Swiss Education Runs On Time

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," June 5, 2001, p. 9A

Swiss railroads are a metaphor for everything Swiss, including schools.

America abandoned passenger trains.

Los Angeles’ trolley system was literally purchased and destroyed by General Motors. Replaced with freeways and car dealerships.

As Mason Williams says, “Los Angeles is a city built by Detroit.”

The passenger trains we still have don’t run on time, and occasionally don’t even run on tracks.

We pound a big nail into an aging railroad tie on each side of the track and pray it holds. The Swiss use 12 nuts and bolts on each tie.

As a result their trains are unbelievably smooth and quiet.

You can set your Swiss watch by those trains. They’re non-polluting electric, clean, fast and everywhere. Imagine 10,000 miles of rails in eastern Iowa. With departures every 20 minutes.

My wife, Mary, and I visited former Iowa City classmate Robert Rehder, wife Caroline and daughter Katherine in the Swiss village of Cormenboeuf. Professor Rehder, Chair of the Fribourg University English Department, needs no car. He commutes by train.

This commitment to the rational, and attention to detail, run throughout Swiss society.

Switzerland holds 7 million people, speaking four official languages, in a mountainous land the size of eastern Iowa.

The administration of the schools, like most public functions, is centered in the 26 cantons (states) and their communes (townships). This makes national generalizations difficult.

But we interviewed a number of students, parents, regular and special ed teachers, college professors, headmasters and government officials. And some patterns emerged.

Educational administration in this land of regular referenda involves much public input. There are roles involving elements of what we assign to state departments of education, school boards and superintendents, although the details differ.

The schools have the kind of focus our School Board calls an ends policy. The purpose of education is to insure every Swiss citizen will hold a job and make their maximum possible contribution to the Swiss economy:.

Switzerland is child centered. There’s a two-hour lunch break so children can be at home. Why? “Because,” said one mother, “that’s the best time for family discussions.”

There’s a children’s playground car on some trains.

Kids can start kindergarten at age 4. Those not yet ready to learn can take a second year before first grade.

Sometime around middle school a non-binding decision is made whether a student will attend a college prep school (gymnasium) until age 20, or go into an apprenticeship.

Apprentices attend school two days a week for four years. The other days they’re learning trades from masters while earning federal diplomas.

As a result, virtually everyone not only has an education and a job, but performs at high professional standards.

As in America, there’s a current movement to rethink Swiss education. Everything is up for grabs: student assessment, evaluation of teachers, distributive decision-making, and a push for more emphasis on creativity and analytical skills.

Swiss students who transfer here are sometimes two grades ahead of ours. (I’ve heard comparable reports from Chinese, Germans and Norwegians.)

Unlike us, the Swiss long ago decided “we ain’t gonna study war no more.” That left them a lot of money for things like trains and training.

As a result, they’re on the right track.

And not just with their trains.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site