Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Tale of Two School Systems

As we head into our third month of the school year here, I've come to realize some things about our current school and the school we left behind, both the good and not-so-good. The past two months also have given me some perspective about the quality of education that my son has received thus far, both in the U.S. and here.

The administrators of the school here like to remind the teachers what an important job they are doing and that they are educating the future leaders of Thailand. Speaking with my husband about this made me realize that this statement is quite literal and true. You see, the public schools in Thailand sorely lack quality. Those with the means to do so send their children to schools such as ours, a private, international school. The Thai students who attend the school come from families similar to many in the D.C. area -- with parents who are well-off and well-educated businessmen/doctors/CEOs/scientists/high-level government officials (some families here actually "earn" their wealth by being part of the "Thai Mafia," but that's another story). Even some of the king's relatives are among those who attend the school. These students will literally become the leaders of Thailand while their much less well-off and more unfortunate counterparts go on to menial jobs making pennies an hour.

Obviously, the school has the means and resources to do great things for the students and teachers. And it does. Teachers are provided a monthly stipend for professional development and are given money to purchase their own laptops (this is in addition to the desktops they already have in their classrooms). The school pays for teachers to travel to other Asian countries for professional learning. The elementary students have several specials multiple times each week, including several that aren't usually offered in American schools. The class sizes are small with good student-teacher ratios. There are two playgrounds just for the K-2 students. There are over 30 after-school clubs for the students. Each middle-school and high-school student owns his or her own laptop. And because there are no standardized tests to teach to, the teachers are able to go at the students' pace, provide more individualized instruction, and be as creative as they want to be with their lessons. The list goes on.

But, you know, after the last couple of months here, I've also come to realize something else: The county school system where we sent our son to school in Maryland, consistently touted as one of the best public school systems in the U.S., really is pretty amazing and fantastic. I remember how the parents in our school system, myself included of course, would fret and worry about their children's academic success and progress, whether they were being challenged enough or too much, the rigor of the curriculum, etc.

Well, guess what? Aside from the larger class sizes, having to teach to the test on the teachers' part, and the lack (lack being relative here, as the county is one of the wealthier ones in the U.S.) of money and resources -- all of which, I acknowledge, combined can and do have a great impact on a school system's ability to educate its students -- the county is doing a heck of a job educating its nearly 150,000 students. The new elementary curriculum could use some improvements, but the school system is just as academically rigorous as, if not more so than, our school here. Our U.S. school system has International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in various high schools, just like the school here does, as well as magnet, AP, and other specialized programs. There are also many gifted/talented, magnet, and language immersion programs in its elementary and middle schools. Also, from what I've seen, the high school students in our Maryland county are better at analytical and critical thinking. As for the elementary level, my son's class is currently learning material that he learned last year in Kindergarten, when it already wasn't challenging enough for him.

Based on my experiences so far, the only differences between the two schools that we have experienced so far are that the students here, regardless of the class/level they're in, work extremely hard, and the teachers can be more creative and are more able to differentiate their lessons in accordance with each student's abilities because of the resources and smaller classes. Other than that, I am truly amazed by how good the quality of education is in our Maryland school system. Given that it's a public school system with a large and diverse student population, the huge range of student abilities that exist, the relatively large class sizes, and the limited amount of time, energy, and resources the teachers have, it is incredible how far the teachers can take the students just in one school year. I take my hat off to these teachers.

Add to this the amazing diversity that exists, and the rich international cultures represented, in the D.C. area; the many foreign languages that can be heard in the schools and just by stepping outside of one's home; the museums and the endless learning and internship opportunities available; the amazing public library system (we were able to borrow books from any library in the state, including the university libraries, and are able to borrow e-books even from where we are now, thousands of miles away!); and the many well-/over-educated, (perhaps overly) involved parents with an abundance of resources, and you have a rich learning environment and an education system that is about as good as it gets for the students.

[From the teacher's perspective, however, it is probably the opposite -- the lack of disciplinary problems, the amount of resources available, the hard-working students, the relative lack of bureaucracy, and the academic freedom make teaching at an international school a teacher's dream-come-true.]

Most teachers at our current school are quite impressed by it and by the quality of education their children are receiving at the school. From what they tell us about their own school systems in the U.S., I have no doubt this school is a huge improvement over what they are used to. For us, though, the bar has been set higher because of our previous experience in the U.S., so while we think this school is quite good, we also see that our public school back home rivals what we have here.

Having this perspective now, I won't really worry about the quality of education that my son will receive if/when we return to the U.S. It s a good problem to have, choosing between a great international school and a great public school system. This rare chance to catch a glimpse of another education system not only has been really cool to go through, but also has been invaluable. It's remarkable how much insight one can get from spending just a couple of months outside of one's "normal" life. A great once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that everyone should get to have, in my opinion.

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