Today school children in Ireland start their three-month long summer vacation. They enjoy a longer break than their American counterparts due to a more efficient school calendar, one of six things Irish schools do well that American schools should consider adopting.
When we moved to Ireland in 2001 from the top-notch public schools of Lexington MA (Lexington’s schools had just been selected as the best in the northeast) we were pleased to learn that the Irish schools were equally as good. The quality of public education – a key focus of the Irish government for thirty years – is one of the three factors behind the Celtic Tiger boom; in less than a decade the Irish economy became the healthiest in the EU, with the Irish now enjoying the highest per capita income in Europe. (The other two drivers of the Irish economy – a dramatic increase in the number of women……in the workforce, and a ‘sweetheart’ tax arrangement with the US – are described briefly later.)
There are two characteristics of Irish schools system (also described briefly below) that Americans should not adopt: using a single exam – the Leaving Cert – as the sole determinant for college admissions; and dictating a single, nation-wide curriculum. But there are six things Irish schools do particularly well – some significant, others less so – which American schools should consider adopting.
An Efficient Calendar: The Irish School Calendar is more efficient vis-à-vis the average American school district, resulting in the Irish having more quality time off. This year during September and October, Lexington schools will close for six days; five holidays (two of them religious) and a couple of half-days for ‘professional development.’ In Ireland, there will be zero days off during these two months, followed by an entire week off. Bottom line: by eliminating individual days off the Irish have more full weeks off, and summer lasts for three full months. During these nation-wide school vacation weeks, the Irish take family trips or individual students might go on expeditions or sign up for intense classes (such as professional cooking instruction.)
Sports-Free Holidays: And school vacation weeks are truly weeks off. Schools do not schedule sports tournaments, play / band rehearsals, practices, music lessons, Little League games, etc. All student activity ceases for the week. Similarly, businesses have an understanding attitude and tend to not schedule critical things such as trade shows, financial closings, conferences, board meetings, etc. allowing the working heads of families to more easily take the weeks off. It’s refreshing that the entire country can run at a slower pace during these weeks yet still having a thriving economy!
Contracts not Tenure: The tenure system in America is clearly broken. Efforts to utilize ‘bonus schemes’ to encourage better performance of tenured teachers have met with minimal success, as this Economist article notes. An alternative approach is to replace the tenure system with a system of individual contracts where each teacher negotiates their own term of employment and level of compensation. Great teachers can earn more money and lock in long-term, maybe even lifetime deals. Poorer teachers have to improve their performance to get a better deal.
School Uniforms: A simple but powerful concept is that of school uniforms. Uniforms have the benefits you might expect: they are an economic leveler, they reduce clothing budgets, and they reduce stress in the morning. And the children don’t seem to mind because everyone else is wearing them. And a nice added benefit is that, when you see a child in a uniform walking the street or on the Dublin bus, you tend to keep an eye out for them. The uniform is almost a protection device.
Male Teachers for Boys: Most schools in Ireland are single-sex, often until age 16 or later. And in boys’ schools most of the teachers are male. The result is an overall better level of communication and understanding between boys and their teachers. Yes I see great communication and understanding between boys and a number of the superior female teachers here. But on average the Irish systems of male teachers for boys has a better overall result.
No Mobiles in School: The Columbine disaster demonstrated the safety benefit of students having their cell phones always at the ready. But the proliferation of cell phones at many American schools detracts from the education process. Irish schools have a simple solution; there’s a box just inside each classroom door into which all mobiles are placed. The phones are at the ready in case we’ve another Columbine, but they are not interfering with the education process.
Implementing the above six things would cost little or not money yet would, in my view, improve the level of education in the States.
Two Economic Drivers: A few brief comments on the other two drivers (besides education) of the Irish economy; a dramatic increase in the number of women in the workforce, and a ‘sweetheart’ tax arrangement with the US.
Between 1970 and 1995 the ‘birth rate’ in Ireland was cut in half, from 3.9 to less than two. With smaller families to care for, by the early 1990’s women were returning the workforce in droves, with the total number of workers mushrooming from 1.2 million to 1.8 million in less than ten years. This dramatic increase in the number of native, well educated workers provided fuel to an economy what was growing due to the second driver, a sweetheart tax deal with the US which, when coupled with sweetheart tax deal with the EU, resulted in many major US technology and pharmaceutical companies setting up huge operations in Ireland.
The EU lets Ireland maintain a corporate income tax rate of only 12%, far lower than any other in Europe. And the US lets American companies which pay this 12% rate to not have to ‘make up the difference’ vs. the normal US corporate tax rate. The result is that many US companies pump a major portion of their revenue through their Irish operation. Case in point: every piece of software that Microsoft ships to a non-US address is shipped from Ireland, making Ireland the second largest exporter of software in the world.
Two Things Not To Adopt
A few brief comments on the two characteristics of Irish schools system that Americans should not adopt; the ‘Leaving Cert’ exam for college admissions and a single, nation-wide curriculum.
‘The Leaving’ is a 30-hour exam that each high school senior is required to sit (just once) and which results in a single score. This single score – and nothing else – determines the student’s admission to college, both university and major. Yes, in Ireland high-school grades, extracurricular activities, essays, SAT’s, and teacher recommendations are not a part of the college application process. Though the American system is clearly broken (see my blog of 30 April on how to follow Marilee Jones’s advice and get through the US process with your sanity intact), the Irish system of a single score from a single test pulls the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. There’s got to be better, middle ground alternative.
As for Ireland’s nation-wide curriculum where every child is taught the exact same material, I believe this removes creativity from the individual school districts, schools, and teachers. Some of the best learning I’ve seen is from the creativity of individual, superior teachers in the States.