07/30/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

For Optimism About US Education, Look Abroad

Like many teachers I know, I've tackled a new project this summer. For the past month, I've been living in a mountainous town in Haiti. While here, I've written curricula, trained staff, and worked on program evaluation for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.

From rage over the Trayvon Martin decision to concern about federal surveillance and treatment of prisoners, the U.S. public has shown a strong mistrust in the direction of our country this summer. So if you're (understandably) searching for places where we're still an unquestioned leader, look no further than our education system. Living abroad has convinced me that between our advantages in access to education, teaching and learning methods, and national conversation around education, cries that the U.S. is falling behind are overblown.

Thirty years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, we are still flooded with headlines about our crisis in education. These calls are particularly strong from experts who make international comparisons. Critics cite Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores and other country's relatively stronger teaching force and higher post-secondary completion rates.

Looking abroad shows us that these claims mask the incredible educational privilege we have. Access to K-12 education in the U.S. is so universal it is hardly discussed. In Haiti, 92% of elementary schools are private; the public school system hardly exists. Fees for private schools are often infeasible for families who live on an average of $500 (US) per year, and only 22% of the children that enter elementary school successfully complete elementary education. Even ambitious attempts to improve public education in developing countries, such as the Bridge International Academies in Kenya, struggle to reach the poorest of the poor. Our access to education compares favorably with first world countries as well; China only made compulsory education free for all in 2008.

In general, the teaching practices in our country encourage higher order thinking more than teaching practices internationally. The Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA, which I studied at a few years ago, regularly hosted foreign visitors. Groups from Finland and Japan studied the school's interdisciplinary curriculum and project-based learning, mainstays of many American schools. Chinese citizens often say that their own teaching practices stifle creativity, and seek to emulate ours. In a school where I worked in Spain, teachers lectured 1st graders seated in desks, and students learned English through memorization and repetition. I have seen similar rote learning here in Haiti.

Finally, the conversation around education in the U.S. is far more robust than elsewhere in the world. In Spain, I faithfully read El País, a large left-leaning newspaper. An idealistic recent college grad interested in education, I searched the paper high and low for debates on school choice and teacher preparation. There were no debates to be found. While our education debate is too polarized, its mere existence is better than the alternative. There is a massive amount of scholarship and dialogue around education in our country; interest groups advocate for everything from extended learning time to anti-bias curricula to computer-based schools. The focus on education stems from its crucial place in the American dream; we are a country that promises chances for personal improvement, and education is a key lever for social mobility. Our optimism about our chances of getting ahead (evidence-based or not) makes education the subject of greater domestic debate than elsewhere.

Points of reference inform perspective. It is no surprise that Haiti, a country whose government spends $300 million per year (less than many small American cities), provides an inferior education to that of the U.S.

Yet as schools reconvene for a new year next month, looking at education abroad can put our country's public education struggles in a more accurate context. Perhaps then claims of educational crisis will be reserved for those people in the direst of need.