Book Riff

Good Ones

Chinese Super Schools?

CJ Westerberg, November 9, 2014 4:28 PM


In the last year of high school,
many schools do nothing but test preparation;
"no new content is taught . . .
A large proportion of publications for children in China
are practice test papers."

-Diane Ravitch,
referring to the book,
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?
Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao

Standardized Testing:
"the witch that can't be killed"

Diane Ravitch reviews Yong Zhao's new book

In the first half of the essay, Myth of Chinese Super Schools, education historian Diane Ravitch provides a cogent historical overview of the U.S. testing culture. The following excerpt is the "money quote" from this section that provides the perfect context and lead-up to her analysis of Yong Zhao's new book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, in The New York Review of Books:

It is worth noting that American students
have never received high scores on international tests.
On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964,
senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last.

But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions.

This raises the question of whether the scores of
fifteen-year-old students on international tests
predict anything of importance or
whether they reflect
that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn't count toward their grade or graduation.

And, now the excerpts from the second half of the essay which zero in Zhao's book explicitly:

At this juncture comes the book that Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, members of Congress, and the nation's governors and legislators need to read: Yong Zhao's Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao, born and educated in China, now holds a presidential chair and a professorship at the University of Oregon. He tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system in the world because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism.

The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism. His book is a timely warning that we should not seek to emulate Shanghai, whose scores reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old. Indeed, the highest-scoring nations on the PISA examinations of fifteen-year-olds are all Asian nations or cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Korea, Macao (China), and Japan.

Zhao explains that China has revered a centrally administered examination system for at least two thousand years as the sure path to professional esteem and a career in government. A system called keju lasted for thirteen hundred years, until 1905, when it was abolished by the emperor of the Qing dynasty. This system maintained Chinese civilization by requiring knowledge of the Confucian classics, based on memorization and writing about current affairs. There were local, provincial, and national examinations, each conferring privileges on the lucky or brilliant few who passed. Exam scores determined one's rank in society. The keju was a means of social mobility, but for the ruling elite, it produced the most capable individuals for governing the country.

 . . . China had all the elements necessary for an industrial revolution at least four hundred years before Great Britain, but keju diverted scholars, geniuses, and thinkers away from the study or exploration of modern science. The examination system, Zhao holds, was designed to reward obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking; for this reason, it purposefully supported Confucian orthodoxy and imperial order. It was an efficient means of authoritarian social control. Everyone wanted to succeed on the highly competitive exams, but few did. Success on the keju enforced orthodoxy, not innovation or dissent. As Zhao writes, emperors came and went, but China had "no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution."

The examination system, Zhao holds, was designed to reward obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking . . .

Zhao says that China's remarkable economic growth over the past three decades was due not to its education system, which still relies heavily on testing and rote memorization, but to its willingness to open its markets to foreign capital, to welcome Western technology, and to send students to Western institutions of higher education. The more that China retreats from central planning, the more its economy thrives. To maintain economic growth, he insists, China needs technological innovation, which it will never develop unless it abandons its test-based education system, now controlled by gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams. Yet this test-based education system is responsible for the high performance of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and East Asian nations on the international tests.

China has a problem, however, that is seldom discussed: cheating and fraud.

When the government rewards the production of patents for new products, the number of patents soars, but most of them are worthless. High school students get extra points for college admission if they receive patents for their proposals. Zhao points to a school where a ninth-grade class had received over twenty patents; the school as a whole had registered over five hundred patents in three years.

Even middle school students had collected national patents. A large proportion of these patents, writes Zhao, are "junk patents" or demonstrations of "small cleverness." When the government requires the publication of scientific papers for professional advancement, the number of scientific papers increases dramatically, but a high proportion of those papers are fraudulent. Zhao says there is a billion-dollar industry in China devoted to writing "scientific" papers for sale to students and professionals who lack the research skills to write their own.

The quality of China's patents and research publications, Zhao says, is "abysmal," because of the circumstances under which they are produced and the ubiquity of fraud. Any criticism of the authoritarian culture that produces cheating and fraud is "viewed as un-Chinese and anti-Chinese" and might lead to "political and legal troubles."

Zhao quotes Zheng Yefu, a professor at Peking University and the author of a popular book in 2013 titled The Pathology of Chinese Education, who wrote:

No one, after 12 years of Chinese education,
has any chance to receive a Nobel prize,
even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college . . .
Out of the one billion people who have been educated
in Mainland China since 1949,
there has been no Nobel prize winner . . .
This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.

