Note: This is not a normal Evil HR Lady post. And, in fact, I was just going to reply via email because it’s not about HR. But, then I thought it might be of some interest to the rest of you. I find it interesting.
Dear Evil HR Lady,
I recently read your article, Why my child will be your child’s boss. As a teacher, I am fascinated with other cultures’ educational processes. I want to know if you believe what the Swiss do is actually reproducible somewhere else, like the U.S., or only in certain types of communities in the U.S.? And, how do the Swiss manage cultural issues that contribute to poor educational environments like poverty, crime, etc.?
These are excellent questions. I’m far from an expert on the Swiss educational system, as I’ve only lived her for 5 years and my child in the Swiss system is in his second year of kindergarten (not because he flunked kindergarten, mind you, but because the Swiss system starts at 4 and kindergarten is two years). I also have a child in the International School of Basel–she’s in 5th grade–so you can see that I’m not 100 percent gung ho about either system.
But here is what I do know. The Swiss are a highly educated people. They speak multiple languages, fluently. If you ask a Swiss person, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”the universal answer is “a little.” A little translates directly to “my grammar is better than yours although your vocabulary beats mine.” If they say “yes” it means they have a PhD in linguistics from Harvard.
In the German speaking area, where we live, the local language is Swiss German–and that’s a different language than High German. (Okay, it’s officially a dialect, but I compare the difference between Swiss and High German to the difference between Spanish and Portuguese. If you speak one you can understand a heck of a lot of the other, but it’s a separate language.) Kindergarten is in Swiss German, although the foreign speaking children are pulled out for High German lessons to help prepare them for future life. My son receives this as well as speech therapy because he didn’t grow up hearing some of the sounds that are used in both Swiss and High German but don’t exist in English. I asked the speech therapist if he could help me as well, and he laughed. I wasn’t joking.
So, these kids spend the first 6 years of their life speaking Swiss German, and then in first grade they immersed in High German. They learn to read and write in High German as, technically, Swiss German isn’t written–although my Facebook Feed says otherwise. And you know what? They learn it. They learn it very well. In 4th grade (don’t quote me on that grade–could be fifth, but I think it’s 4th) they begin French, and English the following year. The Swiss? They know language.
They are excellent at teaching independence. One of the things that my son has to be able to do in order to be advanced to first grade is to get himself to and from school. And by himself, I mean, without parents. The kindergarten is literally across the street from my house, and for the first year of Kindergarten I was the only “close” parent picking up after school. A few others that live up the hill would pick up as well, just because it’s a hill and it’s far. But, those kids have to be able to navigate their way home as well in order to be promoted. I had to get over my American bred paranoia about letting him go by himself, and if he’s not home by 12:03 (because we’re just across the street!), I start to get nervous. The Swiss mothers think I’m ridiculous.
But, there are some dark sides to all that independence. The teachers don’t spend a lot of time monitoring the playground situation. The kids are expected to solve their own problems (great!), but teachers don’t step in when they should (bad!), which means that there is some bullying that goes on that shouldn’t. I’m all for kids solving their own problems whenever possible, but I’m also all for teaching them skills instead of making them figure everything out for themselves.
The other major difference that is difficult for an American to swallow is the tracking of the children. When the kids are in 5th/6th grade they are slotted into 3 different groups. The top group is university bound. They have a very difficult academic road ahead of them, but if they finish they can attend any Swiss university for free. Because English is the language of business–and these kids are the top of top–some of their high school classes are taught in English. Mind you, these aren’t “English as a foreign language” class. These are history and biology and math classes taught, in English. Because they need those skills to be successful in a global economy.
The second group are the good but not spectacular students. This makes up the bulk of the students. They go on a combined academic and apprenticeship path. They start doing (paid) internships at 15ish, working real jobs. It’s a great system and I think it’s fabulous. These kids get real world experience. When they finish school they are absolutely employable. They can go on to college, but not the same universities as the kids in the top group. They can be teachers and nurses and business people, but they can’t be physicians, for instance. That door closes. When you are 12. 12. Think about that.
