I have come to believe over the past six months that Dutch and American values have influenced and shaped each country’s educational policies and attitudes much more than research or lessons learned over the past fifty years. This raises important questions about the implications for each nation’s future and for gifted children in particular. Which system is better in the long run (e.g. 30 to 50 years), and which is better for gifted children? Unsurprisingly, I think the answers are not as clear cut as it may seem at first, and I don’t claim to know all the answers. What follows are my “somewhat” informed opinions based on anecdotal observations, devoid of any serious study.
I think the key questions before us are the following:
- What national values are most likely reflected in the national approaches to education?
- What are some of the key differences between the two educational systems?
- What system seems more likely to support the long-run economic development and happiness of a nation?
- Which system is best for gifted students?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to answer any of the above questions independently of the others, but I will give it my best shot. Moreover, I believe it is IMPOSSIBLE to segregate them from the far more important socioeconomic and political considerations, but it is instructive to think of the answers in isolation.
I believe that American and Dutch education policies have been strongly shaped by the key traits of each nation’s aggregate personality. Capitalism and individual freedom are at the core of America’s history (true for most of America’s history, although now changing for the worse in my opinion), and Americans believe that you get what you work for. This is the cornerstone of the “American dream.” With few exceptions, talent has been historically rewarded. As a result, Americans are fascinated by prodigies, and parents want to believe their children are special. Many states have enacted laws to address the needs of the gifted, although most of these programs are being curtailed due to the political cost of allocating scarce resources that benefit a small cross section of the population. On the other hand, the Dutch strive for societal uniformity. This is no accident because the country owes much to its ability to tackle difficult problems (e.g. land reclamation) through consensus. The Dutch strongly believe in lifting the entire population, even if this means shortchanging the potential of the exceptional few. This prompts me to ask which system is better. Clearly, “better” is an ambiguous term requiring context (e.g. in what sense and for whom).
The Dutch and American education systems differ in some important ways. The first is the percent of adults post-secondary education. Some statistics peg the percent of adults over 25 with a college degree at nearly 30% (source: United States Census Bureau). Education at a Glance 2011, OECD Indicators states that approximately 45% of US adults over 25 have attained tertiary education. In the Netherlands, the level is below 30% for the 55-64 year old cohort and approximately 40% for 25-34 year olds. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence I have collected suggests that the Dutch are much more likely to get a vocational or specialized degree such as electrician. The interesting thing is that these statistics suggest the Dutch have just started valuing college degrees as much as Americans. The second difference is that grade skipping is extremely rare in the Netherlands. Administrators oppose it vehemently based on social development concerns, with little regard to research or evidence from the trenches. The third major difference is the focus on and the role of homework. It is my impression (based on my daughter’s own experience, from reading numerous articles on the subject, and from talking to many parents in both countries) that American kids (specially in the large cities) are overloaded with “busy work” (e.g. not necessarily a bad thing for the average student). Dutch children, on the other other hand, are expected to do some homework and spend the rest of the time playing. The American approach is to force learning via a heavy homework load. On the other hand, the Dutch believe that learning should be done mainly at school.
I firmly believe that the American system is theoretically better for long-term economic development. Unfortunately, it has deteriorated markedly in the past thirty to forty years, and it is now failing to deliver the education required for the US to keep the economic, scientific, and academic leadership it has hitherto enjoyed. The Dutch (who have their own distinct challenges) are doing a better job than Americans at providing the majority of its population with a decent education. The problem is that the Dutch system provides virtually no structural way to address the fundamental right of the gifted to reach their potential. I believe this results in an immeasurable loss of human capital that far exceeds the modest capital investment require to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, US gifted education programs are failing. Many states (e.g. California) have laws mandating gifted education programs, but the recent economic crisis, political issues, and general the incompetence of school administrators keeps most gifted children from getting an honest shot at developing their rare talents.
My review of the research and my own personal experience shows that there is no better country than the US for gifted children, provided they come from well-to-do families. While there are some unique public programs (e.g. the Davidson Academy being the most spectacular), setting the right educational environment requires financial resources and time commitments beyond the reach of most parents. I believe this to be the case because the US leads the rest of the world in terms of gifted programs (both public and private) and because homeschooling is legal in many states. On the other hand, there are only a few gifted programs in the Netherlands, grade skipping is virtually non-existent, and home-schooling is essentially illegal under anything but the most extreme religious justifications. To put it bluntly, there is little parents can do in the Netherlands to accelerate the academic career or to provide an appropriately stimulating intellectual environment for an exceptionally talented child.
My wife and I took Paulina to a birthday party this Sunday. As we waited to pick her up, we sat in a bar discussing how well Paulina is doing in algebra and in elementary physics (which I teach her three to four times a week after school). Then, we remembered that despite being very happy at the British School in Amsterdam Paulina is taking 4th grade arithmetic for the third time (year five in the British system) and finds it extremely mind numbing. We also recalled that Paulina talks often about how much she enjoyed being home-schooled last year because she learned a lot more than she ever did in a traditional classroom. We then made the decision to seriously consider Stanford University’s OHS in two years when Paulina will be old enough to apply for admission to middle school. We know this could mean confronting the Dutch education bureaucracy, but we have a moral obligation to provide the right environment for Paulina. We will not let the “system” tell us what it thinks is best because the system never redresses its errors.