What I Learned from China's Schools

If teaching in China taught me anything, it taught me to be very skeptical of high stakes testing. It distorts curricula, makes teaching a chore, and favors the rich.
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A few months ago, I compared college anxiety in the hyper-competitive private school world here in New York City with the college anxiety I saw when I taught in China. If elite parents in New York think they have it bad when they drop $50,000 each year in the hope of threading their child through the Ivy League needle, they should count their blessings; Chinese parents can only sit and pray as their sons and daughters spend these two days (June 6-7) sitting for the gaokao, an SAT on steroids on which their entire future depends. College admissions in China are based solely on this test, and academically motivated Chinese teenagers spend 8-10 hours a day for four years in preparation. High School in China has one purpose: test prep. There is no curriculum outside of the test (which tests math, English, Chinese, as well as a chosen subject like chemistry or political correctness). There is no life outside of the test. It is a high stakes, No Child Left Behind dream.

Seniors at Saint Ann's where I teach -- a school that does not grade or rank, and instead offers narrative, holistic reflection of each individual student -- are in educational nirvana compared to their Chinese counterparts. Our kids take the SAT, but other than this moment of cookie-cutter standardization, they pursue life in all its varieties. Kids who have been at Saint Ann's since pre-school have never received a grade. It is the anti-China.

Are our kids falling behind? Are we coddling them? Are they failing to compete? America's top colleges don't think so: the Wall Street Journal ranks Saint Ann's in the top twenty schools in the country at getting kids into elite universities.

Most schools are not like Saint Ann's, and perhaps they shouldn't be. But it is depressing to me to see our school system moving towards more testing and a more gaokao-like standardization. Even the gaokao's biggest defenders, including the eloquent Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principle at elite Peking University High School, admit that the test "robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood." (His provocative essay -- linked above -- nevertheless concludes that "the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China's scarce education resources.") Others point out that while Chinese do well on standardized tests, they are not being taught to compete in an innovation economy. They are, in fact, damaged by their system.

Yet this is the very system Arne Duncan and Barack Obama seem to want to emulate with their so-called "Race to the Top." They are bribing our wildly underfunded schools with dollars tied explicitly to gaokao-like tests.

If teaching in China taught me anything, it taught me to be very skeptical of high stakes testing. It distorts curricula, makes teaching a chore, and favors the rich. Wealthy students in China pay exorbitant fees to cram schools to help them edge out peers who can't afford extra help. Poor students simply feel hopeless. Ennui and depression are epidemic, as is cheating (this year, it's gone particularly high tech). The uber-elite are simply opting out of the system entirely, doing all they can to send their kids abroad, thereby avoiding the gaokao. At the extreme, this includes buying an EB-5 Visa (for $500,000, with a few strings attached) and paying Americans to write their children's entrance essays. I've been offered thousands of dollars to write essays in the name of Beijing pre-teens. The parents are desperate to rescue their kids from a system that stymies creativity and makes education a burden.

Tests are not going to make our schools better. There's only one thing that will: money. We simply underfund public education. New York spends more educating each of its children than any other state, about $14,000 per year. By comparison, St. Paul's -- a boarding school in New England where I taught last year, and that offers as spectacular and transformative an education as is possible -- spends more than $60,000 per student per year.

The rich in this country know what it takes to have an outstanding education, and it ain't a bubble test.

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