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The Chinese work ethic and other news


Bridging Differences was on a brief hiatus while Deborah Meier traveled in China. Today, the blog returns with a new post from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deb,

I hope you had a wonderful trip to China and that you are not too wiped out. I have been there a few times, first in 1987, most recently in 1998. I hear it has changed quite a lot since then.

Lots of things happening in your absence, none to gladden your heart. The Center for Education Policy released a report on NCLB, concluding that it was overall having a positive effect on achievement. CEP, as you know, is run by Jack Jennings, who was a top legislative staff person for the Democrats in the House of Representatives for many years.

Then came a column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on May 28, called "The Educated Giant," (available only through TimesSelect) where he commented on how successful the Chinese education system is. Apparently he was there with his wife and two of his children at the same time as you. From the column, it seems that his wife was born in China. They returned to her native village and were greatly impressed by the schools they saw. He wrote that "the level of math taught even in peasant schools is similar to that in my kids' own excellent schools in the New York area." Kristof noted that Chinese students are "hungry for education and advancement and work harder" than American children. Chinese children, he said, show up at school at 6:30 a.m. to get an extra hour of tutoring before school starts at 7:30 a.m. After a lunch break (from 11:30 til 2 p.m.), they return to school from 2 p.m. until 5. He says they do homework every night and weekend, and even do homework for an hour or two each day during summer vacation. He concludes that we need to "raise our own education standards to meet the competition" from China.

I would have loved to discuss Kristof's article with you. I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about it, and my view is that most American kids are unwilling to work all that hard. The slacker mentality would not be tolerated in China. Here it is a dominant style.

Next came a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which equated state proficiency standards with NAEP standards. What it found—no surprise!—is that state standards vary so widely that a fourth grade student in Mississippi who was rated "proficient" might well be judged "failing" in Massachusetts. The report, called "Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales" was quite amazing. One point that came through in this report was that many states rate students as "proficient" who would be rated "below basic" on the NAEP scale.

I know you don't give a hoot about NAEP, and that you think its cut scores are way too high. But the important point that came across in this study is the crazy variability in state standards. The states with high standards are Massachusetts, Wyoming, and South Carolina. Close behind are Arkansas, Nevada, Connecticut, California, and New Mexico. The other states have set low to middling standards. I am sure this made the Bush administration unhappy, but the fundamental idea is that this variability makes no sense. We need accurate and consistent information about student progress.

I look forward to hearing whether your impression of China echoes that of Nicholas Kristof. I have a sneaking suspicion that it did not.




Diane: You state that "...and my view is that most American kids are unwilling to work all that hard."
I think more telling, especially in elementary and middle school, is that many, many parents don't want their kids working that hard. I remember a TV special years ago where they followed the lives and attitudes about school of families from the US, Japan and Germany. The Japanese family put school first and foremost - if they planned an activity but there was still schoolwork to do the activity got dropped and the schoolwork got done. The German family was similar - but not quite as intense. The US family had bowling night on Thursday and even though both kids had unfinished homework (and one project that was almost finished, but due the next day) that probably wouldn't get done they chose the bowling - they felt the family activity was more important.
I'm not making a judgement on who is right ... just food for thought.
As a teacher it takes a lot to buck up against this mentality. Most teachers just aren't going to take the relentless heat from parents that are going to be pissed as hell that homework is getting in the way of soccer and baseball and music lessons and trips to the mall and SpongBob and the weekend trip and the week we were going to pull the kids out of school to go to Hawaii to beat the crowds. Students of poverty often don't have parents with experience going to school that can get there kids to follow through on getting that much homework done - maybe with lots of communications home and some parent nights etc. That could happen, but it takes time and energy away from what happens in the classroom. I think the conversation about what school needs to look like and should look like has to happen to close the gap on the skewed expectations we tend to have.
Lastly, I'll leave with this ... we have said for years that schools in America need to change how they teach and operate. I think many would agree with that. However, what comes next in reality is ..."but when you are done changing them make sure they are pretty much just like when I went to school so that I understand everything you are doing and can help my student do school." This mentality doesn't lend itself to change and is hard to overcome.

