Lessons from China: Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a principal exchange program with a high school in China, Lu Quan No.1 Middle School.  In China, high schools are called middle schools.  The school is located in the Hebei Province of China, which is north of Beijing.  The school enrollment is 4200 students, and there are approximately 380 teachers in the school.  The executive vice-principal, Mr. Wang Dainsheng came to visit and spend a week with me last October.  Unfortunately, he came just before Hurricane Sandy impacted our school and the region, and, as a result, he was unable to visit Clarkstown North and see our students and teachers in action.  Thankfully, colleagues in Albany, Red Hook, and Saratoga Springs invited Mr. Wang to their high schools, and he was able to observe students and teachers in Red Hook High School, Red Hook Middle School, and Saratoga Springs High School.

Based on his experience and observation, Mr. Wang wrote a reflection, which was published by the Hebei Department of Education.  In his essay, Mr. Wang notes that:

“Our scheme of education [in China] should be designed according to the individual…Focusing on the growth of students matters more about their future.  We should direct students to experience the process of study, making them love their life and study…The development of students lies in the body and mind [,] guiding students to pay attention to society, learning to live and plan for their future autonomously.”

(a photo with the executive administration of LuQuan No. 1 Middle School)

The Deputy Director (equivalent to New York’s Commissioner of Education) of the Hebei Province in China had offered a similar educational approach.  He stated that China is undergoing the following national educational reform agenda: 1) focus on creativity, 2) more collaboration between students, and 3) moving away from “teaching to the test.”  He also explained how American theorists, such as John Dewey, Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters, are utilized in driving their reform agenda.  Thus, educational reform in China is based on best practices and theories that emanate from the Americas.

Observing classes in China allowed me to assess why the U.S. educational system is still the one other nations try to emulate.  Class sizes at Lu Quan High School in China range from 60-70 students per class.  Addressing the individual learning needs of students in such a large classroom setting is very challenging for the teacher.  Thus, reducing class size is one of the reforms China is addressing.  Many of the teachers I encountered did not know much English.  However, they were aware of the term, “teaching to the test” and stated that teaching in China focuses on preparing students for the college/university entrance exam, the gao kao.  The gao kao is the longest exam in the world and is considered by many to be the most difficult exam for high school seniors anywhere in the world.  Teachers I spoke with are concerned that teaching to the test does not lead to student learning, increases stress levels for students and teachers, and deemphasizes parts of the curriculum that students would like to explore more in depth.

                  (photo with the History Department of LuQuan No. 1 Middle School)

As a principal in a state that is undergoing reforms, I listen to the same concerns from my own colleagues.  Focus on high stakes testing has changed the nature of pedagogy from exploration and learning to teaching to the test.  Students and teachers place more emphasis on results and outcomes as opposed to the process of learning and analyzing material.  What is most surprising to me is that while China is moving away from concentrating on testing and outcomes, the New York State and U.S. educational reform agenda is moving towards the current Chinese system.  What China is beginning to reject as detrimental to student learning, policymakers in New York and the U.S. are adopting as a way to hold teachers and administrators accountable.  Thus, current educational reforms are cycling back to organizational theories of the early 1900s, such as Taylorism, with a one-sided focus on scientific management and industrial efficiency.  These machinist models, which treat the educational process like a factory with inputs, throughputs, and outputs, miss the mark in a post-industrial century that requires students to use their creative talents and skills to succeed in this new, rapidly evolving economy.

While other nations are embracing U.S. research on how students learn in the 21st century, policymakers in New York and the U.S. pay little attention to this research in favor of motivational attempts that focus on rewards and penalties, a remnant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  When nations, such as Finland, China, Japan, and Singapore, diagnose that student learning is more than teaching to the test, then why does the U.S. move in the opposite direction?

Upon returning to Clarkstown High School North from China, I was informed that U.S. News & World Report rated Clarkstown North as one of the top 4 percent high schools in the nation and one of the top 9 percent high schools in New York.  I already knew, however, the quality of instruction students are offered in New York is unsurpassed and that is why representatives from other nations visit us.  When others try to imitate and replicate what we are doing, then we must be doing something right.

(a photo with students in an English class)