What REALLY Makes International Schools Special?

Some years ago, when I was the principal of an international school in South Korea, I was assigned to an accrediting team for an international school in Japan. I felt confident in my value as a team member because I had been on these teams previously.

On my first night in Japan, one of the key members who had flown in from California said to me, “Let’s face it Richard. We all know that international schools are just glorified babysitting operations for children of wealthy, foreign businessmen, diplomats and local, wealthy people. They don’t really have viable and competent school programmes”.

Some of the other members of the team, who were all long-time international-school educators and administrators, gasped and immediately protested this unfair analysis.

At first I thought the fellow was trying to “pull our collective legs”. It was soon apparent that he surely did believe what he said.

It took until the third day of our duties to convince this man that most international schools do a very commendable job with little outside (district) assistance.

Furthermore, we highlighted that most schools, which go up to 12th grade, have an extremely high percentage of students going on to prestigious universities around the world, but mostly in the US.

One would think that would be the proof of the pudding. The particular school under examination in Japan had a reputation for sending on to university 100% of its students.

There are many ways to prove this person was misled. Many international schools administer the US College Board’s Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) in the 10th and 11th grades.

Each US state has a different selection index, due to the particular educational systems and economic factors in the area. Usually, international schools have a selection index that is one or two points above that of the state (or states) that has the highest selection index.

Why do students in international schools have higher marks?

During my more than 30 years of working in international schools, I have found that most students, including American teenagers, are closer to their families because of frequent moves … or the frequent moves of their friends.

Families often plan and coordinate study programmes and strategies together, as I did with my four children.

Most of the parents in these cases are professionals who have a deep regard and respect for higher education. Very few families permit their children to go out at night when they have school the next day.

When parents, new to the school, ask me questions about other parents’ rules such as, “Do they let their kids go out for several kinds of school activities?”, I tell them that a very large percentage of our students do both sport and music, drama or art—and still maintain their status as honour roll students.

Many ask how these children can do so many activities and, yet, earn top marks.

The answer is really simpler than it might seem: They learn how to use their time effectively, and they have parents who watch carefully and get involved in their educational and extracurricular activities.

Often, parents of average students coming from the US or other countries tell us that, after a few months here, their children start studying more regularly and achieve better marks, even though the academic programme at their present international school is more rigorous.

The reason? Setting priorities and knowing when and how to study.

At our school, the percentage of both middle- and high-school students who do both fine arts and sport is quite high. These children are, for the most part, very good students. They like spending time with friends as much as teenagers anywhere. However, they know what they must complete for school and get on with it.

I believe that most students at international schools learn what some of us call the international school system. Thus, they work hard all week, and then on weekends, parents will provide them with a degree of freedom to meet friends and pursue other activities.

The benefit of this general rule is that these traits seem to follow the students into their university years. Many of them have told me about moving to the quieter dorms with lots of Asians, so they could study during the week. They saved their playtime for the weekends.

One thing that pleased me a lot was that all of my sons became disturbed at the lack of respect for elderly people they experienced in different areas of the US. After spending all of their informative years in international schools, they almost naturally gained respect for elderly people.

There were other things they learned, too: a complete tolerance for race, religion and nationality.

Friendships in international schools are seldom formed based on such factors. Sport teams, jazz bands, and clubs such as the drama group and social welfare club are prime springboards for forming friendships.

Parents new to the system often worry needlessly about the fact that their children might be one year older than most students in the class due to changing school systems or learning English.

That factor is almost a non-concern in most cases. In the graduating class of one of my sons, there was an age range of four years: some students were 17, others 18, and still others 19 or 20. The reasons for the differences in age were all based on legitimate factors, such as having moved to different countries.

It is often the case that students from countries that are in conflict with one another become good friends. I specifically remember how, during the Iran–Iraq conflict two boys—one from each country—became best friends.

How great, also, it was to see a brand new Saudi Arabian boy with his classmate’s arm over his shoulder heading for the gym to play basketball; the other boy was Israeli.

We lose track of students’ political backgrounds very quickly; we seldom ask them their nationality. But the children will say, “Tell me about where you come from”. And there are always some students who have never lived in the country of their passports.

International schools usually have at least one basic curriculum and, due to the system of textbook publishing and distribution, it continues to be derived from primarily American and British resources (and, increasingly, those from Australia).

But the actual academic programmes offer more diverse and expanded foreign language and/or science options. Any international school that promotes entering university after high school usually has Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate programmes.

Most have rather small classes with very experienced teachers. Courses promoting world values and geography are given high priority.

Those of us who have worked in international schools for many years try to promote the concept that Dr David C Pollock refers to in the book Third Culture Kids.

When international schools profess to promote global education, it is more than just a frilly term. It is usually a fact. We like to believe that our former pupils generally make excellent students, particularly at the university level, and outstanding world citizens after they leave us.

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