Sunday, April 17, 2011

Education in New York vs. Denmark

I live in New York City and I am raising my 3 year old daughter here. It is a highly competitive, expensive, time consuming and stressful. I grew up in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s and my experience growing up and going to school there feels like a different planet. It has taken me years to even start to understand how the education system works here in New York City. In this blog posting I will try describe some of the differences.

Play date in Denmark

Main differences between New York City and Denmark


My education in hippie era Denmark was a bumpy freewheeling ride. The education system was very egalitarian. If you were somewhat intelligent, getting a good education was a given and it was free.

Kids playing in Denmark

New York City

In New York there is a big difference in quality between the standard public schools and the elite schools.

The elite schools are either:
  • Competitive private schools that can cost you $35,000 a year just in tuition.
  • Few public gifted schools that are extremely competitive.

For both options your kid has to take an IQ test at age 4. For the gifted schools they have to score in the top 99 percentile just to be in a lottery.

We cannot afford private schools, so I said to my wife that maybe we have a chance of getting our daughter into one of those gifted schools, say a 1 in 10 chance. She said:

It is more like a 1 in 10,000 chance.

New York City is filled with highly accomplished and resourceful parents with smart kids aggressively competing for very few spots.

Culture clash elite university vs. community college

When my wife and I started to talk about having kids, some epic culture clashes erupted. They were mainly fought out at our local diner over breakfast. She told me that good college here cost around $40,000 a year. I was flabbergasted thinking that there is no way that I could pay for that. I asked her:

What is wrong with a cheap community college like BMCC?

My arguments for a community college

1: I said with Princeton University you are just paying for the brand. Linear algebra has been around for a long time and how much better could they teach it at Princeton than at BMCC, Borough of Manhattan Community College.

2: I told her that I had gone to public elementary schools and the public University of Copenhagen and that had worked fine for me.

3: At a company I had worked at there were 3 team leads in my group one had gone to Harvard, one to MIT and one to BMCC and I did not think that guy who went to BMCC was less accomplished than the other.

These arguments really bothered my wife, and after many heated discussion; we finally agreed that we disagreed on this topic.

Faith of my argument for a community college

Time has not been so kind to my arguments.

1: One of my friends did teach at community colleges in New York. He said many high schools really do not prepare the kids adequately. You have to teach to the bottom third of the class, so better kids are bored. He did not think that the kids there got a good educations.

2: A couple of month ago I stumbled over US New's World's Best Universities list and was very surprised to see that University of Copenhagen was on the top 50 list of US and international universities. I had gone to a great university thinking that all schools were like that.

3: A couple of years after our discussions I met the team lead who went to BMCC, and I told him the story, and he said: I did not go BMCC, I went to Cooper Union.
Cooper Union is one of the most competitive fully founded universities in the USA. When I told this to my wife she burst out laughing.

So my wife was right and I was wrong, this unfortunately does not help my daughter.

Excerpt from my education in Denmark

My education in Denmark was a mixed bag. I will try to illustrate it with a few examples.

Sign at playground in Copenhagen
Kids playing
Please use syringe trashcan

Do not teach your kid to read before school

I started in school when I was 7, I did not learn to read before that. The prevailing thought in Denmark back then was that it was bad for the dynamics in the class if some kids could read and other could not, and that everyone should start school in the same place.

My first Danish teacher in elementary school

My first Danish teacher was a hippie with a long beard. His way of teaching the kids how to read and write was to give us a pens and paper, and then he would proceed to read Mickey Mouse comics. I liked school, but I was not so happy about this. I am not sure if he was lazy or whether this was based on some pedagogic idea.

New school in third grade

In third grade I moved to a new school and my second Danish teacher was a lovable older woman. The kids there had actually learned to read and write, and I was far behind when I started.
She retired and we got a new Danish teacher that was a short chubby man with a Napoleon complex. He would brag about his sports achievements. His teaching style was to keep discipline by slapping the kids if they went wild. I got slapped once, but after sulking for a while I got a little licorice and was happy again. Still I thought that he was a good teacher. He did not get along with the other teachers.
The math teacher was a much mellower guy, he would send kids out to buy him beer during class, and nobody would bat an eyebrow over this.

Separation of kids in eight grade

There were no gifted programs. I heard that kids could get moved to a higher grade, but it was very uncommon; nobody at my schools did. In eight grade the class was split. Pupils would take some topics at two different levels.

High school

Here the level of learning really increased. But still I spent a lot of time going to concerts and hanging out.
We got exposed to a lot of ideas in literature, psychoanalysis, history, politics and art. I really had a great time here.
I specialized in math and physics, which was taught at a serious level. For instance, we did higher order differential equations in math.

University of Copenhagen

It was not too hard to get in.  First I studied chemistry and physics. The first lecture I had was in chemistry. The first thing the professor said was that in half a year the person sitting next to you would have dropped out.
I went from a kid that was hanging out to somebody that was always studying. I thought that the education was really good, but if you were the kid that dropped out after half a year, then maybe this system was not so great.

There were no colleges in Denmark, you specialized and started doing quantitative science right away. There was no school sports team. In math, physics and chemistry departments, there was not much of a social scene either.

Visiting Denmark now

I go back to Denmark once a year. When I get back now I feel like I am stuck between two worlds. Culture is a big thing in Denmark, for instance my sister is sailing a home built submarine and doing so many cool art projects. She is clearly concerned about the way I am raising my daughter.

In Denmark I feel like a supremely uncool materialistic striver. I am the crazy pressure cooker parent, a throw back to the dark age of education, the unsuccessful version of the Tiger Mother.

In New York I feel like I am a lazy hippie parent that is not willing to jump through 10 burning hoops for a long shot to give my daughter of a chance at a good education.

Nautical art happening in Copenhagen
with home built submarine

I have an old friend in Copenhagen who is a school teacher. He has a 10 years old daughter who is just the most fantastic girl. He is saying that his main goal is to keep her a kid for as long as possible.  This is very far from the prevailing idea on child rearing in New York.


If you can send your kids through the elite school system here in NYC they are probably getting a better education than in Denmark; as good as anyplace in the world. However the expense to the family and the kids and society are great.

The biggest ice cream in Denmark is called "An American",
after the land of the plenty

The education I got in Denmark was very good. The education stress level for kids was low since it was not competitive and the difficulty level was raised gradually. There were plenty of problems, but it was not dysfunctional.

I know that my daughter is a very privileged kid, but she is not coming from money and has to compete in a global job market. In this respect a good education is not a luxury. If you are not successful you cannot afford to live in NYC.
We do not have the resources to compete for the elite school system in New York City. Our current education strategy is denial.

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