Thanks to the teen melodrama boom of the early 90s, everyone knows what an American high school looks like: glamorous, fashionable teens smoking Virginia Slims out of bathroom windows, 40-minute passing periods where someone gets stuffed into a locker, crotchety teachers threatening to keep students in detention all summer.
In reality, of course, the American public school system is a bureaucracy devoted to teaching kids how to game standardized tests in order to secure more government funding to then teach kids how to score even higher on those tests. The focus of American education is often not on preparing students for the future, but on forcing them to memorize useless information like "the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell." The result, according to some education experts, is that American students basically learn nothing.
European high schools may not have the same pop cultural cachet, but it's generally known that whatever goes on inside them, they're better in many ways than their American counterparts. Schools in countries like Finland, for example, have effectively given up on the repetitive learning style, which might be why those countries regularly outpace American education scores. Even Poland, where one in six children live in relative poverty, continually beats the US in math, science, and reading.
"European countries put greater premium on rigor, focus, and coherence in their instructional systems," says Andreas Schleicher, the Paris-based director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Curricula in the United States, by contrast, "run a mile wide but only an inch deep."
Of course, it's hard to compare the United States, a country with over 300 million people, to Europe, a continent with a population of more than 700 million. But there are some clear-cut differences, so keeping in mind that education can vary wildly at the local level, I tried to find out what kids in Europe learn in school that American kids do not.
MANY EUROPEANS ACTUALLY LEARN HOW TO HAVE SEX
In America, sex education usually boils down to that line from Mean Girls: "If you touch each other, you will get chlamydia. And die." At best, American students are treated to a PowerPoint slideshow of sexually transmitted diseases and maybe a demonstration of how to put a condom on a piece of fruit. At worst, teens are stuck in abstinence-only classrooms, where everyone pretends like they're not going to fuck until they're married. As recently as 2008, according to the Guttmacher Institute, one third of American kids ages 15 to 19 weren't taught anything about contraceptives in school. Meanwhile, states that have embraced abstinence-only education have the highest teen pregnancy rates.
Conversely, sex education—the kind that acknowledges teens might have sex—is mandatory throughout much of the western and northern parts of Europe (the Catholic stronghold of Italy is one exception). In many of these countries, sex ed is more practical, and less strictly biological, than it is in America.
The reasons for this might be chalked up to relaxed continental attitudes toward sex. In a 2011 paper on advancing sex education in developing countries, Heather D. Boonstra, the public policy director at the Guttmacher Institute, pointed out that in Western Europe, "sex among adolescents is generally accepted, with little to no societal pressure to remain abstinent. But with that acceptance comes strong cultural norms that emphasize that young people who are having sex should take actions to protect themselves and their partners from pregnancy and STIs."
In Germany, for example, my friend Laura says she learned about sex as early as age eight from a picture book in school. (A similar picture book recently made headlines for being used in a Berlin classroom full of five-year-olds.) German schools teach everything from the biology of reproduction to how to properly use contraception to how to reach orgasm. In the countries in and near Scandinavia—Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland—sex education starts as early as preschool and continues through high school, often including graphic videos that explain how to masturbate, among other topics.
Countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Slovakia, France, and Luxembourg have sex ed curricula that emphasize things like sexual consent, navigating relationships, and communication, according to a 2013 report on sex education from European Parliament. A friend of mine who has cousins in the Netherlands says they remember learning how to put condoms on dildos in the dark.
The closest thing Europe has to the prudish Americans sex education system is probably found in the UK, which has been criticized for skirting around important sex-related matters in school, and which had the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western Europe as of 2014.
EUROPEANS CAN LOCATE STUFF ON A MAP
It's a running joke that Americans are so ignorant of geography that they'd have trouble pointing out any country but their own on a map. Actually, about one in ten Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can't find the US on a map, according to a 2002 survey by National Geographic. In that survey of young people in nine developed countries—including Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, and the US— the US came in second-to-last in geographic literacy, beating only Mexico.
A Finnish woman I know tells me that, as children, Finns are expected to not only memorize all the world countries, but also their capitals, any major cities, rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, and other important geographical features. In one stress-inducing childhood experience, she had to name 100 obscure rivers on a map in front of the whole class. Personally, I can't name 100 of anything, other than Pokémon or jelly bean flavors.
"Geography is often thought to help students understand different cultures and social systems in Europe, and to see the world through different lenses, appreciate different perspectives and values," the OECD's Schleicher tells me. "That being said, geography in Europe is often taught in a rather Eurocentric way" that places Europe at the center of the universe and privileges European narratives over others, he adds.
EUROPEANS LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH, AND OFTEN ANOTHER FOREIGN LANGUAGE
It's easy to take for granted that English is the international language of commerce and politics when it's your mother tongue. In the US, there is no national requirement for students to learn a second language. Although many individual schools make kids take a few foreign language classes in high school, that rarely amounts to more than ¿Cómo estás? and a few foreign swear words.
Not only do almost all European children have to learn English as a second language, but 20 European countries also require students to learn a second foreign language. Students in Austria, Cyrpus, Malta, Croatia, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, and Portugal all start learning their first foreign language by age six; in Belgium, kids start learning at age three, according to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center.
In America, by the end of high school, the average graduate had taken less than two years of a foreign language—about enough to order from a restaurant, if that—according to research from John H. Bishop, a former Cornell University professor who's authored multiple papers comparing American and European education. By contrast, a quarter of all Europeans can hold a conversation in two or more foreign languages, and half of all Europeans can speak at least one language other than their native tongue.
ONLY AMERICANS ARE OBSESSED WITH SCHOOL SPORTS
One of the largest differences between European and American schools has nothing to do with what goes on inside classrooms. It's the sports teams that dominate massive amounts of money and attention in high schools across the US. Europeans take part in PE, but their schools don't have the single-minded focus on athletic achievement that is common in America.
Schleicher tells me that when he first visited the US from Germany as a teenager, he was "surprised that the first thing [I saw] entering a school were all the sports trophies. Sometimes I asked myself how the children who were good at math would feel their interests were valued."
Bishop explains that this stark difference stems from the fact that in Europe, sports are more clearly delineated as a career early on. Kids who show athletic promise often end up in secondary schools where they're trained to enter professional sports or to compete in the Olympics, placing them somewhat outside the ordinary teenage experience. As a blockbuster 2013 article in the Atlantic on the subject pointed out, in places like Finland and Germany, "many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?"
Even European PE classes are less focused on competition. Kids in Spain learn how to dance; in Nordic countries, they learn to make maps and orient themselves in nature as part of school. Lithuania and Hungary include correct posture and breathing exercises in their PE curricula, according to a 2012 European Commission report.
There is, however, one area where Americans beat the Europeans: It's anecdotal, but kids in American schools seem to have more fun. Rifle through any number of blogs from foreign exchange students studying in the US (like this one or this one or this one), and they all highlight the American high school experience: football games, cheerleaders, eating chicken nuggets every day for lunch, playing pranks, homecoming, prom. Sure, they might be bored in the classroom, but everyone knows class is the least important part of the American high school experience.
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