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Posted at 01:52 PM ET, 09/26/2012

Why NOT to admire Asian schools

In this election year, we hear much about how bad U.S. schools are. Speakers and television ads admire the Asian nations of Singapore, Japan and Korea, and the cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai, whose students beat our kids on international tests.

Officeholders, lobbyists and think tanks offer embarrassing figures as proof that we need to train our teachers better and give students more time in class like Asian schools do. But Boris Korsunsky, a physics teacher at Weston High School in Massachusetts, sensed holes in the argument. He had been a successful student in the high-pressure schools of Moscow, so he sought comment from Asian students who had moved to U.S. schools and knew what they were talking about.

Korsunsky’s informal online survey of about 80 students, most of them from China and Korea, is worth mentioning next time your neighbor says Asian schools should be our model. People in this region who think our many high-performing schools are pushing kids too hard should also pay attention.

“The pressures and workloads that the students and the teachers in the U.S. are facing nowadays are, perhaps, greater than they were a decade ago,” Korsunsky said in a recent paper. “But still, compared to a typical Chinese or Korean school, a high-pressure U.S. school is a summer camp.”

Let’s start with discipline. Korsunsky’s student sources are not describing a Chinese version of a blackboard jungle with metal detectors at the main entrance. These are some of the best and most selective schools in Asia. Being “tardy usually results in physical punishment, such as running in the gym a few times or doing jumping jacks. Forgetting to do homework and talking during class will often result in hitting with ruler or some sort,” one student said.

U.S. students and parents frightened by the SAT should recognize it is a paper tiger to students who grew up in Asian nations where the national college-entrance tests are much more important. Selective universities in China and Korea are not so impressed if you set the school shot-put record or volunteered weekly at a hospital. Asian schools spend little time on art, sports or extracurricular activities. The test is everything. Teachers don’t let you forget it.

Instruction is by lecture — and more lecture. Students are usually sitting the whole day, which can run eight hours or more, scribbling notes. One student wrote that weaker students never ask questions in class because the teachers “would be mad at you if you ask what they consider stupid questions.”

“In China, teachers stay at the board instructing after the bell and students do not leave unless told to do so,” another student said.

Sciences are often taught through memorization. Homework is a mountain of practice problems. If you get something wrong, you have to write out the correct answer repeatedly. Labs are rare, because they won’t help you much on the exam.

“We did only one physics lab, one chemistry lab and no bio lab,” one student told Korsunsky. “Ironically, the physics lab we did was for an American high school principal who visited our school.”

How did the students react to U.S. education when they moved here?

“The biggest difference is that teachers in the U.S. spend much more time talking with their students about topics not related to the class,” one survey participant said. They described U.S. teachers as “friendly,” “flexible,” “humorous,” “lively” and “like friends.” The joking with teachers between classes shocked them.

“In China,” one student said, “we don’t really see our teachers outside of class. If we do, that usually means we’re in trouble.”

The Asian students found U.S. students to be “imaginative,” “creative” and “independent.”

Tell your neighbor that. And remember to add that some of those Asian countries have sent delegations here inquiring how we win so many Nobel prizes.

By  |  01:52 PM ET, 09/26/2012

 
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