Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading List for January 5, 2011: I is Educated

One of the recurring themes for all of these articles is, of course, the massive cultural differences between Western and Chinese education systems. The shorthand description, seen over and over again, is that China's schools emphasize standardized test prep and the learning of facts via memorization, while the in the US we stress creativity, research and collaboration. These are fairly crude simplifications of what's happening, but they serve the purpose of providing an easy to understand shorthand in the context of a short blog post or news item.

I'm no education expert, but some of the advantages and disadvantages of each system are fairly obvious. In China they may teach to tests and there may not be a lot of emphasis on teaching kids how to form opinions and how to explore alternate ways of reaching conclusions, but just about ever kid will finish school, they will be literate and they will know how to work in an academic setting. Focusing on a task, no matter how mundane, and working it through to its completion, is not a problem for them. In the US we foster creativity and strive to help each individual reach his or her own potential and we shy away from standardized tests, but we leave massive numbers of kids behind as legions of students don’t complete high school and a sizeable share of those who go on to university fail to get a degree.

But more than just offering an interesting study in contrasts, I think that the strengths of these systems offset each others' weaknesses. Can we find a way to combine the best elements of both systems? Is the Holy Grail of education a model that somehow fuses necessary memorization of facts and dates with in-depth analysis and debate? And how, in the end, do you measure success? Is there a single test that can be developed? Or do you need a series of tests combined with other measurements? And how many tests is too many before you are only teaching to them?

Like I said, I'm no education expert, so I'll leave curriculum development to the eggheads (and take potshots at their ideas from the sidelines). But what I am is living proof is that education is the silver bullet to economic advancement. I could never have risen up from where I started out without a sold educational footing beneath me. The Chinese understand this all too well but we in America seem to have forgotten it… or we just don't care too much if people in the next town over have.

And THAT is what should scare us about Chinese advancements in education – Not that they're may be starting to score better or whether they graduate more engineers and mathematicians, but that collectively as a country they care more about education and are DOING soothing about it.

"Chinese Top in Tests, But Educators Call for Reform" from NPR – Some insight into how and why the students in Shanghai were able to dominate on the international standards test last fall. More focus on the Chinese style of leaning and it's emphasis on memorization. The highlight for me? When the Chinese high school student who is interviewed says that she thinks that the Chinese way of learning and the Western way of learning should be combined. Out of the mouths of babes.

"The China Boom" from The New York Times – An emerging middle class will obviously want to send their kids to great schools and will have the money to pay for it, but as China continues to grow and more and more kids graduate from universities in China (they are building new schools at a prodigious rate), the One Child Policy will also play a role: Families who can not depend on government social safety nets as they age, and who traditionally depend of their children to care for them as they age, must place all of their hopes in a single progeny. And with fierce competition for a limited number of non-manufacturing jobs, a US degree is a big plus… This increase in Chinese students is a boon to universities because Chinese kids almost always pay full price; they don’t qualify for any federal aid. What's really ironic is that as Chinese families that can now afford US schools are striving to send their kids across the Pacific, we may see more and more American kids head to China. With tuition skyrocketing and family incomes stagnant, and with many families' home equity being shredded over the past 2 years, cheaper Chinese education options can be very enticing. It's true that most of the schools in China can't hold a candle to our universities in the US, but there are places that are comparable to American schools, especially if you want to study economics or international relations. And the prices for some of these schools, including full room and board and two tickets back home each year during holidays, are less than half - around $12,000 per year - of most liberal arts schools. And to say that learning Chinese and having experience/connections in China will give you a leg up is a huge understatement.

"Life as an International Student: Cultures Colliding" by Yeran Zhou – a direct response piece to the New York Times article, this goes into much deeper details about the cultural problems that Chinese kids often face when they come to the US for school. According to the writer, the Times article glossed over the problems and the sometimes serious unease that the Chinese expats experience. My favorite part was when a student talked about how hard it is to get work done in a US college sometimes:

Nai blames his lack of discipline on the American culture. “There is too much freedom in American colleges,” he complains. “I think I need stricter supervision.”