Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chinese vs. U.S. Education

Last week I posted my thoughts about Governor Kasich's screening of Waiting for Superman and the discussion that followed with Michelle Rhee. This garnered a couple of comments from people who think   that other countries are surpassing us in education and both cited the creativity of the students from those countries.  I wanted to flesh that out a bit, so I've posted the comments below, along with my thoughts about them:  

One reader commented...

How many countries see their best and brightest attending American colleges to be doctors, engineers, and researchers? More than most of us would expect.

Why is that? Obviously, they want creative thinkers and problem solvers. Not people who can fill in a bubble on a standardized test.


My response (expanded from my original blog comment):

I disagree with you that countries are sending their best STEM students here because they are the most creative and the best problem solvers. On the contrary, countries like China prepare their students to be champion bubble-fillers. Read  this article, for example, about the differences between the Chinese and the Western styles of education. For the Chinese, it's all about rote memorization and the result is 'teaching to the test' on steroids: 
"China has a long history of standardized tests, beginning with the ancient imperial exams initiated during the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Used for over 1,300 years as a method of selecting government officials, some suggest that official exams should be counted as one of China’s major ancient inventions alongside gunpowder, paper money, printing and the compass.
Today, national tests determine which elementary, high school and university a student will attend. They are still the single most important factor in deciding one’s general career path.
"The testing period — especially of the college entrance exams — is a major event throughout the Chinese mainland. In Shanghai, government regulation has established “green protection zones” around exam sites where construction projects are suspended and traffic is redirected.
Taxi companies offer thousands of cars to be reserved in advance. Oral test questions are played out over the radio — and there are even stories of late students receiving police escorts to get them to the exams on time.
However crucial in the cities, the nationalized tests are even more important in the countryside, where they are seen as the only way to escape an otherwise dismal social fate."
As a result of the pervasive, high-stakes testing, the entire system is built upon rote memorization:

"China’s emphasis on memorization and rote learning has significant consequences. Students are taught that all questions have but one right answer and there is little room for debate and original thought.
Subjects like history and politics are focused solely on dates and names. Even the Chinese language exam, which requires students to write essays, allocates grades according to how well one can quote classical texts and idioms...
...Yet, when they go abroad many of these students find they are ill-prepared for Western education. Chinese students with phenomenal TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores are often incapable of taking part in simple English conversation.
At least one graduate school in one of America’s most elite universities has now become wary of accepting students from China for this reason...Assumed skills such as in-class participation, seminar presentations and individual research projects, common practice in elementary schools in North America, are largely unheard of in the Chinese classroom — even in most universities."
The author of the article (who, incidentally is sending her child to a Chinese school) tells how this translates into real life:
 "Arriving late for the set breakfast at a five-star hotel in Chengdu, for example, I, along with a group of other foreigners, found that the coffee had run out. Our request for more threw the staff into crisis.
It was not until a series of meetings had been held and permission sought from senior management that a fresh pot could be brewed.
Passing even trivial problems up the management hierarchy in this way is simply impossible in a sophisticated post-industrial society."


Another reader's comments with mine (expanded from the original blog comment) interspersed: 

Anon said, "In China, they have discovered the HARD way that their system is failing their national interests. Their students come out of school with NO critical thinking skills, no creativity to use when solving real world problems.

My response: On the contrary, their system is highly successful at promoting China's national interests! Children are trained from a young age that their purpose in life is to serve the state. Training children in critical thinking would be completely counterproductive to that Communist system. Because of their highly industrialized society, they need to train factory workers, not innovators.

Anon said, "Most all [Chinese students] entering the work place require years of remedial work to over come this"

My response: Putting aside for a moment that a third of U.S. college students need to take remedial classes to be able to handle college work and 4 out of 5 of those had at least a 3.0 GPA in high school....

Anon said, "China has turned it's back on what they used to be doing, what so many corporate powers who see our education system as a profit center are proposing. They made an easy decision, based on the evidence, to change direction. 

My response: I'm not sure what you mean by this. China is and has been, since 1949, a Communist country. It's only been recently that they've begun to reform their education system. They've only had compulsory attendance since 1989 and illiteracy rates approaching 20% in some areas.  The situation is grim in rural provinces:

"Educators were recently shocked by a scandal in Minqin County, Gansu Province, where authorities mobilized 40,000 secondary- and primary-schoolchildren to collect the season’s cotton crop. One student died when a tractor driven by his classmate accidentally rolled over him. Yet, despite the number of brutal accidents, it is not uncommon for administrators in poor, remote areas to ask students to “contribute to the common good” by spending several hours a week working in factories, including those that lack proper industrial-safety standards. Moreover, given the near-universal gender discrimination, it is routine for rural families to keep their girls at home, rather than send them to school. Minister Zhou admits that in particularly impoverished villages, the dropout rate in junior high schools can be as high as 10% (Lanzhou Morning Post, December 1; Xinhua, April 27)
Teachers in rural areas often have to farm on the side because the pay is so low. Check out the movie "Up the Yangtze" sometime to see the desperate circumstances in rural China. 

And what does any of that have to do with "corporate powers," other than the fact that this nameless entity is always to blame for everything?

Anon said: "China is going to leave us in the dust if we let the deformers who spokes model Rhee is fronting for have their way."

It's very frustrating to have discussions with people who insist on name calling.

China may very well leave us in the dust, but not because they have a superior education system - they don't. They are able to produce an impressive number of students who are able to ace our standardized tests and are super-students. But will they be the innovative thinkers, the creators, the people who invent things and the thinkers of great and lofty ideas? Their education system and their culture are not designed to produce such students.

If they do leave us behind, it will because we are in debt up to our eyeballs to China, not because their system built upon prolific testing, one-size-fits-all rote learning and student tracking is superior to what we have here in the United States, even in it's current state.  The truth is that we do know how to deliver a quality education in this country.  It happens in quality schools across the country.  There are public, private, charter, and homeschools that are successfully educating students and preparing them for post-secondary education and life beyond school.  We're just not doing it consistently for all students in every school, which is why we need to give parents more choices in education so they can evaluate the quality of a school and choose the best one for their children.  When we do education well, complete with critical thinking, the Chinese are not in our league.

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