CONWAY, Ark. (Sept. 9, 2009) – In his quest to improve the American school system, senior David Kolovson headed east. His Odyssey project, “International Student Assessment and Comparative Education Policy”, brought him to Brussels, Belgium, for two months this past summer. He used the city as a home-base to investigate the educational systems of Finland, Poland and the Netherlands.
The three countries are ranked 2nd, 9th and 11th, respectively, for student achievement in reading, according to international benchmarking tests by the Programme for International Student Assessment. Although their systems differ in structure and approach, Kolovson sees them as models for the United States, which ranked 22nd.
"Education is a policy area that has so many opportunities, and when it’s done right it can solve so many problems,” Kolovson said. “It can become an economic ladder, especially for minority groups, and help combat social ills like crime and poverty,” the politics major explained. “It is such a foundational policy area, yet the United States just can’t seem to figure out how to create a first-rate education system.”
Kolovson began his research by consulting dozens of EU documents detailing the statistical successes and failures of each country. Most EU agencies are headquartered in Brussels, including the educational information network Eurydice, which provided him with hard copies of the reports. The agency was located just up the street from the dormitory Kolovson moved into at the Institute for European Studies.
During the day he pored through the details, determining the unique features of each country’s education system and analyzing the benefits and drawbacks. In the evenings, he relaxed with the other dorm residents.
“I was living in international student housing, so I was surrounded by all these students my age from across Europe,” he said. “As I got to know them all better, I was able to have in-depth conversations with people from different countries, to help me interpret and understand the things I was reading about their countries in the reports. They helped me pull out new areas to talk about and learn about.”
His new friends also provided him a global perspective on the U.S. educational system. Many of them had spent semesters abroad at prestigious American colleges or universities, but they looked down on American primary public education.
“They would ask me if I went to private high school, which I didn’t,” Kolovson said. “They almost assume that if you go to public school in America then you don’t go on to college. Hearing that was one of the things that made me take a step back and totally reassess my understanding of the American school system. It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought of if I had done this research by just burying myself in books at home in Texas.”
A friend from Poland, for example, modestly explained to him the current state of Polish education. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Polish government restructured its school system to focus on student retention. Vocational training was integrated into the academic curriculum, so parents from small, poor towns would see concrete value of keeping their children in school.
The system has achieved striking progress. In 2000 Poland was ranked 24th in reading; by 2006 it was ranked 9th.
“My friend said, ‘You know, it’s not too good, but it’s better than the U.S.’” Kolovson recounted. “They went from being really behind – about where the U.S. is now – to being a leader, and they did it in a very short amount of time.”
During his stay in Europe, Kolovson also traveled to Finland and the Netherlands to see the countries’ schools firsthand and to interview students and teachers.
In Finland, Kolovson was struck by the respect teachers receive from their students and from Finnish society. Teacher certification requires earning two master’s degrees – one in pedagogy and another in the teacher’s subject area of choice. The advanced training entitles them to higher pay and more autonomy than American teachers usually get.
In the Netherlands, which utilizes a tracking system to sort students into pre-professional programs, he stayed with a local family whose 15-year-old daughter who had chosen at age 12 to enter the pre-medicine track.
“Despite how strict it looks on paper, the Dutch system cultivates very mature and well educated students,” he said. “They get to specialize in what they’re interested in, whether it’s humanities or science or social science, so they’re more engaged in the subject. But when it comes down to it they’re also choosing a career path.”
Kolovson, on the other hand, was 19 when he decided his future career. He declared his politics major during his sophomore year, while taking an introductory course called Issues in Politics: Education. One day the professor, Dr. Jay Barth, invited a guest speaker to lecture on comparative education policy, using Japan’s highly centralized system as a counterpoint to the decentralized American system.
“It made me realize that obviously there are other countries doing interesting things with education, and we can learn from them,” he said. “In Europe, the biggest conclusion I drew was putting a perspective on where the U.S. is in the world in terms of education. We need to get off our high horse and look at education as a global necessity, and realize that other systems in Asia and in Europe have a lot we can learn from.”
Kolovson intends to pursue a master’s degree in education policy next year. The San Antonio, Texas, resident is the son of Jean and Phil Kolovson.
"Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning” is a major component of the Hendrix curriculum. The philosophy is, “You learn more when you do more.” Each student is required to complete three Odyssey experiences selected from six categories: artistic creativity, global awareness, professional and leadership development, service to the world, undergraduate research, and special projects. Kolovson’s project will earn him credit for Special Projects.
Hendrix, founded in 1876, is an undergraduate liberal arts college emphasizing experiential learning in a demanding yet supportive environment. The college is profiled in Loren Pope’s book Colleges That Change Lives. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.