Part 3 – Academics
In August I covered school lunches; in January I took a look at how they fail at school sport. Now I’m going to cover what I see as perhaps the most important aspect of an education system: academics. For this, I am going to use my son’s middle school as a reference and compare his school, a California charter school, to a local private school and also to my secondary school in the UK.
Before I get into detail on middle school, however, I do have one other data point to include. A foreign student we know who arrived here at aged 17 with UK “O Levels” (which are public examinations taken typically at the end of what the US school system refers to as sophomore year). When they asked about whether they needed to attend high school or could apply directly to colleges, they were told those exams exceeded the level required for high school graduation. Two years before students in the US would be eligible to graduate from high school.
One of the earliest responses I received from my son’s school when I questioned the lack of subjects was about whether the schools I was comparing to had similar daily schedules. The school I am using for reference has a start time of 8:25am (with an assembly; classes start at 8:55am) and finishes at 3:45pm. My son’s schedule has classes starting at 8:30am and ending at 3:25pm. For the first term, my UK school starts on September 6, ends on December 14 and has a 2 week “half-term” break in October for a total of 12 weeks. My son’s school here in Alameda starts on August 15, ends on December 21 and has a week off for Thanksgiving – a total of 17 weeks at school.
The private school here in California that I looked at starts their day at 8:25am and finishes at 3:15pm, and they had 16 weeks at school.
The amount of time available is clearly not the reason why the curriculums are so different.
My son’s charter has the following subjects for middle school:
- Science (combined)
- One Elective
The electives available are:
- Music (band or orchestra)
No second language option is available, though other middle schools in Alameda do offer that as an elective choice as well.
The private school here in California offers the following:
- Science (Combined)
- Foreign language (one of French, Latin, Spanish or Chinese)
- Fine Arts (one of Band, Chorus, Drama, Filmmaking, Studio Arts)
The UK school I am comparing to offers the following for the equivalent of the first year of middle school:
- Three out of a choice of six languages (French or Spanish, German or Latin and Japanese or Mandarin Chinese)
- Theology and Philosophy
- Ideatum* (Personal, Social, Health & Economic Education)
- Computing and Digital Literacy
- Design Technology
- PE and Games
In what would be the second year of middle school here, they drop one of the three languages, but split science into Physics, Chemistry and Biology as separate subjects.
In summary, the charter manages just 6 subjects (including P.E.), the private US school gets to 7 and the UK school is doing 16-18 depending on the year.. Over double the number of subjects giving students a much broader education and exposure to more subjects at a younger age helping them to decide what they want to do in the later years of school.
Depth vs Breadth
The argument could be made that the US is more interested in depth, but to check on that I compared the math that my daughter will be doing in 4th grade with the UK curriculum for Year 5 (the same age band), and they are very similar in depth, but the UK version has some additional topics that do not appear to be covered by the California common core.
Based on what I saw of the middle school curriculum last year, there is certainly not much depth in the other classes either. Science, as a combined subject for all three years, lacks the depth that the UK gets from separating it out into three subjects and allowing for real focus. The English and Social Studies/History classes also appeared similar in depth.
From what I have seen, there is a lot of wasted time on the schedule in the US middle school that could have been used to teach a broader range of subjects. At the very least, it would be good to see a compulsory second language, and perhaps art, tech and music sharing the remaining time. For those students who wish to be in the band or orchestra, they could have an after school slot for additional practice, if the in schedule music time is not sufficient; students not interested in learning to play an instrument can still benefit from an exposure to music.
In my conversations with the school’s director, however, it appears to be more an expectation that middle school is expected to have “electives” and, in particular, the second language option must be an elective and not compulsory. Furthermore, it appears that when they ask students whether they would select Spanish as their single elective, instead of Music/Art/Tech, it always ranks very low. My only comment to that is obviously. I actually asked her whether her 11 year old self would have picked a second language elective over any of those three. The answer, of course, was “no, probably not.”
For a middle school here to stand out (and as a charter they should want to stand out from the regular school district schools as enrollment is critical), I believe they need to up their game and offer something more than parents see at alternative schools. There is plenty of time in the schedule to do better.