Swiss Saturday: Subtle Educational Differences

For the past year, I’ve taken part in a survey from the Swiss government on employment. Every three months they call me and ask me questions about my job–how many hours I work, how much money I’ve earned, if I’ve applied for any new jobs, etc. I love data so I’m always happy to help out with such things.

Yesterday was another one of these phone calls. They are testing a new survey instrument, and so they had a new panel of questions and this one included educational questions. While the survey taker was speaking English and I was answering in English, it was like we were speaking past each other:

Survey: Did you complete any schooling past the compulsory schooling?

Me: Yes.

Survey: What did you do?

Me: I went to the University.

Survey: You didn’t get a matura first?

Me: In America, everyone goes to the same compulsory schooling. We call it high school and there’s no differentiation in the diplomas.

Survey: And you can go straight to the university after this?

Me: Yes.

Survey: I’ll write down High School diploma.

Me: Okay.

Survey: And then University?

Me: Yes. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

Later I explained that I attended another university for a Master’s Degree. She then wanted to know my husband’s education (bachelor’s and master’s also in political science), and my parents’ education (Dad has a PhD  in political science and my mother has a bachelor’s degree in nursing).

Now, for me, this was kind of interesting because the Swiss Gymnasium program, which leads you to the university, always seemed like the Swiss equivalent of high school to me. But to her, they were not the same. Which makes sense, because only 20 percent of kids get accepted into a gymnasium program. The remaining 80 percent go to either a blue-collar vocational training, or a combined apprenticeship-academic program, where you can go to a college after graduating, but not a university.

Now, I hope my answers made enough sense that their survey makes sense, but things don’t always translate straight across. Even when speaking the same language. In the US there are differences between colleges and universities, but the difference is in the degres they grant, not in who can get in. You can go to a great college or a lousy university, or vice versa. Here it’s different, and, I admit, I still don’t understand all of it.

When US politicians say they want to be more “like Europe” with their “free college” I just laugh and laugh because a. there is no way to be “like Europe” because each European country is different and while the university is free here, unless your kid is in the top 20 percent, he’s not getting in. Pretty sure US parents wouldn’t go for that.


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17 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: Subtle Educational Differences

  1. I love your Swiss Saturdays. I have gone the other way- grown up in Switzerland and moved to Arkansas in my 30s- and you often bring up stuff that I have noticed too.

  2. I am a naturalized Dutch citizen that arrived in the U.S. in 1973. The gymnasium concept is not unique, nor is it that different in differing countries. The main difference is BEFORE you get into gymnasium, i.e. the ubiquitous testing that occurs starting in 5th grade of lower school (grades 1 – 6.)

    Western Europe at least has got it right in that they accept, as do the parents, that sometimes Johnny is just dumb. Johnny will NEVER excel at verbal or math skills, so let’s prepare Johnny for the real world. The testing goes on non-stop for almost 2 years, and when its over, you get ranked. The lowest ranked kids learn enough language to read a newspaper and fill out an application, enough math to master a checkbook, and enough foreign language (usually English) to understand “see the cat” and graduate higher school after 3 years with working papers.They generally attend a technical school and learn a useful trade. For those who cannot even achieve this level, they enroll in an apprenticeship program in the basic trades.

    The middle level of high school ends in either 4 or five years, and you get more advanced reading, more advanced math, maybe through geometry, and more language, possibly including French and/or German. You graduate with the ability to get a job as say, an executive secretary, a lower school teacher, a bank teller, etc.

    The highest level is advanced linguistics and literature, advanced math including calculus, advanced English, French, German, possibly Latin and Greek, and you graduate in 6 years, with the expectation of going to University, which in Holland was Medical School or advanced Engineering.

    The key to all of this was the notion that you had to perform to remain at your level – fail to cut it and you dropped a level for the next year. The second issue was that there was no SHAME in failing a year – if you had to repeat, so be it. I had kids in my class from a year younger to 2 years older. And nobody cared or put a stigma on it. Lastly, courses were attended on a basis of importance – Math was an hour every day, history only twice a week, religion once every 2 weeks.

    When you graduate from 6th grade of the higher school, you had at least 2 -3 years of American “college” under your belt. I had personal experience because when the moronic counselor reviewed my course history, I had 2 1/2 times the credits to graduate high school in the U.S. at age 14 – all i needed was one year of English Lit and a half semester of civics. I ended up graduating at age 15 – no biggie for me but a record setting event back then.

    So, the major fallacy in U.S. schooling is teaching to the level of the “dumb” kids and letting the exceptional students figure it out for themselves. Sometimes there is a sop in advanced placement classes and the like, but the majority of graduates cannot hold a candle to European students.

    A final point, is my first U.S. college-level English class assignment was “Write 10 topic sentences.” Which I had been doing since age 8, in 3 languages. And they wonder why the U.S. students cannot compete.

    1. I strongly prefer the Swiss/Dutch system because it does prepare every student for adulthood. In the US, we’re like “Only if you’re super smart!”

        1. I never took Freshman English because I passed the AP test, but that does sound far more remedial to me than regular Freshman English. Of course, it depends on the school and how prepared the students are. They may have put you into a remedial class because you were an ESL student.

          1. No, it was not “remedial” in the strictest sense – it was the actual Freshman English 101 class at a major 4 year state university – taught by TA’s. It certainly _seemed_ remedial, but back then the vast numbers of “advanced” high school students “placed out” of the two years of English classes. I could not as “Huckleberry Finn” and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe weren’t standard teachings overseas, so my English Lit knowledge was lacking.

