This is a second posting in a continuing project here to combat the notion that China’s traditional educational model should be a template for American educational reform.    This pernicious notion is much in the air, and is advocated most loudly perhaps by Bob Compton and his 2 Million Minutes movie movement.   To combat it, I am drawing upon the research and wisdom of MSU Education professor Yong Zhao, who I think has a good claim to be the leading expert in the US regarding Chinese education.   I have now read his fine, brand-new book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, and I intend to share more from the book in future postings, but here I want to look most closely at his chapter: Why China isn’t a threat yet: The costs of high scores.

Zhao opens with a discussion called “Premier Wen’s Anxiety.”  Simply put, China has a “shortage of creative and innovative talent…only .003 percent of all Chinese companies own the patent for the core technologies they produced.”  Let me repeat that percentage: .003.    Zhao quotes from another source that “China has failed to establish, so far, an effective indigenous network of technological innovation…In 2005, only 21,519 patents originating in China were granted, while more than 134,000 originating in the US were granted.”   China President Hu is also cited, from a 2006 speech:  “China has a severe shortage of outstanding talents in science and technology.”  These data points alone call into question whether we in the US should seek to emulate China’s educational approaches.

Next in this chapter, Zhao takes notes that China’s education has had great achievements, including nearly 100% adult literacy, and supporting China’s economic progress.   But it has not supported the development of skills most necessary in our new knowledge economy , and it should not be glorified at the expense of our US education.

To make this point, Zhao points out something important about how we measure the quality of education. If we measure it by test scores, China does well. But it is more important to measure it by “the quality of the products of an education system.  The quality of a person is difficult to describe in specific terms but generally it is the total package of knowledge, ability, attitudes, perspectives, moral values, and ethical standards.   It is what the person can do in real life instead of scores received or years spent in school. ”

But China’s educational approach is still rooted, deeply, in the Confucian tradition of the keju, the millenia-old civil service exam that demands memorizing enormous texts and regurgitating them in highly competitive and high stakes contests.   Today, “college admissions are based solely on performance on the gao-kao, as was the case with the keju…. One exam determines your whole life… The gaokao affects every aspect of China’s educational system.”

But many Chinese students, after many, many years of studying for these exams, are left without the broader skills necessary for success.  In one of the most interesting sections of Zhao’s book, he describes the widely-recognized problem of “gaofen dineng” which translates as high scores, low ability.   “It is used to refer to students who score well on tests but have few skills that are usable in society.  There are so many cases of  “high scores but low ability” that the term has been widely accepted as short-hand to describe education in China.”  Zhao supports this with reports of how poorly top China students are performing, five, ten and fifteen years after completing their pre-collegiate education.

Not only is China’s education not producing highly skilled and creative professionals, it is actually hurting many children.  Zhao reports for instance on Chinese suicides rates among children and youth, a very disturbing problem, which is attributed here to the terrible pressures of the educational system.   Beyond suicide, China is also seeing a serious decline in physical health among its youngsters, because Chinese children spend so many hours a day in class and working on their studies.    Cheating, took, is rampant in a system that is highly pressured and built around extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivators.   This is not where US education should be headed.

Zhao then returns to the question of creativity, and why China’s educational system so poorly teaches students to be creative.   Zhao draws largely on the ideas of Richard Florida to explain that “To be creative is to be different.  Creative people often have ideas, behaviors, beliefs, and lifestyles that deviate from the norm, and from tradition.  How these people and their ideas are treated by others has a defining effect on creativity and indeed on different social groups.”

But Chinese culture, and Chinese education, focus mostly on continuity and tradition.  Schools everywhere, but especially in China, “demand conformity and obedience,” such that the more time a child spends in school, the more their creativity may be squashed.   As an educator, this is hard for me to read, but there is a curious logic to it nonetheless.  Because American children spend less time at school, and less time on homework, and view school as less central to their lives, “American children are less exposed to the creativity-killing machine [that is] the school.”

Zhao also explains that Chinese teachers are much more strict in their “inflexible rules and standard routines,” and “conformity is emphasized much more in Chinese schools than in American schools.”

Parental expectations are also very different:

“American parents and educators define success more broadly and strongly emphasize children’s individuality and the need to respect their wishes and abilities….In contrast, Chinese parents place an extremely high value on external indicators: grades, test scores, and most important, admission to prestigious universities….All other activities–art, music, community activities, and athletics are considered unimportant… A broader definition of success and an emphasis on internal rather than external standards of success may not lead to high test scores or good grades, but they definitely help to preserve and protect individuality and creativity.

Zhao completes this discussion of teaching for creativity by criticizing again standardization and testing:

Lastly, standardized and centralized curriculum, another feature of Asian education systems that is often praised by reformers, serves to further squeeze opportunities for individual differences.  Teaching at the same pace, in the same sequence, and using the same textbooks for all students, leaves little room for exploring individual interests and accommodating different learning styles.

Finally, if Chinese education is so profoundly problematic, why doesn’t China do something about it?  According to Zhao, it is trying as hard as it can, but change is hard:  “China, of course, does not like the outcomes of its education system. From its top leaders to the general public, everyone realizes the damage it produces… China has launched a series of reform efforts over the past 30 years… But these efforts have not been all that successful.”

Again, let me say to Bob Compton and his 2 Million Minutes project: Let’s not seek to change American education to be more like that of China!