Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Exchange Students Talk About School In America

June 3, 1996

I interviewed a group of foreign exchange students about their experiences in the US educational system. Most of the students were from new, independent countries formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union - including Yuri who lived with us for the past year. Most went to public urban high schools here while some went to smaller rural schools.

I also had access to the results of a 1995 exchange student survey published in The Bradley Herald, a newsletter sponsored by the United States Information Agency. By and large, the comments made in my small group mirrored the results from the national survey of exchange students from the former Soviet Union..

What is best about the schools in the United States? There was enthusiasm about the range of subjects and activities such as sports, music, drama, art, typing, computers, driver's education, journalism, business and the variety of physical education classes.

They felt American schools were especially strong in oral communication - oral reports, speech classes, debate and drama. Science classes seemed more advanced than what was offered in their own countries. Math courses seemed to be a year or two behind.

The students really appreciated the opportunity to choose their own classes according to their interests. In the national survey this was, by far, the greatest difference between schools here and in their own countries.

Another highlight was the way students are mixed together through classroom schedules. This way they meet new people and make new friends. Extracurricular activities also afforded fun social opportunities.

At home, students were often put into groups who attended the same classes together and did not mix with the rest of the student body. Here there is an increased opportunity for making new friends while at home friendships were deeper and more lasting.

What is worse about schools in the United States? The students felt that we accept lower standards of performance in the classroom and have a much easier grading system. Schools in this country are easier. The national survey also had the same assessment.

Students can pad their grade point average by avoiding hard classes. Required classes are easiest because teachers deal with a whole range of students and are reluctant to fail students.

The students recommended more student input questions - essay exams and oral exams - to test knowledge. They derided the commonly used multiple choice exam as a way of letting students get by with less proficiency. Some teachers listen and accept student excuses too readily.

The small schools here seemed easier than the comparable small schools in their own countries. Listen to this telling comment. "They don't care about education in small schools. They care about sports." The students' felt that athletes are given more leeway by teachers as to expectations and grades. Prestige and recognition go to athletes for their sports accomplishments and not to students with academic success.

They saw American students as woefully ignorant about the rest of the world and even about their own country. One student was at the top in his American history class.

What about the attitudes of American students? The students saw their American peers as more distracted by jobs, school activities and social life at school. "There is a lot to do here." Learning and homework often have a low priority.

The students saw the best students as extremely knowledgeable and having attitudes about homework and work habits comparable to students in their own countries.

There is more dating in this country and it appears that relationships are a lot less stable. Friendships dissolve easily. "Boyfriends and girlfriends come and go." They describe American students as friendly and nice.

What about student/teacher relationships? They describe teachers as much more friendly and personable in this country. The students appreciated the accessibility and openness of teachers here. In their country, relationships are more distant and formal. Teachers in this country command less authority and are less respected by the students.

The students debated among themselves about classroom decorum in this country as opposed to their own. Some thought the classrooms here are more orderly because of a range of greater teaching techniques while teachers in their own country relied more on authority to keep control.

What advice would you have for American students? They heartily recommended travel to other countries and participation in student exchange experiences. Their own experience has helped them appreciate this country and their own country even more. Their experiences with host families have been an important part of their learning experience.

Another emphatic observation was that American students should be grateful to live in a country with one language. When there are two languages in their own country, people can live close to each other and not know and mix with each other. Political turmoil and social strife are common because of divisions caused by language differences.

The last piece of advice was for American students to be grateful for what they have. It astounds them that teenagers have cars, even new, fancy ones. They felt many young people in this country have great material and social advantages that are taken for granted.