a very long time without a break.
  • Multiple choice testing. I actually think there are some good things about multiple choice testing, not just that it is easy to mark (though it is!) but that it helps students who struggle with literacy and spelling and everyone will get at least some questions right by the law of chance. But that’s also the problem, its a very poor way of testing deeper understanding when you can just guess the answers. Its bad in English (what they call Language Arts in middle school) where responses to texts are so personal and kids in the UK are trained to give THEIR OWN opinion and use evidence to back it up. But also bad in Maths where you can calculate the mostly  answer correctly but do one thing wrong and get no credit.
  • Continuous assessment. Part of me would like to put this just in the awful column but I will come to that! In the UK we fought for some continuous assessment as it seemed unfair that a whole two years of work could be judged by how you did in one 3 hour GCSE or A’Level exam. (Of course nowadays in the UK there is no longer just one single exam. Most subjects have course work and exams part way through. But the final exams do make up a significant proportion of the final grade.) So initially the thought of continuous assessment in the US seemed a good thing. You get credit for work throughout out the year. But and this is a big BUT another way of looking at this would be to replace ‘assessment’ with testing. Now continuous testing is a whole other matter. At my kids school they are given a percentage grade for each subject every six weeks and in those six weeks they will have had at least two ‘quizzes’ (actually a test – its written down and scored) and one exam plus daily grades. Less than 70% is a fail. In my kids highly competitive school less than 90% is looked down on. You can imagine the academic pressure that puts on young people.

Things that are just Awful (well awful might be a little harsh but things I would immediately change!)

  • pecking-orderClass rank – now this is something I have yet to experience directly as it mainly happens in high schools but class ranking means that students are constantly judged against all the other students in their class (or year group as it would be in the UK). In the local high school Westwood you are judged against 800 other students. So it is not about how much you know, but how much everybody else knows. How demotivating. The good thing is that many high schools are now dropping it. But unfortunately not our local high school – yet….


  • 6 hour state tests (for kids as young as 11!). Do I really need to say anything about that?
  • Sex education based around the idea of ‘Worth the Wait” till you are married. Really?
  • This might seem harsh to put it here but I think its awful that the kids only get a 30 minute break (in which time they are also supposed to eat their lunch) in the whole day.
  • Ending the year with 4 days of Testing. That’s mean for the kids and the teachers!

I could write loads more about the education system (and might well do another day) but thats enough for one rant and anyway the school year is nearly over. My lucky kids only have the four days of testing left. Then the best part of the school year the summer vacation!

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