If you fret, as I do, about insufficient rigor in U.S. classrooms, try spending some time with teachers who have brought the American way of schooling overseas. It is a shock to discover that despite our failure to teach enough to many American students here, well-educated foreigners still prefer the WAY we teach to the brain cramming that goes on in their own schools.

I discovered this at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of International Education in St. Louis last month. The group, whose executive director is former Alexandria, Va., superintendent Herbert Berg, represents private schools--often called American or international schools--located in foreign countries. They cater to American diplomat and business families, as well as children from other countries whose parents are working abroad and the children of host country parents, at least the more affluent ones.

I asked these American educators why parents in Asia and Europe, whose local schools outscore us on international tests, would want an apparently inferior American education. Here is what some of them said:

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Michael S. Dougherty, director of the Shanghai Community International Schools and former headmaster of the North Jakarta International School:

"One salient aspect of U.S.-based international schools, which attracts foreign parents, especially Asians, is simply that their students are happy at school. Many Asian parents associate successful, rigorous schooling with drills and drudgery. They are at first suspicious when they observe that their children actually look forward to going to school each day. 'My son thinks weekends are boring,' one Indian parent in Shanghai told me recently. 'He can't wait for Monday to roll around. Is he OK?' But when these parents observe their child's academic growth and personal development, they recognize this same enthusiasm as a contributing factor to their child's success.

"Asian parents, especially, are drawn to the confidence which the American approach to learning instills in its students. Remembering their own relatively quiet, passive roles as students, they are amazed to see their third-grade daughter addressing a packed theater at Friday's assembly. It would have been considered disrespectful of them to question their own teachers, so they marvel that their 10th grader pointed out to his math teacher that there were in fact two possible correct solutions to problem 7 on yesterday's quiz. 'You corrected your math teacher?' gasps the horrified Korean father at dinner that night. 'It's OK, Dad--he said I was absolutely right!' This informal, two-way relationship between student and teacher is ultimately an American phenomenon. It stimulates academic confidence, as is seen by many foreign parents overseas as a distinguishing characteristic of American-type international schools."

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Richard Spradling, director of the American International School, in Vienna:

"Most Austrians .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. think that what they see on [the TV show] Boston Public and films is the reality of American public schools. They assume they are filled with violence, drugs and immorality. They also assume that the educational level is low, perhaps based on the TIMSS [Third International Mathematics and Science Study] comparisons that get such splashy coverage in the U.S. Ironically, U.S. higher education is still held in very high regard and they fail to see the inconsistency that somehow we in the U.S. are producing educated and morally sound graduates from our high schools to take up those university positions."

But the Austrian and third-country parents exposed to teaching at Spradling's school "say they greatly prefer the close personal relationships between teachers and students that characterize American schools. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. They also value the emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving versus rote memorization and one-dimensional (teacher-directed) instruction." Many also appreciate "the integrated approach to extra-curricular activities (sports, music, drama, etc.) in American schools. These are often non-existent, very limited, or confined to out-of-school clubs and locations in their home countries."

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Karin Noll, head of early childhood education at Qatar Academy, Doha, Qatar:

"The thing I hear over and over again from Arab parents is that if their children go to American schools they will be able to think. Their schools are still the rote memory places where there are many, many children in a classroom and the teacher stands at the front and tells them what to learn and they repeat."

I heard a lot of this in St. Louis. We Americans think our schools have problems. Our average test scores are often not quite as high as those found abroad. But foreigners still think we encourage creative thinking in ways their own schools do not. That success, they say, seems to be reflected in the innovative triumphs of our businesses and laboratories. Also, foreigners envy the strength and accessibility of American universities and often want their children to attend them. And as Larry W. Dougherty, headmaster of the American Overseas School of Rome, told me, foreign parents notice that American educators want them involved in school affairs, while their own schools freeze them out.

What I find particularly enchanting is the foreign parents' impression of American education as a bulwark against rote memorization and dull repetition. Keep in mind that these American schools abroad are run much like private schools and first-rate public schools in this country. Their students are just as frantic about getting into American colleges. They prepare carefully for the SAT and work hard in International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement courses, as students do here.

Yet U.S. schools that put much emphasis on the SAT, AP and IB are frequently denounced by American education critics as foul dens of drill and kill.

A change in perspective can make things clearer. I came away from the St. Louis conference pleased that the balanced American approach--both free thinking and frequent review, with students both listening and talking--is appreciated abroad. Those foreign parents and students know what the American system can do when it has relatively small classes and well-organized schools, and I wish that for all U.S. schoolchildren.

The overseas experience also casts doubt on the frequently expressed notion that our schools are being deadened by high stakes tests. The American and international schools abroad may not have to worry about state and federal tests, but many of them give annual standardized tests to convince American parents they are keeping up with schools back home.

If critics of American testing want to see REAL drill-and-kill, I invite them to sit in a classroom in Beijing or Wuhan or Hangzhou for a few days, and watch what happens when a vibrant national culture--the Chinese cannot be beat for energy and ambition--must struggle with a horribly complex writing system that can only be learned by rote.

The argument that we were losing out to foreign education systems is weakened by the failure to consider different admissions criteria in different countries and, as American expert Gerald W. Bracey often points out, the relatively insignificant difference between the average scores of American students and those in other countries.

So cheer up. Score one for us. And take a look, if you need more proof that our system is not so bad, at what is happening in Japan.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the American economy stalled and the Japanese soared, business writers started blaming U.S. schools for our troubles. Those articles appeared less frequently as the American economy recovered. Now we find the Japanese overhauling their schools to look more like ours as their own economy stagnates.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo of Education Week has done the best reporting [LINK TO http://edweek.com/ew/ewstory.cgm?slug=04japan.h22] on this. Her Sept. 25 story, "North Wind Bows to the Rising Sun," says Japan's education system has reacted to "rising reports of teenage suicide and violence, dramatic increases in numbers of students dropping out or refusing to attend school, a decided disconnect between the country's fact-based curriculum and the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an era of innovation." In a national survey three years ago, only half of elementary school children and less that one fourth of older children in Japan said they enjoyed school. An international survey of students in 37 countries ranked Japan 36th for students' interest and enjoyment of math.

Last April, Manzo says, a new system took effect: "The national course of study, which broadly outlines the content that every public and private school in Japan must teach at a given grade level, was trimmed by about 30 percent. The reduction coincides with the elimination of Saturday school, a fixture in the academic calendar that stretched the school year to upwards of 240 days [compared to 180 in the U.S.]. A new course, sogo gakushu, or integrated-study period, fills the curriculum gap, allowing student-directed, project-oriented lessons on such nontraditional topics as coexisting in a diverse society and taking care of the environment, as well as core subjects. At the same time, more control in this centralized system is shifting to local boards, school administrator, and teachers." Sound familiar? I wager the Japanese will go too far in Americanizing their schools, just as we were wrong to say in the 1980s that a Japanization would save us. There is, I think, a happy medium for both societies, based on our different habits and traditions.

But in the eyes of those around the world who keep track of such things, we are doing much better than many of us think we are. That is worth keeping in mind.