Guest writer: Sofia Rasmussen

Sofia Rasmussen is a freelance writer who is deeply passionate about education. Email her if you ever want to discuss an article.

Photo: http://www.trajectorya.ee/

At a distance, tt can be easy to view America and Europe as facing a similar set of challenges. As policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to help schools with limited resources prepare students for a changing workplace, the challenges faced in Europe offer a telling comparison between the old world and the new.

Every European member state has its own system for education, which has been developing gradually for centuries. Unlike the United States, secondary school is a relatively recent development, only becoming commonplace after World War II. However, in Europe it is much less enterprising – there aren’t online PhD programs and a staggering number of for profit schools quite like there are in the US. Vocational programs still have a much more prominent role in several countries. According to the United Kingdom’s National Foundation for Education Research, this has led to a variety of systems, with their own teaching methods and structures for moving students from primary to secondary school.

Add this to the language barriers and culture that separate Europe’s member states, and you have the makings of a classic labor mismatch.

According to a European Commission report, a drop in education graduates combined with an aging teacher force is producing a growing shortage of specialized educators. The effects are particularly dramatic for minority populations: In Belgium, 45% of 15-year-olds in the French-speaking community are without a specialized mathematics teacher.

The good news is that these problems aren’t going unchallenged. The same report showed that education funding has held steady in most member states, and targeted training programs such as mentoring are on the rise. The Commission’s Erasmus for All program aims to provide training opportunities for a million European teachers in order to make the profession more appealing.

One challenge that Europe does share with American educators is the rise of immigration. Foreign-born students make up more than 10% of the population in many western European countries, according to an Open Society Institute study. Female minority students tend to fare somewhat better than their male counterparts, but they can be more likely to face cultural exclusion, either from their peers or from official policy.

Member states have responded with a range of policies, all geared toward integrating minority children into the education system and society as a whole. Some of these policies have proved controversial, such as bans on hijabs, traditional Muslim headwear, but they reflect the mentality that has animated the European Union ever since its conception.

Building a unified framework to integrate the continent has been a goal of the European project for decades, and building a modern education system is an important part of that effort. While European workers are less likely to change jobs than Americans, the system of vocational schools is leaving some students ill prepared for a labor force where most of the existing jobs are taken by older workers. Youth unemployment in Europe sits at a staggering 20% and their unrest is beginning to show.

According to Eurostat, the number of students in early childhood education has been growing steadily in the last decade. More students are graduating in the mathematics, science, and engineering fields – or highly specialized fields that can result in highly specialized workers. If Europe’s member states can successfully integrate their immigrant populations from an early age, the continent may be on track for a strong educational future.

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