Summer is a great time to help kids catch up, master, or review concepts and skills, or pre-teach next year's materials.

Two summers ago, we taught two lessons of connecting math concepts a day. He finished an entire year of math curriculum in one summer. He has autism so it was tough. The public school tested him at the end of the next school year and found he was within 2 points of passing the state test. The principal threatened that they would consider dropping math from his IEP because he was almost caught up.

The point is, kids can do it. They need proper motivation and good curriculum. As a parent, I am driven to teach him math (even though he gets it at the resource room in public school) for the simple reason: My "job" is to have him tell me math is not hard. It isn't!


You write: "The Center for Education Policy released a report on NCLB, concluding that it was overall having a positive effect on achievement."

I wrote Mr. Jennings a letter concerning recent press treatment of the CEP's report, especially those claiming causality btwn NCLB and achievement.

His response:

"...one of our five main conclusions is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove causality between state test score trends and NCLB."

Diane, you would know that he cautioned readers not to make the claim you are making, and you would know that if you read the report.

What kind of historian are you?

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I'd like to add that not only is it very difficult to prove causality between state test score trends and NCLB, but the entire argument rests on the very dubious assumption that higher standardized test scores necessarily equate with better teaching and learning. It is far more complex than that. And when the tests are overused and misused, as with NCLB's high stakes testing, the many destructive consequences far exceed the significance of small test score gains.

Further, under the oppressive and punitive policies of NCLB, from the day our public schools open their doors in August and September, the entire thrust of all that we do is geared toward getting those almighty test scores up. Given that this is the case, perhaps it would be a miracle if there WASN'T some gain in test scores.

Tauna Rogers
Educator Roundtable

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

The NCBL is due for complete revision if we believe in education for a democracy.
For nearly 10 years, I have worked as a change coach (with principals) and a literacy coach (with teachers)in a large urban school system. My schools were "the failing schools" and testing became the mantra. Out went the arts, the libraries, the playgrounds, and in went scripted teaching, drills and persistent test preps. Of course the test scores were raised, but at what price? Many superb teachers retired early and many young teachers quit. For with the pressure to raise scores, we eliminated the joy and wonder of teaching.. precisely that which inspired most of us to go into teaching in the first place.

All the blame for societies ills falls on the teachers. But where are the resources- the pediatricians, the clinical child psychologist, the social workers for the homeless families, the translators for the new immigrants, the health care for all children, the dentists, the librarians and libraries which all these children so desperately.

In America, I am proud that we educate all children not just some. But the poor children, the needy families, the ones who need the finest curriculum filled with wonder and books filled with inspiration, those children are being left behind. The difference between schools in the suburbs and in the cities
is so great and the testing craze has deepened the rift.
Miriam Marecek

Ps You summer reading list needs to be updated! There is much literacy research that has been completed since The Great Debate.

One of the comments says that Jack Jennings didn't mean to give NCLB credit for the increase in scores since 2002. That may be true, but the story that was widely reported in all the major papers understood his report to mean exactly that.

I certainly don't like the narrowing of the curriculum, nor the corruption of testing that is taking place in many districts. I am fearful that the testing regime will be toughened and made even more pervasive in the next reauthorization of NCLB. In all too many districts, the leadership has simply forgotten what education is and should be, and lives only for test scores. That's wrong.

Diane Ravitch


Americans value work and are among the hardest working people in the world and yet as you point out, our children rarely apply that work ethic to their school work.

In France, a country known for its value of leisure time with extensive vacations and minimal workweeks, students in high school work substantially harder than their American counterparts, largely in part because they have to. French students need to learn the material, skills and knowledge tested on the BAC, a very difficult and complex exam. Seat time and grades are unimportant compared to this external test.

