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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Be Like Shanghai? (Sorry, Mike)

Nick Kristof does it, as does Thomas Friedman. So in his own uncritical way does Arne Duncan. And so do the many other media alarmists who accept at face value Shanghai city schools’ recent PISA results and use those scores to forecast a coming American apocalypse. They all see China as the world’s great education success story, the “model” for American education. But they really don’t have a clue.

The latest insult to American education just arrived this week in the form of a NY Times piece describing how those Shanghai schools are so successful because of their classroom discipline, thereby managing to conflate bad teaching, institutionalized fear of public shaming, and educational rigidity with good classroom management. Based on what I saw while teaching several years ago at the high school level in a major, wealthy Chinese city near Shanghai, here is what typical Chinese education was really like, at its near-best, at the high school level:

-- Every classroom was a bare, cinder-block-walled enclosure, no heat in the winter, no cooling in the early summer, virtually nothing decorating the walls. Students spent their entire school day in the same room – teachers came to them.

-- Every classroom held 48 – 50 students, lined up in traditional, ramrod-straight rows. Textbooks and workbooks for students’ full set of the day’s classes were piled on and under their desks – no one had a locker.

-- Teachers lectured from a dais at the front of the room. Students sat quietly at their desks and listened, took notes, occasionally recited in unison or responded, standing, to a direct question from the teacher. Questions from students were a rarity.

-- Many, if not most, lectures were straight from students’ texts, sometimes nothing more than

teachers simply reading from the textbook.

-- Teachers appeared at students’ classrooms just before lessons began, departing back to their subject area offices immediately upon finishing their lessons. Casual student-teacher interaction was minimal at best. Teachers spent much of their office time (they only taught two class periods per day) playing video games and reading the daily newspaper.

-- Copying of assignments was rampant – and tolerated. As, all too often, was cheating on exams. Scores counted more than how they were achieved.

-- I saw no evidence of what in the U.S. we would call “student projects.” Classroom activity appeared to be the same lecture and recitation style every day.

-- Students were actively discouraged from asking questions. I was told on more than one occasion that students’ parents could actually be called into the school so that a teacher could complain that the child was disrupting lessons because he/she was asking too many questions.

-- Schools had no clubs or activities and minimal if any organized sports teams. One school where I worked claimed to have two or three interscholastic sports teams, but only for boys.

-- Students typically took seven or eight classes each semester, leaving no time for activities even outside of school.

-- Never once among the hundreds of students I saw and taught did I see a student with a physical handicap or a visible learning disability. I don’t know where those students were, or if they were even still permitted to attend school by high school age, but if so, there was no inclusion.

-- Physical education consisted mostly of lining students up in straight rows and performing low-impact calisthenics and movement.

-- The last semester of senior year is dedicated nearly exclusively to preparation for the gaokou, the national, three-day-long, college entrance examination.

-- Schools were evaluated, and principals and teachers rewarded, according to their students’ standardized exam results.

-- Teachers earn extra income from tutoring. They are allowed to accept money from their own students (or gifts from those students’ parents), a sure-fire disincentive to effective teaching in the classroom setting.

-- There was no parent involvement in the schools whatsoever. Parents visited a school for only one of two reasons: to be roundly chastised for their child’s behavior/performance, or to present a gift for extra tutoring services rendered.

I could go on, but this should be more than enough to convey the message: Do we REALLY want our education system to be like China’s?

How much of a price are we willing to pay in order to match the Chinese in “international competitiveness,” and are those measures the ones that are really important in our society, in our culture, in our children’s future successes?

And when will media folks (and senior education officials) cease their misleading and destructive opinion mongering based on little more than a standardized exam report, or helicoptering into a selective Chinese school for an hour or two and being strung along as though they were touring a Chinese-version Potemkin village?

The American public deserves better. It is only little-known Chinese education writers like Yong Zhao and Jiang Xueqin who are currently telling the true story about Chinese education. If NBC truly believed in their own ultra-inflated, “Education Nation” hype, they would devote a prime-time hour to it and tell the real story – not just about China or Singapore, but about Finland as well.

And, please, for at least that one hour, no Geoffrey Canada!


jd2718 said...

Are test scores the same as learning? Do we measure the quality of our schools with (a series of) tests?

We need a clear NO to this sort of question, before we look at PISA or Regents or SATs or graduation rates. Only then can we reasonably look at all aspects of our system, in context.

Otherwise we will be facing this sort of advocacy-reporting for a long, long time.


Anonymous said...

Every one of you forgot to mention one thing great American schools have, but inadequate Chinese schools do not have, scores of security officers!!!

