Be Careful What You Wish For
The Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) is getting ready for another round of measures to lessen the academic burden of its students. The MOE has last month ended its second attempt to solicit public commentaries on its 10 Measures to Lessen Academic Burden of Middle and Primary School Students. The first version of the 10 Measures was published in August for public commenting, as I wrote in a blog post.
To be implemented soon, these measures, including banning standardized testing and written homework for lower primary grades, are drastic. The public support is overwhelming, but so is their skepticism. After all, China has issued numerous similar measures before. For example, over half a century ago in 1955, the Chinese government issued Guidelines to Lessen Student Burden, making academic burden a national issue. In 1988, ten years after China restored the College Entrance Exam after the Cultural Revolution, the then Chinese National Education Commission implemented another set of 10 measures to reduce academic burden including limiting testing and homework. Two years later, in 1990, similar measures were reemphasized. In 2000, the MOE issued the Urgent Order to Lessen Academic Burden in Primary Schools, again with similar measures concerning the amount of academic work students were tasked with. Subsequently, the Ministry of Education announced variations of the same measures virtually every year.
The Chinese struggle with children's academic load or overload over the past half century presents two important lessons for American education reformers.
First, Americans and other Western countries have long admired how hard the Chinese students work and many have attributed Chinese students' stunning performance on international assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to their diligence. China has been held as an example of a high performing education system and a model worth imitating (e.g., a call for longer school days and years). But, the Chinese apparently think otherwise. They have been eager to be rid of the primary factor contributing to their outstanding test scores and the very aspect of education that Western countries are eager to borrow. The reason is very simple: The Chinese have seen enough damage done by an overemphasis on testing and academic work on creativity, innovation, and student psychological and physical well-being.
The second lesson comes from the difficulty of moving away from a testing culture once it takes root. In China, test scores determine a student's life--scores in primary schools determine which middle school a student can attend; scores in middle school determine which high school a student can go to; and scores at the end of high school, the infamous College Entrance Exam or Gaokao, determine which college a student can attend, if at all, and such a decision also determines one's future career and social status. Consequently, tests dominate a child's life and by association, the reputation of a school and teachers.
It is thus not surprising that students, their parents, school, and teachers all work hard to ensure students achieve high test scores all the time. It is then common sense that all students try to spend as much time on academics (only the tested subjects though) as possible, and their parents and teachers are there to make sure they do so. Despite China's efforts to reduce academic burden and multiple efforts to reform college admissions procedure and criteria, test scores remain the primary selection criterion for college admission. The belief that scores reflect a student's probability of future success, a teacher's teaching quality, and the quality of education a school offers remains deeply rooted in the Chinese culture and is unlikely to change soon. As long as the belief and practices around testing presist, it is unlikely that Chinese students can truly have less academic burden.
For America and other Western nations that are eager to make testing an integral feature of schooling, they should be very careful what they wish for--once the belief becomes part of the culture, it will be very hard to change, as the Chinese struggle shows.
Yong Zhao is the presidential chair and associate dean for global education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Following him @yongzhaouo.