External exams (with explicit knowledge, content and skills) provide the structure and motivation for learning in most countries around the world. By delineating what knowledge and skills will be tested on the college entry exams, countries make it clear to all; students, parents and teachers what children need to work on to be successful. Even for those students that do not pass the college exams, the focused effort that they put into studying can help them in developing the habits of the mind, skills and abilities that can make them successful in other endeavors.

Not only do we have weak college entry requirements (seat time, teacher grades and the relatively easy SAT), American students are also saddled with the anti-intellectualism of our schools that insist that being “smart” is enough to get into college and that learning anything in particular in not necessary. The SAT was designed to test how “smart” children are and not a sum total of what they have learned prior to college.

So with this mindset, why should students in our country work hard?


Thanks, Diane, for your clarity. Frankly, let's show students directly, quickly, and consistently how they can meet anytime, anywhere whatever criteria someone requires for them to complete PK12 schools honorably. More rapid completion of schools seems possible than previously with personal communication technologies. I wonder how rapidly students would meet minimum or higher state standards under such conditions?

In these critical times there is an overarching responsibility to be accurate and to apply logical guidelines to statistical information.

Many here have the education and reasoning ability to do so. Jack Jennings stated what he stated regarding difficulties with causality between NCLB and the fraction of percentage points of improvement. Plain as day.

TIME magazine's latest issue / cover article reveals research that gives NCLB an "F" for improving test scores. Why is this not cited? What is entailed in that discussion?

What is the unthoughtful rush to endorsement about?

Many comments indicate a need for more work, that our children ought to be working harder, or that another country's children might seem to perform better than ours.

We parents and adults in general have forgotten about the need to balance work AND play, and so have our children. Our children across our culture are stressed and we're asleep to it all. Our focus as the grown ups needs to be on helping children develop into balanced individuals who know how to work when it's time to work, and that playing is just as important in its time.

If we are so concerned about literacy, it is critical we recognize the roles of pretend play and imagination as most relevant. Creative, expressive writing and reading comprehension spring from that well pool. We are smothering these childhood traits by prematurely pressuring them into decoding, encoding and sitting in a chair.

How many of us have fond early memories from watching lightening bugs at summer dusk, with the smell of wet grass and that cooling moisture on our skin. We still remember those--does it take hard work to access those experiences?....Not at all.... Through physical play, handwork, music, and experiential learning with all the senses, the entire brain talks to all parts of itself. That is the stuff of taking content to another level of reasoning, making connections between ideas that at first glance do not belong together... these are the ingredients of innovative thinking that will enable our youngest citizens to take this planet to sustainability. But we are educating the creativity right out of our children.

Many propose providing for the developmental needs of childhood -childhood first-and I personally agree with a system of education that is guided by the introduction of developmentally appropriate, brain-research related activities that engage the whole child. Research shows that work ethic concerns would be lessened because innate curiosity and a child's sense of wonder and beauty would take the place of "work hard". Attention spans would lengthen too. Something our media driven culture has seen to shortening.

The challenge is for us grown ups to slow down so that our children can slow down, and BE CHILDREN. They already have plenty of content to acquire in this lightening fast information age. But when content is introduced at appropriate stages with developmentally appropriate educational practices, those methods (not the content) will support children's development into their own fully unique talents and capabilities. Passion will drive their work ethic.

Reform is required, but not only in how we teach to the tests in the name of meeting minimum standards.

How we look at our children is what I believe needs fixing. I see that they need us to protect the spirit of childhood from the pace and pressures of our own insecurities. By offering them their childhood, I believe we truly can support the development of a competent and innovative citizenry.

It is all about remembering childhood.

It seems to me that we should be considering what we are educating our children and young people for---which direction are we heading?

I would like to suggest a book called Releasing The Imagination: Essays on Education, The Arts and Social Change
by Maxine Greene.

Also, I just finished a marvelous children's historical novel by Katherine
Paterson called Bread and Roses,Too.


