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Schools in China and U.S. Move in Opposite Directions

With China and the U.S. competing to be the world's superpower, it's a propitious time to take a closer look at the contrasting ways the two countries are attempting to reform schools. Although the U.S. has only 98,000 public schools serving 50 million students, compared with China's 600,000 schools serving 230 million students, both can learn from each other.

Schools in China are slowly trying to break away from their emphasis on memorization toward adopting strategies that stress creativity. Until now, schools believed that the former was the best way to score high on the gao kao. This exam has long been the key to acceptance to the best universities. But recognizing that the approach is counterproductive in the new global economy, China is attempting to change. However, much of the last year of high school is still spent reviewing for the exam, according to the New York Times ("The China Boom," Nov. 7).

Moreover, elite universities have resisted granting admission to students whose high schools recommended them if they did not first make the cut on the gao kao. According to John Richard Schrock, director of biology education at the University of Kansas and an expert on Chinese schools, the public is also vehemently against making changes. In an e-mail to me from China, where he is presently advising educators, Schrock attributes the opposition to familiarity with the system that has been in place since 1949.

In the U.S., a different trend is underway. Convinced that high-stakes tests are the best way to measure educational quality and assure our economic hegemony, reformers are running roughshod over those who believe otherwise. By now, the details of the Race to the Top initiative are well known. Competition among states for funding in the midst of the deep recession practically guarantees that measures will be adopted to undermine creative instruction. Yet the harm done won't become apparent for years. Test scores will undoubtedly rise, but at a steep price.

In an attempt to learn from each other, the Ministry of Education in China and the College Board in the U.S. have formed a partnership to exchange educators. About 325 guest teachers from China have volunteered to work for up to three years in the U.S., with their salaries subsidized by the Chinese government. Some 2,000 American school administrators have visited China at Beijing's expense. One of the first things they have reported is the contrast in attitudes toward teachers. In neither country do teachers earn much money. But in China, teachers are accorded great respect because teaching is considered an honorable career.

Whether a healthy balance can be achieved between the two approaches to educating the young is unclear. Tradition is hard to overcome, even in the face of new realities. But it is ironic to note that just when the U.S. is engaged in increased testing, China is moving away from a strictly examination culture.

Correction: John Richard Schrock is at Emporia State University.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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