I taught in a rural high school about 100 miles from Shanghai, students showed up for self conducted morning reading around 7:30 am, teachers reported around 8 am, the only adult monitored the whole school of 15 hundred students was one assistant principal, walking the hallways and talking to student monitors.

No system is perfect, but you can always learn and improve. I will not feel proud to see so many deans, crisis invention teachers, behavioral management paras, security officers, even police in our school system.

A Teacher In The Bronx said...

Yes, let's mimic China more. China is the role model we all need to follow. Like the executive you allowed tainted powdered milk, he was executed.

By the way, I have never seen a police presence in Bronxville High School, Scarsdale High School, Harrison High School, Edgemont High School, Ardsley high School, Horace Greely High School, Byram Hills High School. Shall I go on?

Anonymous said...

To A Teacher in the Bronx:

Why did you neglect to mention any school in your proud home borough the Bronx? Well, this is not the point I tried to make.

Having been to about 50 Staten Island schools, not exactly a hotbed of failing schools, I have seen a heavy presence of security forces in many IS and HS schools, and wonder why they are needed in a place of learning while only 27% of the school budget is used to pay for teachers.

It is safe to suggest that no much learning occurs to kids while they are fighting or with security officers.

Knocking China may make you feel good and forget your own problems for 2 minutes, but you are still forced to get by the day with your disciplinary problems.

It is sad that a well intented person like you continues to live in a self created bubble and refuses to see the harsh realities showing at at your doorsteps.

DeVo said...

Anonymous: We do not have security officers in my high school or any of our schools in the District I teach in--of course I live in NW Colorado; we still have parents that if I call home will not only work with me but see that their children do behave; on the other hand our test scores are not so great.

When our schools become like Shanghai's, I will teach else where; learning IS NOT a test score; even Arnie Duncan is where he is today due to good, even great teachers. I want me students to be able to think, solve problems, not memorize useless information that they can look up as needed.

A Teacher In The Bronx said...

Dear Mr Hiding Behind Anonymity-

You did not mention NYC schools as having a "security force," you said, "American Schools." Therefore, I mentioned schools without security forces. But what we have here in NYC, are not security forces, but rather what is known as School Safety.

As far as you having taught in a rural school 100 miles from Shanghai allow me to say, "isn't that nice." Comparing the school system there to the school system here is like comparing apples to oranges. Our cultures are completely the opposite. For instance here in the Unites States we are allowed to have more than one child. Why not discuss how in China there is no such thing as a sibling rivalry, while here in the US most families have to deal with it. Again, apples to oranges.

I have not knocked China, I only pointed out some differences between the US and China.

Anonymous said...

Hey! easy guys, just a different opinion and some indefensible facts.

As someone who once lived in Bronxville and currently live in a NJ town with 1200 average SAT scores, do I know there are quite a few wonderful schools here? Regardless what oranges or apples you are talking about, students' motivation and discipline are major issues in many schools, and they are the foundation for any solid learning.

If all you want to see are colorful bubbles, there are still a few left. bubbles have been popping everywhere you see. With the mentality of yours, things will get worse before they become better. There is nothing I can do even I hate to see more pain inflicted upon anyone

A Real hard Case said...

This post, from its first paragraph on downward, comes off as condescending and bitter. Arne Duncan, Friedman and Kristof each have merits to their arguments and you should've considered them. Rather than having a thoughtful and balanced article on the differences (and advantages/disadvantages) of American education versus the Chinese (specifically Shanghai) System, you went for the cheap shot, "I'm right, these guys don't have a clue" argument. Forget about the fact that both Friedman and Kristof have been to Chinese schools (and perhaps Duncan I don't know) and may know what they're talking about.

Its not that I disagree with your thoughts but the way you present yourself hardly contributes positively to our current problems.

Steve Koss said...

To Anonymous:

There's simply no comparison between China's schools and those in urban America. I found your comments regarding school security very surprising for someone who claims to have taught in China. The reasons are many; here are a few.

1. Chinese schools are universally homogeneous, devoid of interracial conflicts or multicultural issues.
2. Many of the students who would otherwise be behavior problems in high school never enter high school. They either drop out after middle school or cannot get accepted into high school based on their standardized exam scores.
3. Students who enter high school and develop discipline issues are effectively (and simply) kicked out of school.
4. Discipline in Chinese schools is heavily culturally imposed due to such factors as Confucian filial piety, family "face," the one child policy, pressure created by the family's perception of that one child as their retirement security, etc.
5. While it's certainly regrettable to see extensive School Safety forces and metal detectors in our schools, China has recently found it necessary to increase school security due to knife and axe attacks by adults against elementary school children.

