Two months of international schooling reminds me how foul the American education system really is

My children are enrolled in an international school this year. It’s a private, internationally accredited (U.S. and U.K.) bilingual school with small class sizes — under 20. The children and teachers all wear masks, and no parents are fighting over mask mandates. It’s glorious.

The children like it for different reasons: They don’t really get homework. The culture really values working during work time, and not working when it’s not work time. And there aren’t really a lot of rules , or at least not a lot of punishment for broken rules. There also aren’t really major behavior problems from students. And it got me to thinking again about this thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about: American schools overwhelmingly exist to teach children how to obey and follow, more than to teach reading and arithmetic.

We know this is true. Test scores for Black students in the U.S. have remained mostly stagnant for over 50 years, while much praise is generated for schools that enforce an almost militaristic rigidity in their discipline, boasting of how well students stand silent in single-file line. Black children are still suspended at significantly higher rates, and for mostly nonviolent offenses, like tardiness or dress code violations.

American education is set up to perpetuate the existence of a worker class versus a thinker class, and the overwhelming majority are to be workers. Only those who are white and wealthy are to be thinkers, the rest are to fall in line as workers; just look at who college was originally designed for and its original purpose. As soon as we started promoting college as a right for all to access, the conversation became tied to jobs outcomes and workforce development, as opposed to philosophy and the luxury and leisure and freedom of learning how to think. The public K-12 system feeds this, and only those who can afford the best private schools — or who are beneficiaries of benevolent scholarships, which often remind them just how little they belong in a place by making obvious their glaring differences as scholarship kids — are encouraged to explore freely their ability to think and lead. Everyone else is taught to comply, and if they’re lucky, they might learn some literature along the way.

Education leaders give great lip service to the issue of the so-called achievement gap, bit do little to address the issue through addressing discipline and gifted and talented disparities, or implementing culturally relevant curriculum — even though they will tell you that students’ ability to make text-to-self connections has a direct correlation to their ability to comprehend materials and thus score well on the tests.

But anyway, my children have escaped the contradictions of an inequitable system that purports to want equity, for now. And it’s so cool to realize that in an environment with very few rules, the kids still mostly do the right thing. They cuss in class sometimes in the high school, but not at the teacher. No one is cussing anyone out, they just like to try out cuss words (you remember high school, right?). I cringed when my daughter first told me. But it doesn’t disrupt their learning, or other students’ learning, so there’s no disciplinary action. And the more she tells me stories, the more my cringes become amused laughs. Because the thing I realize is she’s learning — they all are. They’re doing their work. No one is missing valuable instruction time over things that don’t disrupt the learning.

But the realization that has impressed me most is that when trusted to be responsible and govern themselves, the students mostly do the right thing. And while they’re mostly doing the right thing behaviorally, it’s also translating to them mostly doing the right thing academically. They’re getting their work done and turning things in. They’re learning math and science and reading and civics and social studies and Spanish and French and English — and they’re learning how to conduct themselves as young adults and members of a community who look out for themselves and each other. And isn’t that what we say we want to teach students in the States? Not to mention they’re doing it in the time that’s designated as learning time, and encouraging work-life balance outside of school by not sending them home with hours and hours worth of homework.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com