Today my son graduated from a local middle school in Montgomery County in the State of Maryland and will attend the nearby high school after the summer vacations. Montgomery County public schools are considered to be one of the best in United States as they excel in students’ learning outcomes, infrastructure and quality of instruction. In this article, I will explain the nature of the US education system and make an attempt to draw a comparison with other systems.
The US education system follows a pattern similar to many systems around the world. Early childhood education (pre-kindergarten) is followed by five years of primary school which is called elementary school in the US. The next stage is three years of middle school, and four years of secondary school called high school, and then postsecondary (tertiary) education. Primary to high school education is completed in 12 years and is known as K through 12 or K-12.
Postsecondary education includes non-degree programs that lead to certificates and diplomas or receiving training in vocational schools. There are six degree levels: associate, bachelor (BA/BS), first professional, master (MA/MS), advanced intermediate, and research doctorate (Ph.D). The U.S. system offers a postdoctoral research program for those who want to take their research a step further. Adult and continuing education, and special education, cut across all educational levels.
All educational institutions may be privately funded (private schools) or they may be funded by the U.S. government (public schools). Educational institutions are managed at the local level called the school districts.
The US Department of Education elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 16,900 school districts and approximately 50 million students attend more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools, making it a total of 126,000 schools. Department of Education also provides grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 13 million postsecondary students.
Expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the US amounted to $621 billion in 2011–12, or $12,401 per student enrolled in the public schools. It is critical to note that K-12 education in the United States is free of cost, most schools also provide free food to students who cant afford to pay for it. Every public school offers co-education and there are very few private schools which are exclusively for males or females.
An inquiry-based curriculum is taught in all public (government) schools which fosters critical thinking from a very early age. There are no uniform requirements and no religious education is imparted in the public schools.
U.S. school transport system is one the best in the world, you will see amber color buses everywhere. When a bus stops to load/unload students, the entire traffic stops on either side of the road; kids’ safety is the most important element of the bus system. I went to my son’s ‘Back to School’ night last year and found out they will be teaching Hydroponics, Biotechnology, Diseases and Forensics in 7th grade science this year. These are the course topics which you will not find even at the university level in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
7th grade classroom in Maryland 4th grade classroom in Texas
University classroom in Jalalabad, Afghanistan School for orphans in Kandahar, Afghanistan
Each classroom is equipped with a smart board (promethean board). Majority of teachers serving in middle and high schools hold either MA/MS or Ph.D. degrees. Each school has a web portal called Edline where parents sign up and can interact with teachers and see the progress of their kids on a daily basis. A teacher told me “We are preparing students for careers that are not yet available”. It implies that they are already preparing the students for jobs that will be available in 2030 and beyond. U.S. schools have transformed the classroom from a teacher-centric to a student-centric entity.
Middle school auditorium in Illinois Middle school classroom discussion in California
School students trained in an AK-47 in Peshawar Middle school in FATA, Pakistan
I am not even making an effort to make a comparison between the U.S. education system and that of South and Central Asia especially Afghanistan and Pakistan. The pictures tell the story.
Middle school library in Kansas High school tennis courts in Pennsylvania
School teacher trained in an AK-47 in Peshawar School in Peshawar, Pakistan
The constant turmoil in the south Asian region has taken away focus from education while defense and security have taken a center stage.
Consequently, students are at the receiving end of decades of war and mayhem. School infrastructure has been destroyed by the constant bombings and the fact that Taliban are averse to any form of modern education.
Because of political expediency, religious seminaries (madrassas) receive government funding while schools catering to the needs of modern education remain deprived of valuable resources.
Nations are built around educational institutions and it take decades to prepare the next generation of leaders. Objectivity and critical thinking are the cornerstones of any modern education system. Quality must precede quantity as building more school structures is a futile exercise. The most important element of a successful education system is the quality and training of the teachers; poorly trained teachers will produce poorly equipped students.
The current leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have to make a decision whether to continue with the archaic system or build an entirely new system which will cater to the needs of the 21st century and beyond. There is no dearth of resources!
Dr. Asim Yousafzai is a Washington DC based geo-political analyst and author of the book “Afghanistan: From Cold War to Gold War”. He can be followed @asimusafzai