Desperate English Housewife in Washington, chapter 192

Schooling in the USA vs Schooling in Europe

Schooling is different in the USA. Fact. Living in Maryland, I am told often that the schools are the best and that they perform in the top 3 every year, which, as a parent, is fabulous to hear.

However, I also hear stories about the ‘civilisation’ or ‘socialisaton’ aspects that accompany the education – and I tend to wrinkle my nose in disbelief and say ‘Really?!‘ in my very British manner.

Kids today at my old boarding school - ah, memories!

Kids today at my old boarding school – ah, memories!

One such story is that, at a Middle School in Columbia, there is a red, amber, green light system during lunch in the hall. Red = no talking; amber = whispering only; and green = you may talk (this lasts for about 30 seconds at a time). In addition, allegedly there is a lady on a microphone who sits watching and randomly blurts out ‘no talking!’ if people disobey.

So, this bothers me. There is discipline and there is weirdness. This is weirdness. Mealtimes are sociable times, are they not? Lively chatter, banter, encouraging development of social skills and relationships – surely this is what sitting and eating with your friends and peers is all about.

I recall mealtimes at school in the dinner hall were a lively, noisy, wonderful affair where us kids learnt about each other, could debate subjects, tell amusing stories about the day that had passed so far, and where special bonds were formed. Also, we used to leg it down the chapel steps, skid round the corner and bump into our friends as we joined the lunch queue. And guess what, we’re alright for it!

I wrinkle my nose and furrow my brow in total disbelief at the traffic light nonsense.

However, I am also fully aware that my son will getting one of the best Elementary School educations in the country when he starts at the end of August, so at least there is that to be thankful for!

Eating and talking - heaven forbid!

Eating and talking – heaven forbid!

It intrigues me still to know about the differences in the social aspects of schooling in Europe and the USA. So what differences does one USA middle schooler encounter in her European/International schools? Victoria asked her daughter this question and they spent some [quality] time comparing and contrasting, with some interesting results.

US versus European Schooling

Our children attend a private “International School” and not an Austrian public school. The international school, though is very similar to the US public system they attended in that both have a small student population that is rich in international diversity (dozens of languages spoken, a high percentage of the students have lived and attended school outside of the US, etc.) All of us who enroll our students in the international school, non-American families as well, desire the rigorous, American School-accredited education for our students.

The refreshing difference in the international school is the absence of the one-size-fits-all rules that squelch the development of self-confidence, independence and critical thinking.

Here are some of the absurdities in our US school system, and for comparison, in the international school.

1. Middle school students are not permitted to walk to or from school because–gasp!–they may have to cross a street with a 25mph speed limit (with sidewalks and crossing signals).

I had a relatively lengthy discussion with our US middle school principal on this topic before we left, explaining that our daughter was first-aid certified and had spent the previous summer at Girl Scout camp, learning to tip and upright a sunfish on the Potomac River (among other skills); and that we, as her parents, felt that she was mature enough to walk to and from school. The principal’s toe-the-line, one-size-fits-all response was that “it just isn’t safe.” “Safety” was a topic best left for a school assembly, as if enough educational time isn’t wasted in the public school classroom.

Walking to school!

Walking to school!

School students across Vienna, both public and private routinely walk (or scooter) to and from school, navigating the public transportation system like the confident young adults they are learning to become. The few crossing guards here are at only the busiest intersections near a school (and only in the mornings.)

2. “Locker Orientation” is held prior to the start of middle school to give students a chance to learn how to use a combination lock so that no one would be embarrassed on the first day of school. Because, of course, no one is embarrassed, ever, in real life.

Austria. None such nonsense.

3. The US middle school students are required to sit with their homeroom class for lunch. The school did not want students to feel left out should they have no one to sit with. Because, of course, no one is left out in real life.

Here lunch can be eaten anywhere and with anyone—the cafeteria, outdoors, in the classroom—or not at all. The school does not concern itself with whether students eat their lunches, or what they eat, for that matter; that responsibility rightly falls to the parent.

4. Vending Machines. In the US, vending machines are the spawn of evil, more so if they contained “junk” food. If they are not banned entirely, they are filled with “healthy” options.

Here in Austria, not only does the school have vending machines available to all MS and HS students, filled with both “good” and “bad” choices, but there is also a hot beverage machine selling coffee, hot chocolate, and tea.


(Our US school system participates in “Turn off the TV Week.” An entire week’s worth of activities were arranged to motivate the little darlings to get up from their sofas. One of the “rewards” for having participated in the events a few years ago was a coupon for a free Starbucks Frappucino — 450 calories and 57g of sugary goodness. The irony of the “reward” was obviously lost on the parents who planned the week.)

5. In the US school, outdoor recess was a joke. Good weather? No running on the asphalt. No tackle sports of any kind. No picking up sticks or rocks, either. Organized games were preferred, so that no one would feel left out on the playground.

Cycling in the snow - whatever next! ;)

Cycling in the snow – whatever next! 😉

A “Jacket Guide” indicated the outdoor temperatures at which a jacket was either required or optional. Any student who removed their jacket was sent to the cafeteria for the remainder of recess. As our middle-school runs warm, quite often she wouldn’t even bother going outside if it meant she had to wear a jacket. But, those one-size-fits-all rules serve to “protect” students, right?

And, if that isn’t ridiculous enough, a student who went outdoors without their jacket on a “jacket optional” day was not permitted to change their mind and get their jacket—they were sent inside to the cafeteria for the remainder of recess.

Outdoor recess was likely to be canceled if the weather was “cold,” to protect students who did not come to school properly dressed, effectively punishing those students who dressed properly. Throwing snowballs was a no-no, naturally.

