When I was an EF Tour Director, with a captive audience of American high school students on my bus, I enjoyed the opportunity to highlight major and/or fun differences between high school in Europe and the American school experience.
Below are some of these highlights, taken from interviews I held with some German, French, and Italian friends. This is just an collection of unexpected and fascinating differences that came up over coffee with friends about their high school lives. It’s not scientific, exhaustive, or comprehensive—but just too much fun to keep to myself!
American school facilities are much larger than their European counterparts. The main difference is that high schools in Europe don’t have gymnasiums and adjacent athletic fields. A German friend recounted how four Munich high schools shared the same Munich city gym for physical education class.
There are no sports teams connected with European high schools. High-school age students who want to play sports can participate in community-based teams. A French friend explained how the football (soccer) team where high school students played was an association of local post office employees.
Two German friends who attended a U.S. high school for a year noted how there seemed to be much more “school spirit” in American high schools, and they attributed it to the sports teams.
On a side note, cheerleaders are perhaps the central manifestation of American school spirit. Most Europeans I’ve known are fascinated when they see a real live cheerleader. Before their first sighting, they’ll have only seen cheerleaders on TV.
High schools in Europe don’t have lockers. Students carry their books with them. But this isn’t as onerous as it may seem: Europeans change classrooms far less frequently than Americans do. In Germany, you might only change classrooms for your science class; for all other classes, the teachers rotate to you. In Italy, high school students are in the same classroom all day, with three- or four-minute breaks when teachers rotate (and one longer 15-minute break mid-morning to get espresso from the vending machine).
High schools in Europe don’t have parking lots; in compact and public-transport-friendly Europe, students take buses, trains, trams and/or bikes to school. And in any event, in most European countries the driving age is 18, meaning that practically no high school student would have a license, never mind a car.
In the United States, we have vocational high schools as well as traditional college-track high schools, with the vast majority of students attending college-track high schools. In Europe, there are, broadly, three types of high schools, which could be summed up as: (1) vocational, (2) professional (e.g., training for specific white-collar fields), and (3) college-track. In Europe, the percentage of students who go to vocational or professional schools is larger than it is in the United States (an anecdotal assessment that all my interviewees agreed with; I don’t have hard data on it).
In France, the school day is quite a bit longer than in the United States: 8 a.m. to noon in the morning, and then 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the afternoons. Wednesdays are half days (morning only), but so are Saturdays! French students involved in community sports would fit this in on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
Italy also has a Monday-through-Saturday schedule, with all days being 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. College-track high schools will also have afternoon sessions (until 5 p.m.) three times a week.
The German school schedule is notable for its relatively lax attendance requirements. To get credit for oral participation and to be allowed to take the final exam, German 11th- and 12th-graders only have to uphold a 60 percent attendance rate. And 11th- and 12th-graders can even sign their own absence forms. So it’s not uncommon for German students in these grades to, say, skip out on morning classes and just show up for a particular afternoon class.
(This may also be common in other European countries, too, but only the Germans brought it up. In general, European students lead less-regimented existences than their American counterparts—something akin to the freedom American students only first experience at college.)
Only my German friends waded into the waters of whose high school system is more rigorous, academically speaking. Their verdict: German schools are more academically challenging. There’s lots of handing in papers, they maintained, and “what is written counts”; they drew comparisons unfavorably to their experiences in U.S. high schools, where they found credit would be given for non-content-related things such as reaching the desired page length. Exams in Germany are similarly written affairs, i.e., no multiple-choice tests, which one of the German girls interviewed diplomatically described as “unmotivating to German students” (read: way too easy).
These same German girls loved their American teachers, whom they found to be far more motivating than the teachers they’d had back home. They attributed part of this to the fact that most teachers in the United States not only teach but also run/coach one of the school’s extracurricular activities, such as yearbook, the field hockey team, etc. The upshot, they said, is that the teachers get to know the students both in and out of the curriculum, and therefore can make genuine connections with their students.
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