Explanations for American schools lagging behind the rest of the world are many. One of the most prevalent themes for politicians, business executives and pundits scolding our kids, parents and teachers is fear of Asia — particularly China, Korea, Japan and Singapore — because of their world-leading test scores.
I ignore those who say we will someday be at war with China. I have spent most of my life studying that country. Its culture and history are much less warlike than ours. Happily, like us, the Chinese love making money. Our battle to sell more stuff to each other will inevitably help both economies. Our concern about their educational superiority is another matter. Many American scholars and reformers point out correctly that the Chinese — and those other countries above — do better in part because they value schooling more, train their teachers more carefully and are more likely to believe that any children can learn if they work at it. Anything we can do to adopt those values is good.
But the experts often don’t mention the mindless, rote, competitive streak in Asian education systems that would horrify us if it were imported here. Folks who think American schools are too absorbed in memorization and testing should compare us with our friendly competitors across the Pacific before ranting about annual state tests, the SAT and the ACT. Those exam systems are fun party games compared with what goes on in China these days, as a recent piece by three scholars in Education Week makes clear.
“Today, to compete for educational resources, Chinese schools do all they can to outperform other schools on student test scores,” Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Xu Zhao, Helen Haste and Robert L. Selman write. “Schools keep students in classes for long hours, assign large amounts of homework, and organize countless simulation examinations. Schools rank students by their test scores and rank teachers by the scores of their students.”
It gets worse, according to the scholars. “Test scores are used to evaluate the job performance of teachers, school principals, education administrators, and even local government officials. The pressure to outperform competitors exists at every level of the education system and is passed all the way down until it reaches the student [and] . . . produces feelings of jealousy, distrust and animosity.”
Academic combatants in our most competitive D.C. area high schools get a taste of that, but they are an exception. I wish studying got more respect in typical American high schools, but I would not want my grandchildren thrown into a pressure-cooker like China’s.
History is to blame. The Chinese invented high-stakes testing 14 centuries ago. It was a brilliant way to find the best bureaucrats, but it is now overdone.
The country also was cursed with a beautiful mess of a writing system. Its characters are lovely to look at, but they are very difficult to learn, as I know personally. The Communists popularized simplified characters. Computers have accelerated the writing process. But the Chinese school system still leans more toward rote memorization than creative thinking.
When I lived in Beijing, I applauded the revival of the college entrance exam system that had been suspended during the Cultural Revolution. But many Chinese educators admit they have gone too far and want a change. Los Angeles public school teacher and author Rafe Esquith has become a hero to those Chinese educators, who mob him when he visits because he preaches learning by doing, like the music-filled Shakespeare plays his students produce every year.
Chinese educators admire us for our scientific and technical creativity. We should show them how we do that, while developing a more China-like commitment to study. But no matter what our experts tell us, we shouldn’t go too far.