Sunday, January 16, 2011

Are you smarter than a (Chinese) fifth-grader?

The American school system stinks.  Or so we are told.  Teachers complain about low pay instead of working to educate children.  Unions are too powerful.  Oh, and let's not forget the quality of overall education -- because students from all other industrialized nations of the world have surpassed American students in test scores, especially in the 'critical' areas of math and science.

More specifically, the United States has become concerned with one country in particular:  China.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese have become America's new rival in world affairs.  One of the key indicators in measuring a nation's future is the education of its youth, to perpetuate and build upon successes of the current generation. 

A recent report named the Shanghai, China school system as tops in the world.  Critics went a little overboard in stating this was a watershed moment in the mold of the launch of Sputnik in 1957.  This report, coupled with news that China is testing their first model of a stealth fighter have Americans concerned.  Is the concern overstated?  Yes.  Is there reason to take notice?  Most definitely.

The Chinese have seriously upgraded their educational level and have some advantages against Americans.  However, is there really some educational 'missile gap' between the United States and China?

First, the point should be clear that Shanghai was declared the best school system in the world.  This doesn't mean China as an entire nation has a decisive edge against the United States.  For nearly 25 years, China has been attempting (and struggling) to close an achievement gap between their urban students (who traditionally perform well) and their rural students.  Let's take a look at the rest of the issues.

Compulsory education -- most states in the U.S. have an age where students may choose to drop out of school.  Typically the age is 16, which requires parent permission.  The national graduation rate is hovering around 80%, which is in need of improvement.  However, the Chinese only mandate nine years of education.  Students can leave the educational system after the equivalent of the 8th grade here.

Although many American teachers become extremely frustrated with our students and their unwillingness to achieve, we have chosen to 'leave no child behind."  Though seemingly unrealistic at times, the effort must be made to educate the members of our society.  Additionally, Chinese test scores are bolstered by the fact that lower achieving students aren't always a part of the system.

Advantage:  United States.

Another key difference between the American and Chinese educational systems is the manner of instruction.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, schools in the United States have moved away from rote memorization and placed a stronger emphasis on critical thinking skills.  Schools in the U.S. promote problem solving and situational learning, teaching students to think creatively, whereas the Chinese approach is to foster stringent memorization skills into their students. 

Each nation has an advantage in the way they approach teaching.  The American way produces students who can think and respond to unique situations.  Adapting, applying and analyzing information learned is an extraordinarily valuable approach to learning.  However, the method of learning adopted by China has its advantages as well.  Sometimes, understanding the critical question of 'why' can be understood later in life and isn't a critical priority.  Understanding the 'who, what, when, and where' are equally as important.  Can it be possible to 'critically think' about a subject without having the knowledge base necessary to apply?

Advantage:  Push.  In this area of education, Americans and Chinese could stand to learn from one another and find a medium on this topic.  It saddens me that our elementary students don't know their multiplication tables or basic math and have no concept of how the government works or the history of the nation.

Teaching responsibility to students is, in my opinion, one of the critical areas of education.  American school systems have all but abandoned this concept as a school priority.  If responsibility is taught to students, the concept is delivered as a result of an individual teacher incorporating that into their curriculum.  American parents very strongly grasp onto their freedom to raise their children to their liking, including teaching their children what they believe is valuable.

The Chinese have taken a vastly different approach.  Primary schools are required to offer courses to students in morals and ethics.  Though Chinese families provide strong incentive to their children to do the 'right things,' the school system has a direct mandate from the nation's Ministry of Education to teach these courses to reinforce a population that knows the difference between right and wrong.  I've also read that Chinese schools do not have custodians -- the students are responsible for keeping their school clean.  Oh, how I would love to implement that policy here.

Advantage:  China.  American students have been made morally bankrupt by the notion of doing what 'feels good' instead of doing what's right.  Our sense of individualism sometimes goes awry and has made many a person overly self-centered.  Look at the 'pop culture' of the United States.  Music, film, and television glorify instant gratification of one's self.

