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The Chinese Curse. Is America Next?

CJ Westerberg, March 16, 2012 7:10 PM


 Published The Daily Riff 12/09. It remains a classic read.

The Chinese Curse. 

Is America Next?

"It's called "gaofen dineng" in China: 

High scores but low ability.

It's a big problem there."

By C.J. Westerberg

Leading the way book cover.jpgIn his new blockbuster book, Catching Up or Leading the Way, Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor at Michigan State University born and raised in China, dispels the superiority myths about Chinese education.  

The big problem, as Zhao sees it, is their historical and cultural lack of creativity and the great American spirit.  However, he warns, while America seems hell-bent on regimenting its U.S. education system with an increased obsession with standardized testing, the Chinese are going the opposite way, by aggressively changing their system to promote innovation and to deviate from tradition, conformity and obedience, long time values in the Chinese education system.

 According to Zhao, creativity has been recognized as a key ingredient to their future success:  to be able to apply the knowledge and skills learned, and to be able to actually do something with them.

Ironically,  the Chinese are aggressively trying to move away from their "one exam determines your whole life" mentality to become more American-like, promoting the originality and intellectual risk-taking so linked to America's knack for innovation, needed to be a world leader beyond the "world's factory".  The U.S. on the other hand, has made the accountability mantra of pitting against high foreign test scores as the goal to beat, instead on focusing on the various factors affecting these test scores. 

One example is the U.S. obsession with multiple choice tests vs. inquiry-based learning and assessments, the latter which looks more like science investigation, experimentation and presentation, favored by the lead scoring nations.  The  wild irony is the international PISA tests also favor problem-solving questions which incorporate knowledge contextually, not predominantly multiple choice, the latter being an "easier" assessment to teach and grade.

With the increased importance of high-stake testing, especially with those associated with the federal No Child Left Behind program (NCLB) initiated under the Bush administration during the last eight years, and the one-test-do-or-die easy assessment mentality, are we inadvertently "dumbing America down"?   Are our kids getting good at taking tests and are our teachers getting better at making tests the end goal?   Are we throwing away our greatest assets that Zhao speaks of?   It looks that way with the Obama administration embracing the continuation of NCLB (update: at time of original posting, the discussion of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test was not as mainstream of a topic as it stands today).

Talking points: more than one million Chinese students could not find a job after graduating and yet according to the McKinsey Quarterly, 44 percent of executives at Chinese companies cannot find home-grown talent to compete worldwide (Lane & Pollner, 2008).  This doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in light of lessons learned from this top economic power in the world.  Zhao warns, "The high test scores but low ability phenomenon in China suggests something that we (the U.S.) may be unwilling to admit - namely, that education that is oriented solely to preparing students to achieve high scores on tests can be harmful to both individuals and the nation it is supposed to serve."

Zhao debunks the Chinese English and Science literacy, despite the positive statistics, and "the number of Chinese who can actually use English as a communications tool (is) much smaller".  He also cites other signs of an educational system that "can hurt":  suicide as the number one killer of youth aged 15 to 34 (with the last known record of suicides recorded in 2003, clocking in at 250,000 with 2 million attempts);  growing issues of obesity, fraud and cheating, the latter increasingly reported within the U.S. education system.

With eight years of NCLB showing disappointing results and lack of significant improvements, are high-stake tests, as they are now administered, NOT the "innovative reform" and panacea solving the achievement gap many expected, and as many edu-crats are pushing to renew in 2010. (see update note in previous paragraph).

However, while Zhao concludes that America can still lead, he cautions us not to throw out the best of our DNA.  The number of students coming out of China IS a daunting challenge, and we must not be complacent.

Standardized tests are valuable assessment/accountability measures.  However, we should be spending our resources on developing the right kind of assessments that PROMOTE learning and great teaching.  Is the U.S. really doing this? 

The Daily Riff highly recommends this fresh, non-Western and non-myopic perspective on global education.

See also excellent video below of Yong Zhao comparing US and Chinese education.  Click on arrow and video will appear.


Related articles:

July 2010  Via NPR: "The New Republic: Lessons from China & Singapore"

"American leaders, impressed by the economic success of Singapore and China, frequently sound envious when talking about those countries' educational systems. President Obama, for example, invoked Singapore in a March 2009 speech, saying that educators there "are spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and more time teaching things that do. . ."

Other related posts from The Daily Riff:

Education Arms Race:  Bob Compton's Two Million Minutes vs. Yong Zhao

Singapore's Creativity Initiative

The Creativity Crisis in our Schools

  • donwreford

    Is the American dream the American curse? Trump states the American dream is dead? the immigrant still has a use in the American dream representing cheap labor now a pool of Middle East labor fleeing conflict useful for cheap energy and whilst the stock of man power drained, the loss of manpower creates countries for the taking of foreign powers to take over and the eventual distinguishing features of blacks and middle eastern slave labor may represent a future problems for imperialist countries, with white diminishing stock? for the time being new blood is lucky to be transferred to be injected on return casualties from the over seas excursions theatricals to take the minds off the conflicts within the American dream.

  • Judy

    In my opinion, the key point here is achieving balance in the classroom. It goes without saying that external assessment/testing is important, but so is creativity and other competencies that cannot be so easily measured by standardized testing. Too often in education, we "throw out the baby with the bath water," choosing one extreme or the other rather than integrating the best of both. Our commitment as educators should be to help our students achieve academic excellence and become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and not simply good test-takers!

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