The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Views of Education in Various Countries

on August 26, 2019

Although I have finished reading all the articles I could find about the quality of education in different countries and the test scores that resulted, I am not persuaded that the those factors truly define the range and quality of what students do. In today’s post I will do my best to describe what I learned about education in different countries through reading and personal experience.


My problems in reading descriptions of education in foreign countries were that they described very little about school quality, teaching practices, students school records, or family wealth, but claimed superiority solely on test scores. In addition, there were very few descriptions of the differences between schools in the most successful countries and those in poor countries. Instead, all the countries listed claimed education supremacy over the United States solely on the basis of their higher test scores over a long period of time.

Since I had considerable experience in American schools, and also time visiting schools in foreign countries, I wound up my study of school quality by reading material written by writers who suggested strong reasons why our test scores have always been lower than those of European countries. They asserted that a country’s scores are more controlled by students’ wealth, physical conditions, and social skills, than the quality of teaching or students’ ability to learn.

As a result of my personal experience in several different countries I came away with information about teaching practices that were not covered in any of the articles I read. My largest and most helpful experiences were in Belgium, where my family and I lived for a year and my three older children attended a local school. At that school, for instance, some of the teachers appeared to be very helpful, while others seemed harsh and unyielding. For example, my oldest son’s ninth grade teacher refused to give him any help in understanding his mathematics assignments, nor would he allow his classmates to translate into English any teacher instructions that he could not understand. The teacher claimed that such actions would distract other students.

Normally at that school students were expected to learn quickly and correctly without any help from their teachers, and their promotion to the following grade was not certain for anyone. In fact, several of my son’s friends decided not to seek any further schooling after the ninth grade because they didn’t believe they would be accepted. Instead they planned to seek jobs in their home area. theres was not an unusual decision since most Belgian children did not go on to college.

More significant than my personal experiences, however, were my visits to European high schools during my year in Belgium. My main task was to study the teaching of English by visiting as many high schools as possible in Belgium, Germany and “The Netherlands” (Holland), because they were within driving distance. Over the next three months I was able to make all the school visits I had planned for and to record as much information as possible about the student learning I had witnessed.

Interestingly, my opinions of the teaching I saw were not strongly positive. Although students in all the schools were polite and attentive, and appeared to be taking down the information given by their teachers, they rarely had opportunities to ask questions or demonstrate what they had learned. Basically, they read teacher selected English literature silently in the classroom and then did their best to answer questions about what they had read. However, because of classroom time limits, only a few students got the opportunity to speak. Their performances were brief and shallow. In addition, I saw very few examples of class-wide language practice or deep learning. The only school I visited where students seemed to be strongly involved in practicing their understanding and speaking of English, was a Belgian trade high school where I watched one teacher and her students for almost an hour. Over that time the teacher displayed and named many small objects and asked questions about them in English. Then several students had the opportunity to reply fully in the same language.

At this point, I must add that later I also visited schools in a few other countries: England, France, and Israel. In those countries I was able to have long classroom visits and form some opinions about the teaching and learning I witnessed. Interestingly, all the schools were similar. Teachers talked much of the time, while students listened and wrote down what their teachers had said. Then, some students were called on to answer questions to prove they had read and remembered assigned material.

In addition to descriptions of my observations in foreign countries, I want to offer my opinions about American education over the time that I worked in my own country. As a teacher I taught almost all grades from 1 through 12 at schools in three states, and later, I worked for several years as a principal in two elementary schools in different states.

All the schools I taught at were similar in their physical structures, academic programs, teaching practices, parent backgrounds, and student performances. (I never worked in a rundown public school or a private school.) Rarely did I have any students who did not speak English.

After retiring, I worked at a state university for three years. Although I taught a couple of classes there, my main job was to observe the performances of students who were training to become teachers. I watched students teach for the first time, coached them to do better the next time, watched a second performance, and then filed a full a report to the university. After retiring from that job, I chose to spend some time observing in local elementary schools with good reputations. At a few of them I was fortunate to observe principals who were deeply involved in giving attention and care to their teachers and students. They were also creative and careful planners. My strong opinion now is that the success or failure of any American school hangs on the quality of its principal rather than the training of teachers, but I realize that I am biased by my own experience as a principal.

After giving you so much information about my long and varied education experiences and my personal opinions of the schools I visited or worked in, I will now turn to what I believe are the major factors in determining the validity of American students’ test scores.

Although parents’ wealth and education have effects on children’s school performance, more powerful are their native language, personal values, and the social behavior in the community where they now live. In short, children follow the actions of their friends and family members. Specifically, if any of those groups regularly speak a foreign language, their children will do the same at home, in their neighborhood, and at school. Consequently, many of them do not learn enough English or score well on regular or international tests. In addition, some children don’t care much about such things. They don’t expect to go on to college. Although family wealth, parent education, and home practices have effects on children’s school performance, their personal experiences begin to shape them as they grow older and move outside their home area.

For most children who came to America with their families the new life at home was pleasant and peaceful. But things were very different at school or around the school’s outside. Consequently, many of them did not learn enough English to succeed in the classroom or on the international tests. In addition, they didn’t expect to go on to college. Thier personal lives were more important.

My final opinion about the differences between European and American test scores is that they are the products of students’ experience, not their intelligence or ability to learn.

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