This was written after officials who administer the PISA examinations had hailed Shanghai for its remarkably high test scores. Zhao says this is what Chinese students, even in rural areas, are best at: high test scores. Chinese students regularly win any competition that depends on test performance. Where they fall short is creativity, originality, divergence from authority. The admirers of Chinese test scores never point out that what makes it the "best" education system is also what makes it the worst education system. It is very effective in "eliminating individual differences, suppressing intrinsic motivation, and imposing conformity." It is

a well-designed and continuously perfected machine that effectively and efficiently transmits a narrow band of predetermined content and cultivates prescribed skills . . . Because it is the only path to social mobility, people follow it eagerly.

China is trapped by Western praise. Its education leaders, Zhao writes, would like to break free of the exam-based orthodoxy that limits creativity but they dare not abandon the methods that produce the results that Westerners admire.

China is accustomed to hierarchy and ranking, and the education system delivers both. As the only path to success, students are ranked according to their performance, and very few will win the race. Competition is fierce for the top spots in the top schools and universities. Not surprisingly, wealthy parents resort to cheating and bribery to give their children advantages, such as extra lessons, the best teachers, and the best schools. Chinese educators complain that the competition makes children unhappy and unhealthy, and that it is unfair and inequitable.

Zhao describes the lengths to which students go to get high scores. Many of the courses they take are specifically geared for test preparation, not learning. Schools exist to prepare for the tests:

Teachers guess possible [test] items, companies sell answers and wireless cheating devices to students, and students engage in all sorts of elaborate cheating. In 2013, a riot broke out because a group of students in Hubei Province were stopped from executing the cheating scheme their parents purchased to ease their college entrance exam.

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that an angry mob of two thousand people smashed cars and chanted, "We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat." In the last year of high school, many schools do nothing but test preparation; "no new content is taught . . . A large proportion of publications for children in China are practice test papers."

The most shocking story that Zhao tells is about a rural township in Anhui province that is known as Asia's largest test-prep machine. It is home to Maotanchang or Mao Zhong, a residential secondary school devoted to test preparation. More than 11,000 students from this school took the college entrance exam in 2013, and 82 percent scored high enough to gain admission to a four-year college. Tuition is about $6,000, the same as the average annual income for residents of Shanghai. Parents pay for a year's living expenses in addition to tuition. Students come to this school from across China to prepare for the tests. The workload is three times what it is in the typical Chinese school. Students are in class by 6:30 AM and finish for the day at 10:30 PM, with homework yet to do. The school "has become a legend in China. The national TV network, CCTV, sent a drone to capture the send-off for more than ten thousand students, traveling in seventy buses, escorted by police cars, to take the exam on June 5, 2013."

Leading Chinese educators have attempted to reduce the importance of examinations, but thus far have failed. Zhao calls testing "the witch that cannot
be killed." No matter how often they issue directives to reduce homework and academic pressure, the pressure remains, enforced by schools and parents. Zhao wrote his book to warn Americans not to abandon their historic values of creativity and innovation, not to be lured by China's high test scores, not to be corrupted by authoritarian standards and tests. Americans mistake "China's miseries as secrets to success." China, he writes, is "a perfect incarnation of authoritarian education." It is no model for the United States:

As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens . . . job creators instead of employment-minded job seekers. To cultivate new talents, we need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children's passions, and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children's deficits according to externally prescribed standards.

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is "to avoid becoming China."

The United States is already ensnared in the testing obsession that has trapped China. It is not too late to escape. Parents and educators across the nation are up in arms about the amount of instructional time now devoted to test preparation and testing. Yong Zhao offers wise counsel. We should break our addiction to standardized testing before we sacrifice the cultural values that have made our nation a home to innovation, creativity, originality, and invention.

Zhao believes that the two major changes that should shape education policy are globalization and technology. Students need to understand the world that they will live in and master technology. Repelled by test-based accountability, standardization, and authoritarianism, he advocates for the autonomy of well-prepared teachers and the individual development of their students. He strongly urges that the US equalize the funding of schools, broadly redefine the desired outcomes of schooling beyond test scores, and eliminate the opportunity gaps among students of different racial groups.

He rejects the current "reforms" that demand uniformity and a centrally controlled curriculum. He envisions schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment. He imagines ways of teaching by which the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation. He dreams of schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be, as he wrote in his last book, World Class Learners, "confident, curious, and creative." Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach.
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    Don't want to do homework! If you don't want to waste any minute of your valuable time on them. try the best way to get help. Go:

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