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THEUNE: Are there school differences between Americans, Dutch?

• Mar 12, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Two weeks ago, I set up a Skype meeting with my classes back in Spring Lake. I knew my juniors’ time was winding down and I wanted to wish them well on their final IB paper of the school year. I wanted to check in on the stress levels of my seniors, to make sure senioritis hadn’t already made its way to their daily routine.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to say “hi.”

We teachers feel connected to our students, so to be away from them for an extended period of time can leave a bit of a hole. I needed our Skype talk to fill it.

Inevitably, my work came up. The Spring Lake students were curious about the Dutch teens I was meeting. They wanted to know if there were big differences in the school lives.

The answer, in short, is that there are a couple of very big differences.

In the Netherlands, there are three levels of education and, at age 12, students take a national exam which, with teacher recommendations, pushes them into one of those levels:

— The practical track, which is four years of secondary school (until a student is 16; there is no “middle school” here, only primary and secondary) and puts students on a direct path to a specific, respected career.

— The college track, which is six years of secondary school (until a student is 18) and will get them into four-year colleges to become nurses, teachers and a wide variety of other professional careers.

— The theoretical track, which is seven years of secondary school (until a student is 19) and pushes them into research institutions where they get prepared for life in academia or continued study/research.

Many schools commit to teaching one or two of these levels, whereas, in the United States — at least our part of it in West Michigan — public schools educate each level. Educating every type of student demands a wide range of skills from the people running the building (administrators, teachers, support staff, etc.) and it can spread out the resources.

In the Netherlands, schools can zero in their resources and try to be really good at educating only the levels present in their school: Schools in the Netherlands can decide their own focus while schools in the States have to try to be good at all of it. Sounds reasonable.

Of course, one must ask: Isn’t there a social detriment by being so selective and homogenizing the educational experience? Isn’t a school a good place to be around all types, just as one will be in life? I think so.

Also, let’s recognize that these decisions are made from a test taken at age 12. Yes, there is a process to switch levels, but people here would tell you that it can be quite exhausting. In practice, students have their futures in their sights at age 12. It feels daunting, scary even.

Are the benefits of the specializing worth the social detriment?

Another big change is that, in the States, school acts as the centerpiece of life for so many students. Between seven hours of school plus two and a half hours of basketball practice or drama rehearsal (sometimes both), students can be found in school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s more common than one might think.

Here in the Netherlands, that is far from the case. Students get educated at school. That’s all. All extracurriculars happen on a city level. All sports are played for the city of Utrecht, for example, not at each school. All youth theatrical rehearsals are at the community level, not at school.

It’s true that this, then, limits what students are able to do in the community. Often, the students really have to zero in on one activity, as each sport is played year-round. There is little to no coordination of calendars to make it so that students can do it all.

In some ways, this sounds sad, right? No such thing as Friday Night Lights here in the Netherlands. There are no pep assemblies for the introduction of sports teams. There are no schoolwide productions which highlight the dancing skills of a student who is overlooked in the classroom.

That said, there are also some positives to this decision, right? All school resources are used for one thing: education. Decisions on scheduling are not made for the benefit of sports or theater or anything else. Just school.

Also, if you happen to be a student in the States who doesn’t like sports or the performing arts, you can quickly be labeled an outcast or a loner. I’ve seen it plenty: Students who choose to do their own thing on their own time are often dismissed in and around school. In the Netherlands, after school, students go their own ways, doing activities with students from other schools. School is not the center of students’ social lives, not at all.

So what’s best? Having every type of student in a school setting or focusing on specific populations? Offering a myriad options for students and structuring it so they can “do it all” or allowing students to make their own choices of activities offered within the community?

Of course, changing systems as big as educational systems is, well, too daunting and is just highly unlikely, so we must trust our decision-makers to make the right choices within the bigger system, and that starts with a clear mission statement.

I’m proud to find that Spring Lake, Grand Haven and Fruitport use words such as “community,” “opportunities,” and “empowerment.” If we make decisions grounded in these meaningful words, then the students with whom I Skyped are very fortunate indeed, because they are surrounded by people and communities who care whether the system is perfect or not.

— By David Theune, Tribune community columnist

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