Excellent point Dr. Marecek. You might be familiar with Sir Ken Robinson's work. His findings on employer feedback about the lack of talent in the employee pool is relevant to your point. His book is called, Out of Our Minds: Learning To Be Creative.

He is a major advocate of educating from the neck down as well as above the neck and slightly to one side. Integrating all the arts fully is his primary recommendation for maintaining children's creativity and capacity for innovation.

Sir Ken strives for children to continue into adulthood being risk-takers as well, and that in a right-wrong answer-driven educational culture, he sees children's imaginations quashed.

Thank-you for your recommendation.

"We are educating the creativity right out of our children?" If JDG had said we're finally educating students under a common, agreed upon program, accessible to all students, (s)he would have been more accurate. Before education reform teachers and schools had no universal, established plan or curriculum in place. Every district, school and teacher was free to go, pretty much, their own way. A New York Times September, 2005 editorial said textbook companies and local school boards were running education in this country by "default" because there was no promulgated plan in place, anywhere.

Education reform and now NCLB are simply attempting to make sure marginal students get exposed to and hopefully master a set of certain skills/concepts appropriate for their grade level under a standards based education. NCLB has little or no impact on average and especially high students. These kids should be separately addressed by competent teachers with lessons and activities customized to their respective level(s).

"I personally agree with a system of education that is guided by the introduction of developmentally appropriate, brain-research related activities that engage the whole child." Whenever I see "education of the whole child" my antennae go up. The campaign for the education of the whole child was clandestinely developed by teacher unions under the guise it will develop better, well rounded students. However, education of the whole child is the union's code for more money for more programs, more teachers and therefore more political clout for large teacher unions, aka, the Democratic Party. Either JDG is a real player in the unions or has been thoroughly brainwashed by them.

I take the rebate on union dues every year and under this protest I am nevertheless required to have dues deducted from my monthly paycheck. I have never felt unions address the roles and needs of school psychologists such as myself, nor do they seem to give priority to children, whole or otherwise. My experience with unions is that they look out for paychecks, benefits and school year schedules.

How interesting there was a need to resort to the ad hominem without any interest in further inquiry of this writer's views or history.

Reading here in Shanghai, China, I find the topics fascinating. AS I have suggested before in an Ed Week commentary, trying to compete with CHinese schools with big stick tests won't work.America IS an anti intellectuall nation. And there IS a college for everyone, no matter. My nephew here in Dalian studies hours and days on end in a "modern" school with 'only" 50 kids in the class. Believe me, I have watched them sleeping and passing notes as the teacher drones on obliviously. So he has to work hours at home and with tutors. He is examed to death and can't answer an open ended question. BUT as a seventh grader he can probably do better math than about 60% of American 11th graders! Trying to compete with Asia? Hello! Asia has been trying to figure out for years how to cultivate creative, analytical problem solvers. Two big ships passing each other. Guess where they are going to meet? At the International Baccalaureate. An intelligent, constructivist, clearly benchmarked and researched curriculum for a global society that meets the standards of every country on earth. Even NAIS schools keep talking about global education and that just means visiting S.America or reading about China. Work at a world wide standard. And for a model, don;t look at Asia. Look at the number one country- Finland-with one of the lowst homework rates of all the PISA countries. IN Finland the focus n the transfereability of their kids knowledge. Rigour means learning concepts that you can then apply to solve all kinds of problems. Respect the diligence of the Chinese- it is amazing- but also pity the harsh social conditions that make such diligence life or death (conditions not so widely present in America, as of this writing).America, do more with what you have. AS Kristof rightly points ouot. The Chinese are doing so much with so little. And be ready. They are trying to take the next step toward learning concepts and thinking skills.

In these comparisons WHY do you think American students are anti-intellectual. Americans in general are anti-intellectual? Where does this come from.

I'd like to write in Chinese, because of my poor English. Sorry!


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