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Education and the New Economy

Asia is a rising power in global economics and affairs, and it has a lot to do with how they approach education.

Most people understand that education is a workforce issue. Top performing school systems know how to make a direct correlation between workforce needs and the supply of necessary skills.

Before the International Summit on the Teaching Profession kicked off, I spoke with leaders from Hong Kong, Japan, and Shanghai—systems that produce high achieving students in math, science, and literacy. We talked about global economic recovery, and how education and human resource development are important factors to determine economic strength in the long run.

Zhang Minxuan, current president of Shanghai Normal University (historically and largely still a teaching college), and former Director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, said that he likens this concept to a Chinese idiom: when the water rises, the boat floats above it. If education is water, then the boat is social stability and economic strength.

Cherry Tse, Permanent Secretary for Education in Hong Kong, agreed with President Zhang that it isn't foremost about competitiveness, as Americans often tend to think about US-China relations, "It's about creating a bigger pie, so everyone can have a slice."

Asia's economic growth in the last few decades is undeniable. How did they do it?

Shinichi Yamanaka, Deputy Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Japan, said that one of the first laws about education came in 1872, the very beginning of the Meiji Period. It proclaimed, "Let there be no illiteracy in any village, nor any village home."

But as Japan, and indeed, all of Asia, moved from a vastly agrarian society to the industrial age, and finally, the global knowledge economy, the basic definition of "literacy" changed, too.

Mr. Yamanata said that one of the most critical skills for this new economy is better cross-cultural understanding and communication. Part of that, he stresses, is understanding one's own cultural context in order to represent it on the world stage.

Hong Kong requires students to be biliterate (that is, able to read Chinese characters as well as the Roman alphabet), and trilingual. Hong Kong also recognizes the need to diversify its work force. More students need to be funneled into more types of careers, including vocational paths that traditionally may not have had as much prestige as ones requiring a college education. "Teachers are change agents," Ms. Tse argued, "to create a richer society" both literally and figuratively.

"We need better aim," President Zhang said. He elaborated to say that ever-improving problem solving skills are critical. For instance, the rise of mass data in the 21st century holds great promise, but only if a citizenry knows what to do with it.

All three agree that the bottom line is as societies change, citizens must be able to raise and answer new questions.

Asia Society is a co-convener of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession with the U.S. Department of Education, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Education International (EI) the global federation of teacher unions, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Education Association (NEA), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and public broadcaster WNET.

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