This is the report I gave the Superintendent and School Board yesterday. A longer, full summary is 6 pages long and growing and will also end up here once it’s done.
To: Superintendent Tom Opstad, Port Townsend School Board Members
Date: March 27, 2009
Re: Sabbatical Update
I am often asked about my trip, but that was only the physical research part of my journey. I continue to spend time connecting with educators and friends in Europe, reading reports, analyzing my notes, and reviewing video and audio recordings.
The actual travel part of my sabbatical was fun, hard, scary, enlightening, friend-filled, frustrating, tiring, exhilarating, exciting, relaxing, and generally a great experience. Depending on her mood, my daughter will say either it was horrible (she had to spend 4 months with only her mom—visiting schools!), or that it was interesting and she made some new friends and saw some interesting places.
We visited 15 countries (17 if you count the individual countries within the UK) and 11 schools. We talked with numerous people in youth hostels about their lives and about their countries’ schooling. We made numerous friends with whom we are still keeping in contact (especially in Denmark and Germany) via Facebook and email. We walked many, many kilometers, wearing out shoes and socks, carrying heavy backpacks and hauling full “trolley” (wheeled) suitcases. I lost 10 pounds and strengthened my arm and leg muscles.
In visiting schools, I find that many countries start students later, beginning first grade at age 7, and move them into advanced concepts quickly. They are starting English studies and basic algebraic equations in 3rd or 4th grade, expecting students to fill-in answers rather than complete multiple choice, write short answer responses rather than essays for each topic. Students are given short assignments for homework—just enough to maintain skills—totaling one or two hours a night (depending on grade level), and keep assignment planners from a young age. Many students are taught cursive handwriting beginning in first grade, and by the time they reach 4th grade, all science experiment write-ups are done in their notebooks in neat cursive handwriting.
Special education is often separated out in Europe—either into separate [smaller] classes or into separate schools. Once a student is put into a “special school”, there is generally no expectation for that child to achieve a level higher than basic skills, or occasionally a trade. While for some students, the intense small educational environment provides additional help, I believe the U.S. has the advantage here, in that students receiving special education services can aspire to a college education.
The school day ranges from 3-1/2 hours to 7 hours. Many countries provide only basic subjects (language arts, history, science, math, foreign language) and leave it to the community to provide enrichment opportunities. Other countries include certain life skills as requirements: computer skills, cooking, sewing, fine arts, P.E., and multiple foreign languages.
Students are tested at age 15 (or placed at age 10, in Germany) and are then placed into tracked secondary programs: basic skills, trade/business preparation, university preparation. Many of these programs are further disseminated into fields. Every student is expected to study math and science each year of secondary schooling, and some expect all university prep students to complete physics and calculus.
The government pays for all university studies for those qualified to attend—in some countries through the Master’s degree level, where the high school expectations are especially high and include field studies. In these places, a Master’s degree is achieved after only three or four years beyond high school.
Funding for supplies varies from country to country. In some places, the students must buy all their materials—notebooks, pencils, pens, art supplies, storage boxes, and textbooks. In other countries, the school provides all these materials.
Technology also varies from country to country. In Estonia, there is a strong emphasis on making students familiar with technology, including digital whiteboards at the elementary level; in Denmark, students use their laptops or the computer lab on a several-times-a-day basis. In Germany, teachers have to share a single school computer for planning and there is no technology aside from an occasional overhead projector in the classrooms.
The journey is not yet done. The next piece is to gather permissions from the schools for my video and audio recordings, to sort and edit the video, audio and notes, and to prepare short- and full-length presentations for the various groups requiring or requesting one.
I expect to have a full presentation and written detailed report available for the school board at the end of June.