During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States was considered the world leader in education.
Today the country ranks around 31st out of 65 in reading, math, and science based on the findings of PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.
The No Child Left Behind Act, an educational reform effort introduced in 2001, does not appear to be improving the situation. The documentary Waiting for Superman suggests that education reform in the United States will not succeed in light of the tenure system imposed by the teachers’ union, likely the most powerful active labor movement in the country.
Yet, at the turn of the century, the United States census indicated that only 72 percent of students aged 12 to 17 were considered academically on track.
One of the largest issues facing the United States education system is the reality that teachers are now only teaching to prepare students for exams. Instead of learning pre-university requisites, students are learning to take nationally proctored aptitude tests, which do not create foreseeable options for career plans, teach the basic skills necessary to achieve or progress in upper academia, or facilitate an easy transition in attending university abroad.
Consider Canada’s McGill University: only 2,000 of the 30,000 undergraduates are American. Entrance requirements are stringent.In addition to a high grade point average and a top 10 percent level at standardized testing, virtually all Americans at McGill graduated high school with an honors curriculums loaded with Advanced Placement courses.
One would expect that the “Top Gun” high school graduates at McGill would continue to excel in the university setting and have no issue maintaining GPA. Surprisingly, the American students at McGill seem to have to work much harder than their Canadian and foreign counterparts to keep pace.
They complain incessantly about the dramatic increase in course and reading loads compared to high school and find themselves working many more hours to keep up. When a long weekend presents an opportunity to return home, many American students remain on campus preparing for exams or just using the extra time to catch up.
These students are some of the United States’ best and brightest, so why do they struggle when the academic measure becomes international?
The International Baccalaureate Factor
One possible explanation is the educational system in the United States versus the top ranked countries, specifically the differences between the International Baccalaureate (IB) used throughout most of the top ranked countries and the Advanced Placement (AP) system used in the United States.
The AP system was founded in the late 1950’s in response to American students falling behind their Soviet counterparts in literacy and science. Originally seen as a remedial measure, AP was designed as a booster in specific disciplines.
AP has expanded to virtually all academic subjects, but the basic premise remains unchanged: Students choose the courses he or she wants accelerated and then takes an AP course that provides a much more rigorous version of the standard course.
Testing in AP comes down to one exam where achievement is measured in test scores, not academic performance. Tests are graded on a scale from one (no recommendation) to five (extremely well qualified). In any given section, up to 30 percent of candidates taking an exam will score a five.
While this number should identify the brightest students coming out of American schools, less than 10 percent of candidates score a seven, the highest mark, in any IB subject. This shines a light on the rigor of a two-year IB course load versus just a semester or two of AP classes.
Most American universities will give college credit for receiving a three on the AP exam, while an IB student must score a five or better to receive any credit.
The IB system was developed in the late 1940’s for children of the diplomatic community. Six courses are mandatory including literature, a second language, social science, experimental science, math and a fine arts subject. The broadly-based, rigorous curriculum involves a two-year span with the test basis being only 20 percent internally graded and 80 percent graded externally against a pool of international students.
In short, IB encompasses a classic broad based approach to education and measures its success on a far more extensive basis than the highly specialized and competitive approach of the AP system.
According to Ms. Kim Bartlett, Director of Admissions at McGill, the IB system provides a more rounded and broader education, thereby providing a better “world view,” whereas the AP system is based on solidarity in fewer subjects.
The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce recently called for the complete reorganization of kindergarten through 12th grade, identifying the IB program as a way to successfully restore American supremacy in education.
While the IB system has been implemented in over 1,000 schools in the United States, it is has yet to become a standard in education and until it is put in place at the public school level, the United States will continue to lose ground as a leader in education.
In the microcosm of the McGill community alone, witnessing the struggle with which some of America’s best and brightest students attempt to stay competitive with their Canadian and foreign counterparts, it is obvious that this recommendation could not take place soon enough.
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