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China Can Learn About Schools From U.S.

If there's one thing guaranteed to grab the public's attention, it's a crisis. In this regard, few subjects are better candidates than schools. Reformers claim that what takes place in the classroom is directly responsible for what takes place in the economy. But a closer look at China, which is America's most formidable competitor, calls into question this assertion.

The future of young people in China is almost totally dependent on how they perform on the gaokao. This nine-hour exam administered over two days assesses their knowledge of a variety of subjects. Psychometricians say it makes the SAT seem like child's play. The high stakes aside, the gaokao is known for its overwhelming emphasis on straight memorization ("Test That Can Determine the Course of Life in China Gets a Closer Examination," The New York Times, Jul. 1). This may have served the country well in the past, but it is increasingly seen as counterproductive to producing the inventors and entrepreneurs that China needs going forward ("The Education System That Pulled China Up May Now Be Holding It Back," The Atlantic, June 2012).

Even if an argument can be made for the importance of memorization on tests, it is not helping China's economy grow. The economy does not generate enough jobs commensurate with the increasing number of graduates ("China's Army of Graduates Is Struggling," The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2010). That's not supposed to happen, according to reformers, because rankings on tests are linked to a vibrant economy. But they forget that a similar situation existed in Japan when its economy tanked in 1990, despite the high rankings of its students. Starting in 1991, however, the U.S. entered the longest period of economic prosperity in its history, even though American students posted relatively unimpressive test scores. As I wrote in 2007: "If a connection exists between test scores and economic prosperity, it most certainly wasn't evident in the past decade. Yet the same argument is once again being made in the name of global competitiveness" ("The Secret Irony of Education Reform," The American, Jan. 2007).

Despite the historical evidence, reformers maintain that the performance of students from Shanghai, who were the only Chinese students to take PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) in 2009, is cause for alarm ("A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Education," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8, 2010). I've heard this dire view all too often over the years. I'm not a Pollyanna, but I believe that there is a distinct difference between an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy. American students don't shine on tests of international competition, but when it comes to creativity and risk-taking, they make us all proud.

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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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