American education has historically made two sharp distinctions. The first is between local and national control of education: our federalist system puts state and local governments in charge of education, not the federal government. The second is between private and public schools: public schools receive government funding and are subject to rules and regulations to ensure that the funds are used appropriately, whereas private schools do not receive government funding and are given more freedom over what their educational programs look like and how their funds are used. When the first distinction is blurred, the American right tends to take up arms, and when the second is blurred, the American left tends to be incensed.
How do other countries manage school choice? Are private and religious schools clearly distinguished from their public counterparts, or are there overlaps in funding and oversight? To answer this question, I researched four specific questions about how autonomous non-public schools are in 50 countries, including the United States:
Does this country have private and/or religious schools that can receive public funds?
Does this country have nationally-mandated exams?
Does this country have a nationally-mandated curriculum?
Does this country have a nationally-mandated teacher pay scale?
For all four questions, the modal response was overwhelmingly yes. In fact, all four responses were yes in 25 of the 50 countries, and in two others, three responses were yes and there was no information available about teacher pay. This contrasts markedly with the United States, which was one of only two countries—the other being Brazil—where the answer to all four questions was no. (In Taiwan, the answer was no to the first three, and no information was available about teacher pay.)
The breakdown of responses by country for each question can be seen in the charts below:
There is often an urge to take results like these to mean that the United States needs to catch up to other countries. But that’s poor logic – some countries that outperform the United States have a national curriculum or nationally-mandated exams, but so do many that perform worse. This information provides interesting descriptive data, but very little in the way of prescriptive strategies for improvement.
What’s clear is that other countries have radically different education systems from what currently exists in the United States, at least on these components. The United States puts heavy emphasis on decentralization and delineation between public and private options, while most other countries have private or religious schools that can receive public funds and have nationally-mandated exams, curricula, and teacher pay scales. For example, Germany—despite having a federalist system similar to the United States—has nationwide assessments. The Netherlands funds public and private schools using a single, nationally-determined formula. This does not mean that having national exams is better or worse than not having them, but it is a clear sign that, unlike in other domains, the American education system is not one that other countries appear to use as a model.
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