Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Chinese Are Still Beating Us

It wasn't that long ago that our elected leaders and policy makers were calling for us to "out educate the Chinese," prompted to a large degree by the top-of-the-charts performance of Chinese 15-year-olds on a standardized test called Programme for International Assessment (PISA) which purports to measure and compare reading, mathematics, and science knowledge across the globe. It was a clarion call to competition that spurred such federal policy mistakes as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the disastrous Common Core national curriculum, all of which were based on the drill-and-kill rote learning techniques that the Chinese educational system used to produce their test results.

The whole business has created a generational mess in public education in the US as we've rushed to standardize and constrict teaching around literacy and mathematics while pushing things like high stakes standardized testing down to the kindergarten level. It's simply not an accident that levels of depression and anxiety amongst US children, have risen as education dilettantes have pushed to turn our schools into "world class competitors" at the expense of actual education, not to mention mental health. The fact that their efforts have done absolutely nothing to budge the needle on the PISA test has barely phased them as they've sought to blame teachers, parents, and even the kids themselves.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been, slowly, moving in the opposite direction. Back in 2014, I wrote here about how the Chinese government was expressing concern about the cost of their status and PISA test superstars:

"Shanghai does not need so-called #1 schools," said Yi Hougin, a high level official of the Shanghai Education Commission. "What it needs are schools that follow sound education principles, respect principles of students' physical and psychological development, and lay a solid foundation for students' lifelong development."

In other words, they were having second thoughts about how their schools were chewing up and spitting out their youth. At the time, I wrote, "Meanwhile, the other PISA superstars, the 15-year-olds of Finland, do not attend the kind of pressure-cooker schools bemoaned by China and aspired to by the US. While Finland's schools largely eschew high stakes testing, have little homework, design curricula based upon the developmental needs of children, and have well-paid, highly respected teachers, our political and business elite have cast their lot with the romanticized misery of China's authoritarian model, creating illusory "achievement" based upon rote learning and memorization that can be "sold" to the electorate and the world with, "We're #1! We're #1!" which is apparently America's true motto."

Last week, China announced a slate of education reforms designed around improving the "physical and mental health" of their children. All testing has been banned for children under eight-years-old and has been minimized through the middle school years. For-profit educational companies, the real drivers behind much of the push toward standardization and testing here in the West, have had their activities greatly restricted. Homework has been eliminated for the youngest students and middle schoolers may not longer be assigned more than 1.5 hours of homework per night. Meanwhile, back home in the USA, policymakers are attempting to frighten us into turning up the pressure on our children because "learning loss!"

I'm not saying we should begin to emulate the Chinese educational system, but these very reforms would be a boon for our children, especially now as we are striving to make our schools work in this age of pandemic. There is so much more we could do based on the actual evidence of how children learn. For the past several decades our political and business elites have been telling us we need to learn the wrong lessons from the Chinese. Will we be willing to learn this new lesson or will we continue to be hell-bent on returning our children to the test score coal mines? I'm worried about the answer.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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