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Cheng's Views on Chinese and American Education

Notice that the percentage of Chinese eighth graders scoring "advanced" in mathematics is higher that the percentage of eighth graders scoring "advanced" from all other nations. After all, isn't the Race to the Top really the Race to the Top of the World? China sure is lucky. Or is it?
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We live in a time in which the worship of test scores has bred an unprecedented, obsessive desire among corporate reformers to best other countries on international tests. I supposed such would somehow permanently etch into the world consciousness that the United States truly is "the" world power to be reckoned with. Thus, any time international test results become available, corporate reform is compelled to demonstrate its own indispensability by comparing American results to those of other countries, the ad nauseam message being: America Must Be First, and If America Is Not First, American Teachers Are to Blame.

This "reform" obsession with test score rankings amazes me. Consider this StateImpact/NPR graphic, an illustration of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) Linking Study -- an effort to take NAEP scores and predict how students might have done on the international TIMMS had they taken the TIMMS.

Notice that the percentage of Chinese eighth graders scoring "advanced" in mathematics is higher that the percentage of eighth graders scoring "advanced" from all other nations. (This graphic features Ohio and neighboring states, as well.) China is first. The unwritten, pressure-cooker message is, "The United States should be first, and why isn't it? Why aren't American teachers doing their jobs?"

After all, isn't the Race to the Top really the Race to the Top of the World?

China sure is lucky. Or is it?

Consider this January 2011 Los Angeles Times article in which the celebration of China's ability to master the standardized test is lost in Shanghai:

Reporting from Shanghai -- Chinese adolescence is known as a time of scant whimsy: Students rise at dawn, disappear into school until dinnertime and toil into the late night over homework in preparation for university entrance exams that can make or break their future.

So it came as little surprise when international education assessors announced last month that students in Shanghai had outperformed the rest of the industrialized world in standardized exams in math, reading and science.

But even as some parents in the West wrung their hands, fretting over an education gap, Chinese commentators reacted to the results with a bout of soul-searching and even an undertone of embarrassment rarely seen in a country that generally delights in its victories on the international stage.

"I carry a strong feeling of bitterness," Chen Weihua, an editor at the state-run China Daily, wrote in a first-person editorial. "The making of superb test-takers comes at a high cost, often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood."

In a sense, this is the underbelly of a rising China: the fear that schools are churning out generations of unimaginative worker bees who do well on tests. [Emphasis added.]

Yes, Chinese students do well on international assessments. But where is the world headed if we continue this worship of the test score?

This semester, I happen to have a Chinese exchange student in one of my sophomore English classes. His name is Cheng, and he is 18 years old -- which allows me to use his name in this post. I asked Cheng if he would consider writing an essay comparing his American school experience with what he is accustomed to as a Chinese student. He readily agreed, noting that writing the essay would give him the opportunity to practice his English.

I have reproduced Cheng's essay below. His experience reflects the loss of childhood and the "worker bee" mentality expressed in the Los Angeles Times article above.

There is a cost to those high test scores.

Here is Cheng's perspective on the American and Chinese education systems:

Study in China is very hard. For most high school, students must wake up about 6 o'clock and arrive school at 7 o'clock. There is no school buses in my small city (Hubei). So I have to ride my bike to school even in the winter (temperature below zero degrees C). And I spend 13 hours in school, 11 hours for class and 2 hours for lunch block. There are 40 mins per class but I have 10 class everyday. The last class is a long class started at 6 p.m. and end at 10 p.m. We had two types of class you can choose in high school, One is more scientific, like biology, chemical, and physical; One is more about literature -- history, government, and geography. But there are three subjects people must take, Chinese, math and ENGLISH. In my class, my friends all don't like English because all of them will never had chance to go aboard. And maybe they will stay in the small city rest of their life. So they didn't study at all. Same thing happened in all the subjects. So they hated school.

The test in China is not very good. The teacher didn't care about do you learn in class or at home. The teachers just want to see your grades in the exam. So, as everyone know, some people cheat, and some people did very good job on cheating. Some teachers didn't even notice that during the test! So the student who never study got very high grade better than other students who study very hard. So people won't study hard any more. And the student's life is depended on the final exam, the Entrance exam for college. No matter if you study befor, once you got a very high scored, you can go to the best college. That means your salary is two or three times than normal students after graduate. But Chinese people can't change these. If the Chinese education is like the American's there must be some new troubles. Because the population of China is very huge, for now is about 1,400,000,000, people in China. There are 60 students in my class in my school, and it's hard for my teachers, too, because they can't care too many people at the same time. American education is special. I prefer American education.

The ways to have class is different between America and China. In [our American high school], we have to walk in the classroom and only 5 minutes, in China, students stay in the same classroom everyday and the teacher came into classroom, and we have different classes everyday! That's the most different and important things. Like in [our American high school], if you don't have P.E. a year, so you won't have it the whole year. That's the only thing I don't like here [in America].

I don't think American education should change to like China, because they are two different countries, East and West, socialist and capitalism. Chinese education is depend on the population of China. American doesn't have that huge population. The conditions of the country is different. So the education should not be the same.

Test is important to students. Because it's important, many people try to cheat in the test to get high scored. That's the thing we don't want to see. But test is necessary. Student need something to make them want to study, some students make a goal that they will pass the next test. So they will study. If there is no test, people will never study at home. I think it's better to have test. If the teacher can make the student learn without test, that is fine. And the test would be not valuable if people cheat in the test.

I asked Cheng if he preferred American public school, and his face immediately lit up. With an eager nod of the head, he replied, "Oh, yes!" In the United States, Cheng does not attend school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. He has transportation readily available to and from school. He has time for a life outside of the classroom. In short, he has opportunity for that "joy of childhood," even as he now enters young adulthood.

May the United States learn a lesson from Cheng and from China Daily editor Chen Weihua. The making of "superb test takers" does indeed come at a high cost:

The death of the joy of learning.

The death of ingenuity.

The death of creativity.

The pressure to cheat.

The sad and dangerous sacrificing of the youngest generation of Americans to the data-driven god of empty.

It is not too late to stop the bubble-scoring insanity in America -- and China -- and around the globe.

We must act.

Originally posted November 14, 2013, at

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