Except for last month, in the May 26 paper, when a Journal editorial discussing U.S. economic competition with China made this statement: “America’s biggest competitive disadvantage is its failing K-12 schools, which are controlled by teachers unions and progressives who want to dumb down math education.”
Long ago, I earned a master’s degree in East Asian regional studies and was The Washington Post correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing. American K-12 education became my prime journalistic interest when I moved back to the United States in late 1980.
U.S. schools need improvement. Journal editorials sometimes have good suggestions for making that happen. But the notion that Chinese children are better taught than American children is hard to square with reality.
I suspect the editorial writer who composed that statement would cite the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15-year-olds. That effort by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the best-known measure of school quality in different countries. In 2018, China was No. 1 in all three subjects tested, mathematics, science and reading. The United States was 38th in math, just above Belarus and Malta, 19th in science, just above Sweden and Belgium, and 14th in reading, just above the United Kingdom and Japan.
Our science and reading rankings weren’t bad, given the good reputations of the countries we edged out. But it is China’s position at the top that inspires the widespread but mistaken belief that their schools are trouncing ours.
As pointed out by several experts, such as Rob J. Gruiters, university lecturer at the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge, the China ranking is a sham. The 2018 PISA tests were given to 15-year-olds only in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, four of the most urbanized and affluent areas of the country. All 79 nations and political entities participating in PISA are asked to submit results that accurately represent their schools. China has not done that, but the people running PISA do little about it.
Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on international school assessments, summed up the situation after the 2018 PISA results were released:
“There is not one but two Chinas: one urbanized, mainly on the east coast, and rapidly growing in wealth; the other rural, in the interior of China or on the move as migrants, and mired in poverty. As a rough proxy, recent population numbers put the Chinese rural share at 41 percent. PISA assesses achievement of the first China and ignores the second.”
In his response to me, the OECD official who runs PISA, Andreas Schleicher, dismissed the debate as an exercise in mislabeling. He said PISA doesn’t present these as Chinese numbers, even if nearly everyone else does. “PISA reports make no inference that these results are representative of the whole nation because they clearly are not,” he said. A reader might get a different impression. The list’s top line says “1. China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang)” or sometimes just “1. China (B-S-J-Z)”.
Some of the deepest work on Chinese education has come from University of Kansas education professor Yong Zhao, who grew up in Sichuan province in southwest China. Not only are the PISA scores distorted, he said, but they miss the point of good schooling. Chinese educators “can produce good test scores,” he said, “but they have been struggling to make changes to their education so their students can be more creative and entrepreneurial.” So far only one Nobel Prize has been awarded to a Chinese scientist (Tu Youyou in 2015) for research done in mainland China.
A good example of China’s education problem is the rock star reputation of American teacher Rafe Esquith, whose books and appearances are popular with teachers in the People’s Republic. Esquith’s fifth-graders in a low-income public school in Los Angeles learned hands-on economics, read novels far above their grade level and each year produced a Shakespeare play with their own musical accompaniment. That kind of imagination is lacking in Chinese schools, even in places where test scores are high.
Scholars rarely get a chance to look closely at rural Chinese education, but the available information is depressing. Loveless cited studies conducted from 2007 to 2013 showing cumulative dropout rates in rural areas between 17 and 31 percent in junior high schools. Only half of rural Chinese children went to high school and only 37 percent of that age group graduated.
A 2017 study revealed that in 27 provinces the average high school classroom had more than 45 students. In 12 provinces the average was more than 55. Loveless said the government’s official goal is no more than 56 students per classroom.
China’s educational failings are one of many reasons there are now 2.5 million Chinese immigrants in the United States, seven times the number here in 1980. Many of them are in California’s San Gabriel Valley, where I live. They add much to our country. Note that Chloe Zhao, the latest recipient of the Academy Award for best director, was an unhappy student in China and came here when she was in high school.
We are fortunate to get such people. But I hope China finds ways to improve its schools. Creative competition between China and the United States is a plus for humanity.
As for the alleged efforts of unions and progressives to dumb down U.S. math classes, I have spent most of my career studying some of the nation’s most successful educators. They tell me it is not unions or leftist influences that get in their way, but unimaginative administrators and limits on class time, problems that predate big teacher unions. As for progressive educators like Esquith, many teachers in China want to do what he’s done.
Perhaps the Journal writer will get more space next time to explain why Chinese schools are better than ours. I will be checking the ed page as I add milk to my Grape-Nuts.