How U.S. Students Have It Easy (and Hard)

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Adults in the United States do not learn foreign languages or study other cultures, and neither do we make our children learn about them, because we do not want or have to.

I do not travel overseas often, but this year I was particularly lucky to have two business trips take me to Bonn and Paris. To each trip I added some vacation days to play tourist and travel in the regions near each city.

As I don't speak German, I was forced to ask everyone with whom I needed to speak on my German trip if they could speak to me in English. They all could: business colleagues, hotel and retail clerks, waiters, vendors on the street, teenagers, elderly persons, everybody. I was in Bonn, Cologne, Stuttgart, and the environs in between, and I encountered not a single person over seven days who could not speak to me in pretty good English.

I do speak some French, or at least I give it a good try, and I always tried to use it during my stay in France. So I cannot verify that everyone I encountered there spoke English. One aspect of this trip to Paris was very different from a previous one 15 years ago, however. This time, if I started a conversation in French, then hesitated when I could not think of the right words, most would speak to me in English. With advertisements in English all over town and even many shop signs in English, it would appear that Paris has become a bilingual city.

How do the Europeans do it? They spend a lot more time in school studying second, third, and even fourth languages, and they start language study much earlier in life than we do. A German colleague confessed that she studied seven years of English, five years of Italian, and two of Latin. A Belgian colleague at the same Bonn meeting divulged that she had studied eight years of French (she is Flemish), six years of English, and three years of German. Her English was perfect, completely fluent. These colleagues were not diplomats who had focused on language study as a part of their training; they were educational statisticians, technical experts from national statistical agencies attending a meeting on a fairly specialized topic.

What about us? I studied just three years of French, and that was greater than the average for foreign-language study in my high school. A German student can spend five times more time with foreign languages, a Belgian student even more.

Compress the foreign-language course time spread out over several years into the shortest possible durations, and you would calculate that I took half a year of foreign language (three courses in a year in a six-course schedule). By contrast, my German colleague spent 2 ½ years, and my Belgian colleague three years, in foreign-language study.

U.S. students, then, can have 2 to 2 ½ years more time to study subjects other than foreign languages than have their European counterparts. So, you would think American students would demonstrate higher levels of achievement in those other subjects, like math and science, for instance.

We know, of course, that they do not. U.S. student performance in math and science is rather poor by comparison with their overseas counterparts'. In other subjects it is better, but still not what you'd expect from students who have two extra years to learn these other subjects. One can wonder what our performance would be like in those other subjects if our schools required as much time in foreign-language instruction as European schools do.

Foreign languages are not included in international tests, and one can imagine how poorly Americans would fare if they were. Actually, there was some talk in international testing circles a few years ago of administering a test of second-language ability, but the plans fell through. One can imagine how difficult it would be to administer a test for which each student would be able to choose from among dozens of possible languages, and then score the resulting individual tests as if they were comparable.

There is one way in which U.S. students have it harder than their European counterparts, however. Our students must learn two measurement systems, both metric and inch-pound. In Europe, students learn only metric.

Does it make a difference in math and science achievement that we confuse our students with two measurement systems? Apparently so. At the 4th grade level in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, American students performed above the international average in all of the seven content areas but one, "measurement, estimation, and number series," where they scored well below the average. By the 8th grade, the overall U.S. performance had slipped relative to other countries', but the average "percent correct" was, at worst, within a few percentage points of the international average in all of the seven content areas but two: geometry, where the U.S. percent correct was 8 percentage points below the average, and measurement, where the percent correct was 11 percentage points below the average.

A few years ago, I looked at some mathematics and science textbook series in order to estimate the amount of classroom time lost to duplicative measurement instruction. It amounts to at least half a year of mathematics instruction lost. That is, if U.S. schools just quit teaching both the inch-pound and the metric system and taught only metric, at least half a year's worth of mathematics instruction would be freed up. It might be at no loss, too, since the hodgepodge collection of inch-pound measures scarcely merits being called a "system" at all and is probably not really "learned" in school anyway, but through use.

Because we adults in the United States are too stubborn to abandon the cumbersome inch-pound system in favor of the simple and elegant metric system exclusively, and because we insist that our children "learn" both systems in school, they lose some of that two-year advantage created by the world dominance of English.

While Europeans feel they need to learn English and they want to learn other languages so they can understand other peoples and cultures better, we feel that we do not need to learn any other language.

Neither situation does American adults much credit. We make our children pay because we are too stuck in our ways to learn and adapt to a better measurement system. We do not learn foreign languages or study other cultures, and neither do we make our children learn them, because we do not have to and do not want to. Instead, the rest of the world compensates for our lack of effort with their extra effort.

Richard P. Phelps is a senior research analyst at the Pelavin Research Center of the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 50

Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as How U.S. Students Have It Easy (and Hard)
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