The last group are the kids that don’t show much academic aptitude. They are also put into apprenticeships, but for blue collar jobs. Now, a blue collar job in Switzerland is not like a blue collar job in the US. You have to take, for instance, painting theory classes, in order to paint houses. Not murals in houses, but white paint on living room walls. The pay is ultimately pretty darn good, although the cost of living is high. For instance, a local grocery store (Aldi’s) was advertising cashier positions starting at 48,000 Swiss Franks per year ($55,000). Yes, Corn Flakes are 6 franks a box, but you see you can live pretty comfortably at a low end job–especially if you’re a two career couple.
Now, to get to your question–could this be exported? Of course! But there are some basic cultural problems. The Swiss kids are highly independent, it is true. But, my son has come home multiple times with rope burns on his back because there is a rope tied to a platform in his school playground and, well, he’s 5. How many American parents would stand for their child being “injured” at school? The litigious nature of US society means that the offending rope would be removed. Strike one for independence. If I sent my 4 year old (remember, the Swiss kids start kindergarten at 4) to school by himself in the US, Child Protective Services would be on my doorstep threatening to send my child into foster care where some responsible parents would see to it that he was driven to school every day. Strike 2. What about teachers that don’t intervene (and, in fact, we were told at parent teacher conference that our son needs to learn how to push back against the other kids)? Can you imagine a meeting in a US school where the teacher said, “Another child is picking on your kid, so you need to teach your kid to fight back. Have you thought about karate?” Strike 3. These are HUGE cultural differences. HUGE.
Could that be overcome in a US system? Maybe within an insular community. If you could get everyone in a suburb to agree to not sue when Mikayla or Jaden breaks a leg on the school zip line. If you could get permission for Mikayla to slap Jaden across the face when he’s being a jerk. If you could build your schools in the local neighborhood so they could all walk and then ban the parents from driving, you could start to develop that.
But, the US has different ideas about egalitarianism. We (theoretically) know that all kids are not equal and that some are smarter than others. We *know* that not all kids can hack medical school and that some will be better off in the skilled trades. But, we push every kid towards college. I’m opposed to this, by the way. I think high schools should have a skilled trades path. However, I hate the Swiss assignments at 12. Did I mention 12? Now, technically, you can switch paths, but it’s very difficult. If you go through the middle path, you can go back to school and get the higher high school diploma (the matura), so it’s possible. But the reality is, if you’re a goof off at 12, it colors your whole life.
Do you want to export this system to America? Well, the US already has tiered education, but we are just in denial about it. And we tend to go by neighborhood rather than by individual. Oh you live in the inner city? Stinks to be you! Unless your parents can afford private school! Good luck with that! And that division takes place long before age 12 and is even harder to overcome.
Poverty isn’t a huge issue in Switzerland–because the unemployment rate is so low. Additionally, there’s a movement to provide a minimum income to every adult, regardless of work, in order to keep poverty out. But, there are problems. No doubt. And there are prejudices. One of our first experiences took place when my husband first met with the health insurance consultant to help us pick our health insurance. The conversation went like this:
Health Insurance guy: You should take this higher level plan because otherwise, your wife could end up sharing a hospital room with a Turkish woman!
Husband: <confused> Uh, okay.
Health Insurance guy: TURKISH!!!!!!
Now, truth be told, I don’t want to share a hospital room with a Turkish woman, or a Swiss woman, or an American woman. I want my own hospital room. (Although, I’d rather stay out of the hospital altogether.) But, this was, to the insurance guy, a horrible thing that could happen if you didn’t take the top tier insurance. (We didn’t, by the way. If I land in the hospital, my roommate will be the least of my concerns. We did, however, take the Alpine rescue insurance, because if you don’t have it, and you break your leg on the mountain, you’ll be charged full price for that helicopter. Also, I have no motorcycle coverage and I’m not covered should war break out with Lichtenstein. I presume this won’t be problematic.)
Crime is also low here, but it exists and it’s worse in places like Basel, which is on the border, so it’s easy for people to slip in and out. (Many unmanned borders and they don’t often check passports when you do cross into France or Germany.) But, overall, low crime. The US has lower crime now than it did when I was a child, but higher paranoia.
So to make a long answer sort (too late!) I think some of it should be exported, but it would be a long, difficult road, and require vast cultural changes in the US.