Sunday, January 2, 2011

Be Like Shanghai? (Sorry, Mike)

Nick Kristof does it, as does Thomas Friedman. So in his own uncritical way does Arne Duncan. And so do the many other media alarmists who accept at face value Shanghai city schools’ recent PISA results and use those scores to forecast a coming American apocalypse. They all see China as the world’s great education success story, the “model” for American education. But they really don’t have a clue.

The latest insult to American education just arrived this week in the form of a NY Times piece describing how those Shanghai schools are so successful because of their classroom discipline, thereby managing to conflate bad teaching, institutionalized fear of public shaming, and educational rigidity with good classroom management. Based on what I saw while teaching several years ago at the high school level in a major, wealthy Chinese city near Shanghai, here is what typical Chinese education was really like, at its near-best, at the high school level:

-- Every classroom was a bare, cinder-block-walled enclosure, no heat in the winter, no cooling in the early summer, virtually nothing decorating the walls. Students spent their entire school day in the same room – teachers came to them.

-- Every classroom held 48 – 50 students, lined up in traditional, ramrod-straight rows. Textbooks and workbooks for students’ full set of the day’s classes were piled on and under their desks – no one had a locker.

-- Teachers lectured from a dais at the front of the room. Students sat quietly at their desks and listened, took notes, occasionally recited in unison or responded, standing, to a direct question from the teacher. Questions from students were a rarity.

-- Many, if not most, lectures were straight from students’ texts, sometimes nothing more than

teachers simply reading from the textbook.

-- Teachers appeared at students’ classrooms just before lessons began, departing back to their subject area offices immediately upon finishing their lessons. Casual student-teacher interaction was minimal at best. Teachers spent much of their office time (they only taught two class periods per day) playing video games and reading the daily newspaper.

-- Copying of assignments was rampant – and tolerated. As, all too often, was cheating on exams. Scores counted more than how they were achieved.

-- I saw no evidence of what in the U.S. we would call “student projects.” Classroom activity appeared to be the same lecture and recitation style every day.

-- Students were actively discouraged from asking questions. I was told on more than one occasion that students’ parents could actually be called into the school so that a teacher could complain that the child was disrupting lessons because he/she was asking too many questions.

-- Schools had no clubs or activities and minimal if any organized sports teams. One school where I worked claimed to have two or three interscholastic sports teams, but only for boys.

-- Students typically took seven or eight classes each semester, leaving no time for activities even outside of school.

-- Never once among the hundreds of students I saw and taught did I see a student with a physical handicap or a visible learning disability. I don’t know where those students were, or if they were even still permitted to attend school by high school age, but if so, there was no inclusion.

-- Physical education consisted mostly of lining students up in straight rows and performing low-impact calisthenics and movement.

-- The last semester of senior year is dedicated nearly exclusively to preparation for the gaokou, the national, three-day-long, college entrance examination.

-- Schools were evaluated, and principals and teachers rewarded, according to their students’ standardized exam results.

-- Teachers earn extra income from tutoring. They are allowed to accept money from their own students (or gifts from those students’ parents), a sure-fire disincentive to effective teaching in the classroom setting.

-- There was no parent involvement in the schools whatsoever. Parents visited a school for only one of two reasons: to be roundly chastised for their child’s behavior/performance, or to present a gift for extra tutoring services rendered.

I could go on, but this should be more than enough to convey the message: Do we REALLY want our education system to be like China’s?

How much of a price are we willing to pay in order to match the Chinese in “international competitiveness,” and are those measures the ones that are really important in our society, in our culture, in our children’s future successes?

And when will media folks (and senior education officials) cease their misleading and destructive opinion mongering based on little more than a standardized exam report, or helicoptering into a selective Chinese school for an hour or two and being strung along as though they were touring a Chinese-version Potemkin village?

The American public deserves better. It is only little-known Chinese education writers like Yong Zhao and Jiang Xueqin who are currently telling the true story about Chinese education. If NBC truly believed in their own ultra-inflated, “Education Nation” hype, they would devote a prime-time hour to it and tell the real story – not just about China or Singapore, but about Finland as well.

And, please, for at least that one hour, no Geoffrey Canada!

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