Government hierarchy also plays a role in the education systems of both nations.  In the United States, an individual state has the authority to create their own system of education to suit the needs of its citizens.  The benefit of this structure allows experimentation with new ideas in various school districts to see what new ideas to implement and what concepts don't work.  In a nation the size of the United States, the system of compartmentalization is helpful in the sense that students in West Virginia are vastly different than students in California.  Teachers in each locality can do what best meets the needs of their students.

China, as an authoritarian communist nation, has a hierarchy through their Ministry of Education.  The ministry dictates what schools will do and won't do, and the schools are obliged to follow.  The uniformity of such a system allows easier administration and logistics of the school system, but offer no real advantage I can see beyond that.

Advantage:  United States

What about the curriculum?  Are fifth-graders really taking calculus?  Do they solve rubik's cubes in a matter of minutes?  No.  But the Chinese do press their students to be involved in a number of courses pertaining to math and science at a pace much quicker than their American counterparts.  Chinese school systems also put little emphasis on physical education and don't regard the arts as important as the core subjects.  Then again, how many times have you used calculus or stoichiometry in your job?

The United States promotes a number of areas to students and though the core subjects of social studies, math, science and English are considered the ones that 'matter,' students are encouraged to be well-rounded and given considerable freedom to choose the courses they want to take.

Both nations have standardized tests to measure student achievement but the Chinese have high stakes tests that help determine how far a student may ascend in the academic world.  The high stakes test often keeps many students out of a university and somewhat limits the achievements of the Chinese.  However, they do provide a top notch vocational training system with thousands of specialized schools that give in-depth training.  The American education system continues to shy away from vocational training as if it were a leper colony.  The United States keeps placing a premium on 'white collar' jobs, technology, and service.  Heavy industry and other 'blue collar' trades are sadly looked down upon.

Advantage:  Chinese -- barely.  America allows choices and options, but China looks more toward the reality of situations that not everyone will be a computer guru, lawyer or doctor. 

Last topic in this comparsion?  Intangibles.  America's advantages?  Freedom of students and social mobility.  Citizens here are free to be whatever they want to be.  A test doesn't define a human being or their future.  Higher education in the U.S. offers far more opportunities than in China (their universities are widely considered below par when compared to the rest of the world).  Language in America is more constant.  Though Spanish is becoming more popular, English is still dominant and is the same despite dialects.  In China, many rural areas struggle to find teachers who speak Mandarin, the standard language used in urban areas and by the government.  Dialects vary so greatly in spoken Chinese that what students learn in rural areas, such as Cantonese, is not understood by others.

China has a drastic advantage in being able to instill education into their children because they have little discipline problems from students.  I have had the opportunity to discuss classroom behavior with a few teachers from Hong Kong and they were shocked to learn about how students would talk to a teacher.  They seemed mystified that students would actually fight one another at school.  Their ability to deliver instruction is unimpeded by student distractions.  Admittedly, the 'iron fist' approach in this respect is quite alluring.

Our Asian friends also have one more critical advantage -- they're 'hungry.'  China is a nation on the rise and they want to be where the United States is.  On top of the world.  They have put education as a top priority and because of the fact that they have traditionally been a poorer nation, they've been inspired to be better, to want more.  Americans have gone soft.  The last two generations have never wanted for anything.  All the luxuries that are within reach in this nation have made us lazy and have stagnated our growth.  We are Rocky Balboa and China is Clubber Lang (see Rocky III if you don't understand this reference).

Overall conclusion?  Push.  Both school systems seem genuinely envious of the other.  Teachers in China want the push for creativity and problem solving.  Ameican educators wish for more control in the classroom.  Each approach has merits and flaws and the only answer is having the two systems adjust and meet somewhere in the middle.  But, be certain of this:  China is gunning for us and they've picked the right weapon -- education.

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