Monday, May 5, 2014

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week: How China and the US are swapping education philosophies

UPDATE! After a good night's sleep I dug some more and found a terrific article from The Atlantic that I incorporated in this post. 

Chinese students are saddled with enormous amounts of homework.

Early on in my teaching career I taught elementary art in the Bernards Township School District in Somerset County. The township is about 83% white with the largest minority being Asian at 14%. With a median family income of $153,000 and poverty below 3%, the children don't want for much. Many parents take an active role in their children's education, encouraging and even demanding they be involved in several after school activities. They expect the schools to offer top-notch curriculums including the arts, foreign languages, plenty of AP classes, sports and extracurricular programs because they pay top dollar in property taxes and they want their children to attend excellent colleges and universities. And the schools deliver.

US News and World Report gave the only high school in the district, Ridge High School, a gold medal in its annual rankings of US high schools. It placed 177th in the country overall, 7th in the state, 136th in the country for STEM education, with almost 100% of its students proficient in math and language arts, and a College and Career index of 65%.

This is an excellent school fed by excellent elementary and middle schools.

My story is about a 3rd grade girl whom I taught there. I don't remember her name, but she was Chinese American. Her father worked at one of the big pharmaceutical companies for which New Jersey was once famous. (Many are pulling up stakes and leaving the state.) She was very bright and eager to please.

She was done with her project and was doing some free drawing when it was time to clean up. She begged me to let her finish her drawing. I couldn't let her stay because I had another class coming in. She was really pushing me on this. When I suggested she take it home and finish it, she told me she couldn't; she didn't have any time. I jokingly told her I found that hard to believe, to which she replied, "I have no time at home. I have violin lessons and soccer practice after school, then I go to Chinese school Saturday mornings, and I do that homework on Sundays."

I was shocked. This child was 8 or 9 years old and had that much of a work load. She clearly had little time for play or creative thinking and being. But as my teaching career progressed, I came in contact with more students like her—and not just students of Asian or Indian descent. I have seen plenty of Caucasian students whose parents are so fixated on academic success that they push their children to the point of exhaustion.

So does China—but not in what education professionals in the US consider a healthy way. The Chinese education system is a highly competitive group activity with the teacher clearly in control. Students sometimes spend more than 10 hours a day in school and have enormous amounts of homework starting in first grade. If an individual student in a Chinese classroom is struggling, the teacher and the other students work together to help him or her. Teachers are greatly respected and pay no income taxes. College entrance exams, the gaokao, are an all-or-nothing event. As this article  The Atlantic written by Helen Gao, a Chinese immigrant who came to the US in her junior year in high school describes: 

Sitting for nine hours over two days, students are tested on everything from Chinese and math to geography and government. The intense, memorization-heavy, and notoriously difficult gaokao can make the SAT look like a game of Scrabble. How they do on the test will play a big role in determining not just where they go to college but, because Chinese colleges often feed directly into certain industries and fields, what they do for the rest of their life. It's an enormously important moment in any Chinese student's life, which is part of why high schools here dedicate months or even years to preparing for the test. (emphasis mine)

If a student fails the exam—the only criteria for getting into a college—their educational career is basically over. Once they are admitted, they must pass a high stakes test to advance to the next grade. This is an extremely stressful time in the life of not only the student, but the entire family because oftentimes the hopes of several generations rest on this one student. Because of limited space, only about 1/3 of all students in China will be admitted to institutions of higher learning. 

But all this testing comes at a cost. Gao continues:

China's gaokao-style education system has been great at imparting math and engineering, as well as the rigorous work ethic that has been so integral to China's rise so far. But if the country wants to keep growing, its state economists know they need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, neither of which is tested for on this life-determining exam. (emphasis mine)


I was used to strictly formatted Chinese argumentative essay topics, for which I had memorized hundreds of paragraphs that I could organize like jigsaw puzzles. Western-education-style papers on, for example, the significance of symbols in a novel was not the sort of expressive, creative thinking for which my Chinese teachers had prepared me. 