Austria. None such nonsense. Recess is “Go outside and play.” You’re cold? Put your jacket on. You’re hot? Take your jacket off.

6. Designated stairwells and hallways. The rule was that any MS student caught walking “outside” of their hallway/stairwell at any time was made to return to their starting point and use the appropriate route. Because, of course, a Grade 6 student taking the shorter route via the Grade 5 hallway to class is not resourceful, but a safety threat to others.

Finally, a word or several about organized sports. This is not a comparison so much as it is an observation and an appreciation for one of the privileges and opportunities afforded by living overseas.

Most public middle schools in the US do not offer interscholastic athletics; at best, perhaps intramural athletics in the most motivated schools. The international school systems are different. Middle school students participate in organized sports against students from both local schools and other international schools here. In the last year our middle school student ran cross-country in the fall (a combined team with the HS); played basketball in the winter; and was a sprinter/long jumper on the spring Track & Field team (again, a combined team with the HS).

The teams travel outside of Austria for competitions and tournaments. Yes, middle school and high school students board buses and trains, and sometimes planes. Days are missed from school. There is designated “homework time” while traveling; and exams were made up over lunch or after school.

Kids love going outdoors - especially boys, who have sooooo much energy!!

Kids love going outdoors – especially boys, who have sooooo much energy!!

Parental investment makes this system work. In order to keep the travel costs low, it is expected that families with student athletes will house athletes when their school is hosting an event. Think a weekend-long foreign exchange student experience, several times during the school year!

Our students have spent weekends with a Mexican family in Switzerland (“best food ever!” was the response upon return); British families in Frankfurt and Munich; and American families in London, to name a few. We’ve housed Russian students from Zagreb, Sri Lankans from Brussels, and Californians from Dubai. New friendships have been made, kept strong through Facebook and Instagram.

International girls in Gibraltar! (Can you spot me!?)

International girls in Gibraltar! (Can you spot me!?)

I can not envision a program like this in the US. Somehow, someway, just enough parents would protest the “unfairness” of some aspect of it, and the whole notion would become over-lawyered in a heartbeat.

Our middle school student will be in high school upon our anticipated return to the US, thankfully having missed those “awkward years” in our over-priced zip code and over-parented middle school.

What are your thoughts and views on schooling in the USA, and what other tales that might make me wrinkle my nose might there be of interest……

This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Desperate English Housewife in Washington, chapter 192

  1. Claire I spotted you immediately in that photo. LOL-nice one!

    “Starbucks Frappucino — 450 calories and 57g of sugary goodnes”……I really do despair at our lack of logic at times. No wonder we are so confused about how to stay healthy and keep weight off. Constant mixed messages! I never understood schools selling candy bars and having soda machines available either.

    And I totally forgot about the separate stairwells. What do you think the “logic” for that was? Was that to keep kids from being bullied by the older kids you think? Again, I scratch my head.

  2. Andy says:

    Nice article which shows the ridiculous lengths American schools go to either in the name of political correctness or in an attempt to not get sued by somebody for something. Another example of this is the way they hand out trophies to everyone on a sports team regardless of how they did so nobody “feels like they lost” because there’s no losing in real life, is there? This generation of young kids is in for a bad shock when they get older.

  3. Jennette says:

    I live in Columbia, too.. I’m proud of our schools here in Howard County, but .some of the policies were real surprises. I’m from a different generation and a different part of the country, but I suspect there are similar policies in other parts of the country. I assume the traffic light code in the lunchroom is designed to keep some control over the decorum and noise. A grade-school friend and I were recently reminiscing about some of the silly things we used to do in the lunchroom … including making each other laugh so hard the milk we were drinking came out of our noses ::) I’m sure that wouldn’t happen in the lunchroom with the traffic light !!

  4. Brian says:

    I see children walking to school in Columbia, I have also seen parents drive their children less than a block and sit waiting in their SUV’s with the engine running for the school bus.

  5. Emma says:

    All the strict rules especially in elementary schools here err on the side of being super safe and trying to avoid lawsuits. I am not an overprotective parent and expect they exist in the Uk nevertheless i found it hard not to laugh when a dad at the beginning of first grade here asked if he could follow the bus in his car cor the first few days to make sure his son was safe!

  6. Jane says:

    To make a blanket statement and say this is how schools in the US operate is ludicrous. There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the US and they do not all work the same way or have cookie-cutter rules as the author wants you to believe.

    • You’re right, of course, not all schools are like the one described. In the UK, it’s totally the same – there are different rules, methods and cultures across the country. It’s just an example of two different experiences. I’d love you to share other school philosophies if you have them, so there can be a wider perspective.

  7. Jason says:

    As someone who spent middle and high school in Howard County schools during the mid-70’s and early 80’s, I’m very disheartened to read your account of how student life has changed in the Howard County school system. I also married a wonderful girl from North Yorkshire, so, thanks to her, I’m somewhat familiar with the different approaches to schooling in the two countries.
    I must comment that the schooling I received in Howard County bears little resemblance to the situation today. Yes, I still had to get permission to leave a class, but how I got to my destination was not so closely monitored. Physical activities that we took part in would not pass muster in this age of stifling oversight by teachers and administrators kowtowing at the alter of political correctness. PE classes in archery and dodgeball?! Horrors!!!
    When it came time to choose a school for our daughter, after much searching, we chose a private school whose philosophy reminded my wife of her own school experiences. There, the emphasis was development of personal responsibility and accountability, without arbitrary rules that only exist for the convenience of the administrators and teachers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s