Comparing public-school apples to apples?
July 9, 2011 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find information comparing the educational quality provided by the *best* public schools in America with your average public schools elsewhere in the industrialized world?

I've read a lot about how poorly American students perform compared with their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world. However, I realize that a lot of that is undoubtedly related to the obvious disparity in the quality American education provided to students of different economic classes.

So I'm curious about how American students from the BEST public schools perform against their European/Asian/what-have-you counterparts, because I myself went to one of these schools - one of the top public high schools in my state - and frankly I still think my education was kind of lacking, particularly compared to what many of my European friends got. Is there any data out there that will give me a sense of how my own education stands up to what I would have received elsewhere?

And while I'm also tangentially curious about how a place like Andover stands up against a place like Eton, I'm primarily interested in public education, and whether there are any American students in the state system who are getting an education comparable to what is on offer elsewhere, or whether they're all just universally hosed.
posted by catesbie to Education (5 answers total)
The biggest problem I see in such a comparison is the massive difference in the educational system. In the US, we favour the credit/grade model and give general education for four years. So "academic success" is often measured by graduation rates or "grade level" standardised test scores - neither of which is a measure in most European countries.

For example, in the UK, students sit their general education certificates (GCSE's) at 15-16. From there they finish school and go into a trade/job or go on to specialise in 2-3 subjects (A levels). Comparing GCSE results to American HS results (maybe on AP test or SAT's) would be comparing 15/16 year olds to 17/18 year olds so would be imprecise. Comparing US students to A level students would be comparing everyone (as education is mandatory until 18/graduation in the US) to people who self-select into specialised subjects.

That being said, I can offer anecdata from my own/my husband's educational experiences. I'm American and went to a small HS in rural Oregon. My husband is British and attended a state secondary school nearly London. We both have pretty broad knowledge bases, though because of my GE requirements in college, I have weird pockets of extra knowledge. However, we were both English majors in college and because he did 2 years of A levels and a three year degree, he essentially got double the specialised English instruction that I did - so he has a depth of knowledge that I didn't gain in that time. We have similar test scores too (we both have taken the teacher prep tests to get a teaching credential, with fairly similar results) - with the exception that I did better on the SATs than he did on his A levels.

I also teach HS. My students don't learn nearly as much as I knew when I graduated HS. Their test scores are much lower than mine were - actually, even the top students would have been around the middle of my class. But I also teach in urban schools with high poverty, transiency, and language acquisition problems. When I taught at a "better" school with more honours students, there were some students who rightfully earned places in the Ivys. Therein lies the other difficulty in comparisons - there are not many "typical" high schools, nor are there "typical" high school students.

That being said, I'm really curious to see what others can find to answer your question, as I haven't answered what you're asking.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:31 AM on July 9, 2011

I think one of the best known metrics for school quality is the PISA score, this is based on performance at the age of 15-16, so it obviously doesn't measure high school quality.
That article has a link to this article which breaks down the US scores into cohorts by percentage of students with free meals.

According to that article, American schools perform as well as European schools once you account for poverty. Obviously note that argument is being advanced for ideological reasons and you should salt to taste.

One of the reason this test is done at 15 is what guster4lovers points out, that many school systems stream fairly aggressively after that age, so you'd have to make a judgement call as to which streams you're going to measure, and some streams end before 18 or are 4/1 day apprenticeships by that age.

(as education is mandatory until 18/graduation in the US)

That depends on the state, what certainly is true is that there is no stream that ends with anything other than graduating high school. You're either a high school drop-out or you aren't whereas in England you leave school after GCSEs (16) unless you make an active decision to continue with A-levels (which most people do these days, and which will be compulsory soon).
posted by atrazine at 11:00 AM on July 9, 2011

If Massachusetts were a country, it would do very well internationally -- the whole state, not just selected public schools. This blogger from the University of Chicago argues that Minnesota is very competitive as well.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 1:17 PM on July 9, 2011

Hmm. Interesting stuff here. I suppose, given the limits pointed out here of really doing fair comparisons among countries with vastly different structures to their educational system, that it's probably not so easy to compare university-prep curricula across borders.

I guess that's what I'm really curious about--not just math and science test scores, but how a smart kid starting university having completed an IB curriculum or a French baccalaureat or A-levels compares to a smart kid in the U.S. who's done AP classes. Because my instinct is that there's just no contest...
posted by catesbie at 2:38 PM on July 9, 2011

Anecdotally, Americans from "good" public high schools seem to have a relatively easier time of getting into elite English-language schools abroad than to comparable US schools. When someone who is rejected by every Ivy and Ivy equivalent gets into Cambridge or Oxford it might tell you something about British high school equivalents.
posted by MattD at 7:04 AM on July 10, 2011

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