            But my classmates certainly did not exhibit the prowess one might expect from 4 year high school graduates, and believe it or not, many actually failed the course. And this was 1974 – it is seriously more dumbed-down today.

  3. It sounds like the “gymnasium” school system as described in both article and one of the comments is quite similar to how we did do education here in the US until we changed what we emphasis to learn. I remember there being 2 tracks of learning starting from grade 9 up ( academic or trade). During the formative grades 1-8 testing was done to see how one showed ability in academic subjects. If you couldn’t develop skills enough with extra help, it was highly recommended by high school to learn a trade so that when you left high school, you could get a skilled job. These trade courses were also available to those on the academic track if they had free periods in schedule. Those on academic track eventually went on to college and beyond. There was no remedial classes taken in college to get them ready for college in college. You were either ready for courses or not. One had to have a high reading level skill ( of course this was pre-computer days) One worked hard for the grade you received, there was no pass or fail courses in major courses, and you had to achieve a certain grade average overall to continue on. Somewhere along the years, the education system here went from developing minds to giving grades on just attending class with no actual learning. Just about anyone here in the US can attend college without having the learning level to study correctly in topics needed for major. College offer today courses that does not develop minds but cater to interests of the moment, like texture of hair how it effects relationships. No skills are learned that will be useful in life but feelings are explored with no real life applications. We need to have standards in higher education which doesn’t include everyone gets a college education just to have a useless degree. Sorry if I have offend those who are “sensitive” to criticism.

    1. The key is that the schools and their administrators have totally caved to the whims of the parents over actual education. Do you know what happens to a teacher, tenured or not, union or not, that actually tries to FAIL a U.S. high school student? In my day my parents would have punished me and thanked the teachers. Now, the parents will SUE the teacher and the school, and even in the face of didactic evidence such as failure to do homework, failing test grades and evidence of truancy the administration ALWAYS caves in and faults the teacher, with the resultant reversal of the failing grade and possible dismissal of the teacher. Therefore you have adults that have a command of language evidenced by sports figures getting interviewed in locker rooms today.

  4. Ha, US parents couldn’t go for that–the quality of our educational system has declined so much. And it’s going to get much worse in the next four years too, judging by the Pumpkin’s appointment for that department. 🙁

  5. “only 20 percent of kids get accepted into a gymnasium program. The remaining 80 percent go to either a blue-collar vocational training, or a combined apprenticeship-academic program, where you can go to a college after graduating, but not a university”

    So 80% of students are learning a skill that will allow them to actually get a job and make a living after school. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have more emphasis on vocational training here in the USA? Not everyone is meant for college, and college is not the “be all end all” goal. Earning a living and being a productive citizen is. But our society bought into the idea that everyone “deserves” a college degree, or that it is the only route to success. We need more welders, more mechanics, more people in medical tech fields, etc.

    Seems that this is at least one area where Europe got it right.

    1. We need more welders, more mechanics, more people in medical tech fields, etc.

      Can you imagine how many US parents would pass out at the idea of telling their friends that their kids are in trade school instead of college?

    2. My partner originally earned an undergraduate degree because that is what his parents told him he had to do. After failing out of his first university, they enrolled him in a different one where he finally received his degree.

      After struggling to make ends meet for two years after graduation, he finally talked to a few of his friends who are electricians and is now in an electrical apprenticeship program. He loves it and is really excelling! It took a while for his folks to come around (and I still don’t think they’re happy about it), but they’re impressed that he is working in a career where his hands-on learning style is being utilized.

      Not everyone will excel in college and even out of those who do, some of them will enjoy working a trade more than an office job. I wish we encouraged that as a society….

      1. If I had children, I would be encouraging them to learn a trade and how to run a business. A good roofer, a good mechanic, a good plumber will never be out of work and those jobs cannot be sent to China. I for sure would not be funding a $200,000 degree for my kid.

        1. Maybe a decade ago, my hematologist came into the exam room for one of my annual check-ups, looked seriously at me, and announced “Never let your children become doctors.” I assume he had just paid his malpractice bill or his daughter’s pre-med tuition. I answered that I frequently looked at my two daughters and asked them if they were sure they didn’t want to become plumbers. Doc paused for another moment and said, rather wistfully, “My neighbor is a plumber. He repaints his whole house every five years. He owns a boat!”

          Yep, local plumber has more disposable income than a medical specialist.

  6. Interesting to hear how it works in Switzerland, and the confusion different systems can create. I’m in Italy, but went to school & university in the UK and I have a Bachelor’s degree. In the UK a Bachelor’s takes approx 3 years and then you can go on to get a Master’s or PhD if appropriate.

    When I arrived in Italy (it has since changed) the only degree that existed took around 7 years and was basically a PhD – no other degree option existed.

    Which means that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, most Italians were convinced that I had somehow managed to get a full PhD by the age of 21!

  7. I recently heard managers complaining that they couldn’t hire at the salary they wanted to pay for a vocational technical specialty…Umm ok maybe you should pay more? In the us high school is not enough. You have published many a letter from someone with skills who can’t get a job without a degree. So my children will be pushed to get at least an associate’s degree . That’s not helicoptering, that’s practical.

    1. I think every person should think about what they want to do with their life, and if they want to be successful, they probably should get a degree /very complicated

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