Friday, June 3, 2011

Ships Passing in the Night

During my recent visit to China with the Asia Society and Council of Chief State School Officers, I was impressed with many of the efforts that are being made to improve education in China. However, there was one striking difference between Chinese education and American education reform efforts. I told my fellow delegation members that it seemed we were two ships passing in the night.

Chinese education has long been focused on exam results. Students in China have exams every semester during the nine years of compulsory schooling (ages 6-15). High school entrance exams are very intense. Scores on high school entrance exams can lead to three paths: key schools (better schools), vocational schools or dropouts. The key schools serve to better prepare students for the university exams, and the vocational schools focus on technical skills and jobs.

The Chinese college entrance exam dates back to 900 A.D., when it was used to screen for civil servants. It is expected that there will be five to seven percent of students prepared for university. (This is steadily increasing as the Chinese expand higher education.) About 30 to 40 percent of the high school graduates actually pass the entrance exam; however, space in the universities is limited, so many students go to work, and some go to technical colleges.

Chinese families really focus on the exam preparation of their child. (Chinese families are limited to one child.) Chinese teenagers do not date, spend 25 to 30 percent more time with studies than American teenagers and don’t work outside the home, and the teenagers understand that education is their JOB.

However, the focus in China is slowly changing. As we met with school and government officials, the constant theme of questions was focused on how American schools teach innovation, problem-solving and creativity. WOW! Even in Shanghai (top scorers on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA), the focus was on providing students with more creativity options – like music and art – and providing students with more opportunities to conduct scientific experiments and solve problems that were of interest to them. It seems the Chinese ship is sailing in a direction away from complete focus on standardized test scores.

Readers recognize where I am headed here. Since 2001, the U.S. has focused heavily on test scores. Not a day goes by that we do not have editorials and national panels talking about the poor job we are doing in the nation due to our poor performance on test scores.

Our ship is sailing toward more focus on test scores. Our ship is sailing toward judging teachers and principals solely on the basis of test scores. Our ship is sailing toward elimination of art and music programs to focus more on getting students prepared for reading and math tests.

These ships do not have to pass in the night. There is a way that they can sail together. We must have some focus on accountability and measurement of student progress; however, we must find ways to assess and measure creativity, problem-solving and innovation. We must provide a more balanced assessment and accountability system.

I truly believe we are headed in that direction with Senate Bill 1 and the accountability model that is being developed in Kentucky. We do not have to make an either/or choice. We need not bow to the tyranny of “or;” we need to embrace the genius of “and.”

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