There was a story on the evening news the other night about how Shanghai, China, students cleaned their U.S. classmates’ clock on international exams.
While the Shinghai students ranked Number One in the world on the exams, American students ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.
“One thing that struck me during my visit to China is that kids there really love learning,” reported NBC education reporter Rehema Ellis.
She listed several other factors in the apparent academic butt-whupping the Chinese students had handed their U.S. counterparts.
“From the moment the teacher enters the classroom,” Ellis said, “Shanghai students, rooted in tradition, are ready to learn.”
There was video of a class standing at their desks, bowing respectfully to the teacher, then sitting down to piles of paper study stuff. The kids put in nine-hour school days, “with just a few breaks for workouts, and time out to rub their eyes to relieve stress.” They study on weekends and during school breaks, making school essentially a year-round process.
“Why do you want to study so hard,” Ellis asked a student.
“Because I want to have a better future, and do some contribution to our society,” he answered in nearly perfect English.
But there was more to the story.
“Everything is geared toward the all-important college entrance exam,” Ellis noted.
“It’s a test oriented education system,” explained Peking University High School Deputy Principal Jiang Zuejin, “which means students are taught from a very early age how to beat tests.”
(Emphasis is mine.)
Although students in the featured city attended class in small, well-lit and appointed modern classrooms, their classmates in the rest of China sat in old halls that could best be described as “rustic.”
The Shanghai students and their teacher spoke near-perfect English. Chinese was the language in the other classrooms.
Teachers in Shanghai, a city of about 23 million people, are among the highest paid educators in China. About 80 percent of Shanghia students go on to college, compared to 64 percent of United States students.
Only 24 percent of the rural Chinese kids go to college, if they are fortunate enough to attend school at all.
And China’s kids, it turns out, are great at following “tradition,” but not so great at being creative.
“For all the hours Chinese students spend in school,” Ellis said, “that nation has yet to produce a Steve Jobs, a Mark Zuckerburg, or Bill Gates.”
We have seen repeatedly how the Chinese produce spectacular musicians and gymnasts, but those exceptional performers, it turns out, are identified at an early age and dedicate their lives to achieving the performances that so impress us in concerts and Olympic displays. Their curriculum has little time for concern with math skills, or learning to invent some of the world-changing devices that nation excels at manufacturing cheaply.
That last part is changing, as China develops a burgeoning middle class, and begins to realize the missing ingredient in it’s apparent success-recipe is — creativity.
“In terms of management, (and) artistic, creative talent, China is tremendously lacking,” Jiang said, “and that is going to hamper China’s ability to grow and to compete globally, especially with the United States.
But now China is trying to open the door to the creativity that has always given the U.S. it’s lead in the world economy. Ellis noted that “it’s only a matter of time … before China gets there.”
“Shanghai’s students, the world’s best test takers, are now starting to be so much more,” Ellis affirmed.
“Students speaking to you in perfect English may be all we need to know,” said NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
It may be all we need to know about China’s prowess in self-promotion, but it clearly is not all we need to know about either the abilities or the education of our own youth. Throughout this nation’s history, we have invented stuff, and found ways to produce it as cheaply as possible.
But we are becoming increasingly convinced we have lost the game, when our competition has only recently begun to come onto the field. We defeat ourselves, telling our kids their schools are inferior, and inculcating the low station of those who might aspire to become mere plumbers or electricians.
No Child Left Behind, the federal program that was promoted to improve our education system, has instead loaded our schools with unfunded mandates and stacked the deck in favor of commercial, but still tax-funded, cyber and charter institutions.
Anyone who thinks this will cost less, or produce better educated students, will, I predict, find themselves grossly misled.
Cyber schools cost less to operate than bricks-and-mortar schools, in the same way Amazon.com costs less to operate than Borders book store or The Bon-Ton. Yet, convinced that our schools are failing our offspring, we support “vouchers” and “school choice,” shifting our tax dollars from our cash-strapped public schools and giving it to education providers which so far have not been proven to provide a better “product.”
Perhaps most telling was this line, left out of the televised NBC report: “Shanghai was the only site in China where the tests were administered.”
Unlike China, we loudly criticize schools which “teach to the test,” then complain when our students do not rank Number One in exam scores.
Which is not to say we could not improve our education system, but we, too, could put up some great test performances, if only we could leave out the students who don’t do so well.
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