I live and work in the US and am an American citizen, but I am not US-born; I came here to go to grad school. I spent my formative years in a small European country and had the equivalent of K-12 and undergrad education in a system considerably different than the one in the US. As my kids progress through American public schools, I get ever more aware of how many differences there really are between the systems.
My eldest will start high school in the fall, so I went to parent orientation and later to Electives Night with my son. Allow me to just say — Oh. My. God! So many awesome choices!
But let me start by describing the high school system I went through. I have no idea how the system looks now, but when I went to school you picked a general area of interest/specialization when you were entering high school and then picked a school that was strong in that area and that would take you (besed on GPA). There were also a number of vocational schools, and those on the academic track. As an example, I picked “Math and Natural Sciences” and my childhood BFF picked “Humanities and Social Sciences”. We both ended up going to a neighborhood high school that happened to be very strong in both areas, and it enabled us to continue playing volleyball, which was very important to both of us in high school. But once you picked the area and school, the curriculum was set for you. For instance, both my BFF and I had the native language, math, science, foreign languages, gym, art, history, etc., but the difference was in how much of each we had. For example, I had the native language 4x per week all 4 years; math 5x days per week all 4 years; physics, chemistry, biology I think 4x per week each all 4 years; gym 2x per week days all 4 years; art 1x per week for maybe 2 years; geography 2x per week for 3 years; history 2x per week for 2 years; sociology 2x per week for 2 years; I think 1 year of philosophy (I loved it so much!) 2x per week; I had Latin 2x a week for a year, and I had one foreign language 2x per week all 4 years (that was one language out of 2 that we had in grades 3-8, I had to keep learning the one that I started in grade 5, which wasn’t English). At some point we got a computer lab maybe 2x per week; it would be laughable according to today’s standards. In contrast, my BFF also had math all 4 years but not 5x per week, maybe 3. She had most of the natural sciences for 2 years, but instead had much more social sciences and history, had 2 foreign languages all 4 years plus Latin for 2 or 3 years, I forget; multiple sections of native language, courses in world literature, also what would here be advanced keyboarding. And she had a lot more art. I don’t think any of us had music in high school.
The state in the US where I currently live with my family has good public schools, and we also live in a good public school district. In my son’s soon-to-be high school, to graduate he has to have 4 credits of English, 3 credits of science, 3 of math, and 3 of US history, 2 credits of a foreign language, 1.5 credits of gym, and 0.5 credits of health, and a certain number of electives. [0.5 credit = 1 semester of class meeting every day (5x per week).]
OMG the electives! They are so awesome! First, I cannot get over how amazing the art department is. They have 0.5-credit (semester-long) courses in Art Appreciation (you get to choose different media, paint, draw, sculpt, photograph etc for 2 weeks to see what they like), Drawing (levels 1-3), Sculpting, Photography, Glass/Metal class, several courses in Digital Art (one one Adobe Photoshop, one on Adobe Illustrator, one on making animation — from storyboarding to the final movies…) How fuckin’ awesome is that?
Now, as you may have noticed, I doodle. I have no training whatsoever beyond the 2x per week in class during K-8 and the 1x per week in high school. I drew/sketched a lot in (the equivalent of) middle school; there was a period when I drew comic books and I was always an avid comic book reader (more on that some other time), but these were always regarded as frivolous pursuits. I doodled when I wanted but I never considered putting concentrated effort into it and wasn’t really encouraged to. I pretty much stopped drawing in high school, when it was first and foremost academics, then volleyball, then boys. Also, I was really into physics competitions so I spent a lot of time just doing problems, practicing. So I am not kidding when I say I probably draw as well or as poorly now as I did in high school, because I basically completely stopped drawing afterwards. I have no idea why, and I have no idea why I am getting back into it now, but it’s fun, even though I am oh so rusty. But it makes me happy somehow! I think this new place inspired me to experiment a little…
But I digress. OMG the art department! I started imagining how awesome it would have been for a kid like me to be able to take some art courses! That would have been such wonderful relaxation and a chance to perfect the craft. I so wish I were my kid taking one of these awesome courses… So many things to do!
Next we went to the business/IT department. They offer courses from keyboarding, intro to programming, as well as courses focusing on software (Excell, Word, etc), some that are open to upperclassmen like accounting, marketing. The computer lab is gorgeous, well equipped.
Then music — I had no music in any form in high school. These guys have chorus, band, and orchestra. Every kid gets to play an instrument! In my home country, the only people who played any instruments were the kids who passed auditions for music schools when they were in grades 1-3, and then attended these pretty serious schools extracurricularly; music in public schools K-8 did not involve anyone touching any instruments other than a recorder or a xylophone; we sang a bit and listened to music and sort of learned to read notes, but not much. My Spouse is gifted in music and did have a strong music education (had 12 years of music school); alas, not me, as I didn’t pass the music school audition when I was in 2nd grade owing to the lack of natural ability and that was it. A few years ago at a party at an American colleague’s house, I was the only one who had never played an instrument, everyone else had, at least for a little bit; I felt really crappy. Now I know that’s because here in the US everyone has to play an instrument in middle and high school, regardless of talent, which does make me feel a little better.
Then the World Languages Department — so awesome! They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. You can pick 1 or 2, perhaps even more, anything you like! I was kind of salivating. Where I went to school, a school taught English grades 3-8, then another language depending on the school (German, French, Russian, more recently Italian) in grades 5-8. But by going to a certain elementary school you were locked into a specific language. Here, in my son’s school, languages are 1 credit courses, which means they meet daily all year. I would have loved to have daily instruction in 2 foreign languages…
There were departments of Family and Consumer Science (learn how to cook, sew, interior design, healthcare leadership courses), then the Engineering/Automotive department (body shop, woodworking shop, and a pretty cool engineering design department where kids who are thinking about engineering can get a head start with pretty serious project-based courses).
My kid is taking several required honors courses and has 2.5+ electives credits to choose from. He wants to take 1 credit of French, 1.5 credit of band/jazz, and is leaning towards 0.5 credits of digital art/animation.
I am also amazed at how helpful, open, and responsive all the teachers are. There are a number of young energetic ones, a whole bunch of counselors (we never had anything like that when I was growing ip), and generally a good network of adults keeping checks and balances. I can see why kids may find themselves a little bewildered when they go to college, especially to a big R1 like the one where I teach and where they are pretty much on their own. Sure, there are academic advisors, but professors mostly mind their own business and are probably nowhere near what the students are used to from K-12.
I have newfound appreciation for the US school system. I still stand by my opinion that the middle school curriculum is pretty vacuous, it seems like everyone just expects the kids to be busy growing, sprouting hair and zits while drowning in hormones, and that’s about it. But it looks like high school will be serious and a lot of fun. While there may be places in the world where kids get a better hard-core math and science background, a US public school in a good district seems, at least for the moment, like it will do a pretty good job. I don’t know of other countries where the public school system offers so many choices — my kid actually told me “For the first time, I can actually choose what I want to do!” When I was his age, I never missed such options because they were never available. In hindsight, it would have probably been awesome to explore a little bit off the academically rigorous math and science path.