It's also worth noting that teen/student suicides in China are a major domestic problem, and that few if any such suicides ever received ANY form of counseling or assistance because such services are virtually nonexistent.

Every country and culture has its own unique issues.

Anonymous said...

"Chinese schools are universally homogeneous, devoid of interracial conflicts or multicultural issues."

Absolutely false. China has *many* national minorities & linguistic divisions.

If the person who said this worked in China he didn't learn much about the place.

Theresa said...

This sounds like the Catholic school I attend in 1952. Yes, we did well on tests. I would even venture to say that we learned something. Whether this sort of rigid education worked well for us in the real world is another issue.
Let's get real here. We know what works. The greatest recent gains in education were made before the 'great reformers' like Joel Klein and Michele Rhee came on the scene. These were based on standards based learning and the "most effective schools' research: high expectations, clear achievable standards, well trained teachers, small class sizes and close supervision. Having worked in education for nearly forty years, I can attest to all the 'reform' I've seen and implemented, and standards-based learning had the very best results with real research to back it up.

Anonymous said...

It was reported on NYTimes yesterday that China filed around same numbers of patents as US. China cranks out 250,000 engineers every year twice as many as US, and awards more PhDs than US. China must have done something right. We all know that we can not outmanufacture Chinese, if we have trouble outeducating them, what left.

Anonymous said...

In 2008-2009 major legal changes occurred in China; these included new patent law.

Without reading a detailed discussion of what those changes entailed, I'd take these above claims with a hefty pinch of salt.

Incidentally, China also regularized the alienation of land. So when you read breathless press on Chinese 'growth rates' keep in mind since 2009 land can now be bought and sold.

Valuing something in money that previously had no value can increase growth quite a bit! No wonder folks here want to trade tulip bulbs, sorry, I mean carbon futures!

This kind of thinking is not so dissimilar to 'adjusting' passing test scores, is it?

WorldCom, ENRON, Lehman's Repo 105, NYSED...

Dodgy accounting is the zeitgeist!

Anonymous said...

As a former English teacher in China (different city), I have to agree with everything written, but I would add something, my students didn't like my tests. Unlike their regular classroom teachers, I wouldn't give them the answers to the tests before they took them; students told me, as well as my Chinese wife, that they were given answers for their tests the day before and they were expected to answer each question with the exact wording they were given the day before, verbatim.

Additionally, I was in 4 different middle schools and each one had at least one security guard (in a city about 1/3 the size of Shanghai).

Elaine said...

--"Chinese schools are universally homogeneous, devoid of interracial conflicts or multicultural issues."

Absolutely false. China has *many* national minorities & linguistic divisions.

If the person who said this worked in China he didn't learn much about the place.--

One snide comment deserves another: You've obviously never actually looked at the schooling system in China. Yes, there are many minorities, but they are more or less nonexistent in the schooling systems of Shanghai thanks to strict "hukou" regulations - basically visas preventing people from one region of China from getting benefits in another region of China. There has been much debate about the hukou v. the education system here, since migrant workers (people coming in from other provinces to find jobs in the city) can't get their children into regular Shanghai schools. What results is a mass segregation of Shanghai Han v. anybody else. Classrooms here ARE homogeneous. And since getting into high school requires testing, by age 15, they're not just homogeneous in culture and race, but also homogeneous in terms of how much time and money parents had to spend on after school tutoring sessions.

I've helped several charities specifically trying to fund better education programs for those pushed to the sidelines of China's educational system. That's where you'll find your minorities. While there are supposedly equal opportunity programs in place, I'll believe they're actually working when I see one minority in an actually important position in the Politburo.

Steve Koss said...

Many thanks, Elaine, for taking the time to write the response I simply didn't want to bother with for such an inane comment from "Anonymous." You wrote pretty much what I would have written, that although there are indeed some 55 or 56 recognized minority groups in China, they are ETHNIC minorities, not RACIAL ones. In addition, over 90% of Chinese are from a single ethnic group, the Han, and several percent more are from the highly assimilated Zhuang and Manchu groups. Most of the remaining ethnic minorities are highly geographically concentrated: the Mongols in Mongolia, the Uyghirs in Xinjiang, the Tibetans in Tibet, and many of the rest in Yunnan Province, in the southwest.

In addition, as you so rightly point out, the schools themselves are highly ethnically segregated, partly because of where people live and partly because if they relocate, the hukou system keeps their children from being admitted to the schools in the cities where the families have relocated. Thus, as you have very accurately stated, Chinese schools are indeed highly racially and ethnically homogeneous, as I first wrote in my blog posting. Mr./Ms. Anonymous clearly has little or no idea what most Chinese schools are like.

Thanks again for your supportive comments which reinforce my stated observations.