Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a high school senior speak of the differences between the educational system in the United States and South Korea. This student is South Korean. Her family moved her to the United States four years ago.
Given the world rankings for educational systems, I anticipated her report to back up those findings and to herald the South Korean system as superior to the one she experienced in the United States. After all, even our own President has commented on how our system of education could learn a few things from the South Koreans.
That did not happen.
Her report, while recognizing the higher test scores by South Korean students, was mostly a personal endorsement of the value and opportunities she received by going to high school in the United States; opportunities she claims she would not have had in South Korea. She praised the work of her teachers to be more than task masters who desire to help the whole child, not just reinforce factual information. The student, in her four years, had learned many things that she probably would have learned in South Korea, but she pointed out that the cultural differences between the two countries would have made it virtually impossible for her to explore her interests, be supported and challenged to do her best, and to reap the rewards of hard work and effort the same way she has been able to in the United States.
Next school year, she will attend a university in southern California. When she spoke about how she came to the U.S. four years ago barely able to speak English and now is preparing to attend the university of her choosing, she was quite emotional. Her journey, which began as one with limited choices and a mostly predetermined future, has now become one of limitless possibilities and great potential.
I am not familiar with the South Korean educational system beyond what I read in the news and what this student reported in her thesis. Therefore, the intent of this post is not to criticize an obviously successful (in their own way) system of education in South Korea. What I am hoping to point out is that sometimes it feels good to get a good endorsement of our work as teachers.
Internationally, the U.S. does not enjoy the highest ranking, but to hear a student, especially one from a country that IS near the top of the rankings, speak so passionately about her wonderful experiences...well, to me that endorsement means something.
As a colleague of mine also pointed out, "Each year thousands of international students come over to the United States for school. Not just colleges and universities, but middle and upper schools. On the flip side, we don't see a mass exodus of American students leaving home to go to school in South Korea or Finland."
Again, my point here is not to critique the success of another country's educational system. Equally, my point is not to overlook the challenges facing the system in the United States.
The point is to bring into the conversation a perspective that includes the cultural differences that exist across the globe and to embrace those differences for what they can add to the equation. Maybe the U.S. is not the top country according to the metrics used to rank educational systems. Maybe the U.S. is a country that excels in providing hope, opportunity, and growth.
Maybe that is a point worth making.