In the US, public education focuses on the whole child. A struggling student will get more individualized or small group instruction. Teachers are encouraged to be facilitators of learning rather than the sole source. Hands-on, kinesthetic, differentiated, brain-based and whole child teaching and learning are the norm. The best teachers will teach students to think creatively, experiment and take risks; to work to their individual potential. Building healthy self esteem is just as important as teaching academic subjects. Children are given many and different chances for success, even if they drop out of school. College is looked at as a means rather than a means to an end. And as for educator salary and respect, well, if you're reading this, you don't need me to tell you how fantastic they are.

A quick Google search of the differences between the Chinese and US education systems resulted in many articles with the words 'bad', 'unequal', 'expensive' or 'mediocre' in their titles. I passed them by. But I did find this interview of two former Chinese students. The female guest was educated in New Zealand. Her parents moved her out of China because they wanted to give her a better, more diverse education. Notice at the 3:50 mark when talking about her mother's education in Taiwan she says, "You're taught to take tests; not necessarily how to think."

The host then continues by saying, "I think that's becoming more of a thing in the US... Now it does very much seem like it's all about tests." And at about the 4:30 mark, the male guest says, "In China if you have a photographic memory and you can memorize a textbook, then you'll do really well." He goes on to say that in China, education is everything. Parents drill the value of hard work and a good education into their children's heads from a very early age.

But while it's more than admirable that China places such a high value on education (something more American parents must do) and produces some of the top test takers in the world, they have yet to produce a Nobel Prize winner. The country's overemphasis on wrote memorization, drill and skill and standardized tests leaves little room for creativity, independent thinking and kinesthetic learning, things about which the world leader in Nobel Prize winners—the United States—knows a great deal.

But that tide is turning. According to a report in the New York Times:

The United States State Department does not break down its data on visas by age and school type, but anecdotal evidence here suggests that increasing numbers of middle-class families are looking for a way out of China’s test-taking gantlet.

“I didn’t want my son to become a book-cramming robot,” said 15 year old Zhang Ruifan’s mother, Wang Pin, explaining why she sent him to live and learn halfway across the world in the United States. American educators and politicians have been warning for years that rising powers like China and India are poised to overtake the United States in science achievement. On a 2009 standardized test that drew worldwide attention, students in Shanghai finished first in the sciences among peers from more than 70 countries, while the United States came in 23rd (right behind Hungary).
However, as Diane Ravitch points out, according to research (you know, that little something reformy types fail to acknowledge), "The U.S. has never been first in the world, nor even near the top, on international tests. Over the past half century, our students have typically scored at or near the median, or even in the bottom quartile." (emphasis mine)

The Times article continues:

But even many Chinese educators are dismayed by the country’s obsession with stellar test results. Last fall they convened a conference on the topic in Shanghai.

“When American high school students are discussing the latest models of airplanes, satellites and submarines, China’s smartest students are buried in homework and examination papers,” said Ni Minjing a physics teacher who is the director of the Shanghai Education Commission’s basic education department, according to Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper. “Students also have few chances to do scientific experiments and exercise independent thinking.”
The ministry said the systemic fixation with testing “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.” (emphasis mine)

So, as China realizes the value of creativity and self expression in education, the United States is moving toward more and more standardized high stakes testing. As school budgets all across the country are slashed and total emphasis is placed on passing standardized tests, phys-ed, art, music, library, computer, foreign language and other related arts programs are being scaled back or eliminated. The cost to the United States will be incalculable because entire populations of learners are being marginalized. The creative side of education, the art of teaching and the joy of learning—things the US excels at—will die unless educators fight to save them.

And as high stakes consequences are increasingly tied to high stakes tests, it won't be long before US teachers go the way of Chinese teachers. In China, Gao says, "Teachers and headmasters, whose reputations and salaries are tied to their students' exam scores, have more of an interest in maintaining a good average than in, say, dedicating extra time to a struggling student."

Before humans spoke they created art. Humanity cannot exist without creativity. Great public education won't either.

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