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4 Lessons From China's Schools

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

I was in China earlier this month to present a paper on professional development for the Third US-China State/Provincial Education Leaders Dialogue. A day of school visits preceded the dialogue, providing an opportunity to see teacher learning in action. While there were many takeaways from the experience, I want to focus on four key observations:

  1. China respects its teachers. 
  2. China views job-embedded professional learning as essential to improving teaching. It is nonnegotiable.
  3. Chinese parents are strong advocates for teacher professional development.
  4. China supports its priorities with the investments required to address them.

China respects its teachers. In China, teaching is a noble profession. The country works hard to attract and retain the highest-quality teachers. Government and local leaders view it as their responsibility to set conditions that develop new teachers into master teachers.

When a teacher demonstrates challenges in the classroom, system leaders focus their attention on how to help teachers get better. They provide mentoring and coaching. Their effort is spent on developing, rather than evaluating, teachers. I wonder how different things might be in U.S. schools if we shifted substantive attention from ranking teachers to elevating and respecting them?

China views job-embedded professional development as essential to improving teaching. China is committed to creating the very best education system. The country recognizes teaching as a challenging and important profession that requires constant study. China's system leaders are convinced that their Teacher Research Groups (intentional professional learning teams) are one key to ensuring all schools get better.

These leaders were sincere and perplexed when they asked the American delegation how teachers can improve in the U.S. without the time they know is necessary to help educators improve their practice. Observing this, I wonder what would it take for national and local leaders in the U.S. to recognize that the way we allocate time for teacher learning must change and to finally do something very significant about it.

Chinese parents are strong advocates for teacher professional development. Parents who were denied an education during the Cultural Revolution recognize there is nothing more important, and they want to ensure their children have access to it. Parents expect teachers to learn during and beyond the school day. As one of the education leaders said, parents feel it is necessary to "elevate teachers' teaching skills and raise teaching quality with additional inservice training in the ways and methods related to teaching practices." What would it feel like to have U.S. parents demand their governments make teacher learning a priority?

China supports its priorities with the investments required to address them. While respect for expertise within schools and the Teacher Research Groups is the centerpiece for ongoing development, China recognizes the importance of supporting and awarding participation in profession learning beyond the school day. A career ladder provides incentives for teachers to continue developing skills required for assuming additional responsibilities. National "training" initiatives focus attention and resource in areas of identified needs. Resources are used to promote equity of access and opportunity. Limitation of resources is simply not acceptable. What would it look like if U.S. schools had the professional development resources necessary to see national and/or state priorities addressed?

These are the four significant lessons I brought home from China. They demonstrate the work the U.S. has to do and give us evidence that this can be done. Let's get started.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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