There is a little civil war brewing nationally this summer/fall within the 21st century schooling movement.  The fight centers upon whether we should use Chinese education as a model for American schooling, and it has broad implications for issues of standardizing national education, and for programming within individual schools.

The argument I have been following is taking place between two individuals of sharply different backgrounds and perspectives, Yong Zhao, a Chinese born and educated scholar who is now an Education professor at MSU, and Bob Compton, a Kentucky venture capitalist and the force behind the 2 million minutes movement.

Now in the interests of full disclosure, I need to report up front that I am in Zhao’s camp, and believe, deeply, that Zhao has the better argument.  But, nevertheless, let me try to capture both sides.

Bob Compton believes that the US is dramatically lagging in preparing students for 21st century demands (with which I agree), and that in particular, it is lagging behind China in doing so. Bob writes on his 2million minutes blog:

“I have seen a marked decline in American’s education and capabilities to compete with highly educated, highly motivated employees in many other countries – China and India, in particular…Is American K-12 education equal to the K-12 education in other countries, particularly India and China…My daily experiences tell me – “NO” and I see the evidence every day in the global market.

Now, I confess to not having seen 2 million minutes, the documentary, in its entirety, but I have seen several trailers and treatments of it, and I think I get it pretty well.  Students in China and India are studying much harder, and being better prepared for our new, globally competitive age.    Compton is right to be worried about the US future, and right to ask tough questions about whether we are doing what we should be doing educationally to prepare our kids for our globally competitive age.   But that does not mean, of course, he is right that we should move hard and fast toward a Chinese model.

Yong Zhao, an education professor at Michigan State University, is emerging quickly as a leading figure in 21st century schooling and the movement I like to view myself as a (small!) part of.    It would seem to me that few, if any, US-based educators know as much about Chinese education as Zhao does.   Zhao too is concerned about the US future as a global competitor, and he too thinks that US education needs to change to better prepare students.  But, and this is critical, not toward traditional Chinese models.

Ironically, Zhao’s main point is that at the same moment Compton is urging American schools to become more like conventional Chinese schools, and just as some are seeking to institute more standardized testing across the nation: “China [has] decided to change its “test-oriented education” into “talent-oriented education.”  To engineer this change, China made a conscious, global search for models—education systems that are good at producing innovative talents.”

Zhao has repeatedly criticized 2 Million Minutes and the notion that we ought to emulate Chinese education.  Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education writer, agrees, and cites Zhao to this effect:

The Chinese won’t be able to catch up until they do something about—don’t laugh–their awful college entrance tests.  Theirs are much worse than the SAT, mostly because it is so much harder to get into a good university in China than in the USA. The competition, since they have so many more people, is horrid. The emphasis is on cramming to get a good score.

Indeed, when you look closely, you see the two are in a bit of a back and forth fight on their respective blogs.  Compton, understandably, fiercely resists Matthews and Zhao in their point of view that to take US education toward China would be to take it backwards from our shared goal.  One of the places for this argument has been on the EdWeek Curriculum Matters Blog, where the  Zhao is quoted, saying:

“The American education system now is driven … to push us toward standardization, centralization, and embodying test scores, which actually I think is moving American education away from the future,” he says in a video… “The global economy requires niche talents, requires people to become artists, become creators, become musicians, become innovators, become people who are passionate about their work.”

Compton uses this Edweek blog platform to fight back:

The most important thing on which I hope he is wrong is that China will change its education.Say what you will about China’s school system, somehow they have amassed a $1.5 trillion trade surplus with the US and they are the largest buyer of US Treasury securities, owning nearly $1 Trillion. (more than twice what we owe Japan)…I believe by 12th grade students should have studied Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, World History, English Grammar and Composition, Computer Programming, World Geography, Music, Art, Mandarin or Farsi or Spanish and Global Economics.

This debate is an important one.  Do we best prepare students for future success by their working harder and our demanding more and teaching them for broad and prescribed AP course mastery (Compton/China traditionally), or by supporting kids to pursue their passion, strengthen their creativity, and diversify in their talents (Zhao, and where Zhao thinks China is changing to)?

Now Zhao’s video speech is a mixed bag; it is attractively produced, and as above, I appreciate his enthusiasm for students building their educational goals upon their interests.   Like him, I fear standardization can be stifling.   But, to be blunt, Zhao allows himself to be a bit sloppy– suggesting a student who doesn’t like physics should be welcomed to just do video games instead, and, in a different place, that an elementary school talent show is a good expression of student pursuing excellence and diversity.   But Zhao’s book, which I will be reviewing here soon at much greater length, is better.

I am curious too, about Compton’s new “21st century solution” to the 2 million minutes challenge.   His new film claims that a charter school here in Tucson is itself the solution to the crisis of underpreparing students for our new century and our new challenges.   What I am confused about is whether this model is a Chinese model school.

Reading Compton, and his vociferous argument with Zhao,  and seeing Compton’s repeated endorsement of Chinese education as the right approach, surely his new model US school will be Chinese traditionalist, yes?   But, then, why does the promotional materials for the film underemphasize hard work, discipline, and content mastery, and instead celebrate that his model school “instills creativity, critical thinking, intellectual curiousity and collaboration.”   These sound great, but I think Zhao will agree with me that Chinese model education, which Compton elsewhere has praised to the high heavens, does not do this, and indeed, that China is fast working to change its traditional model schools into schools that will do this, a change that Compton has lambasted.

I am eager to learn from Zhao what Zhao thinks of the new 2 million minutes movie (the 21st century solution), and whether he agrees with me there is a fundamental inconsistency in Compton’s logic.  And I would be eager to hear from Compton how he reconciles what seems a logical inconsistency.

More to come on this important topic.