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Topic: [ncsm-members] U.S. Education in Chinese Lock Step? Bad Move.
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] U.S. Education in Chinese Lock Step? Bad Move.
Posted: Feb 13, 2012 5:57 PM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sunday, February 5, 2012. See

U.S. Education in Chinese Lock Step? Bad Move.

By Brian P. Coppola and Yong Zhao

The education systems in China and the United States not only are
headed in opposite directions, but are aiming at exactly what the
other system is trying to give up.

In the United States, through programs such as No Child Left Behind
and Race to the Top, as well as calls for more standardization and
accountability in higher education, we are embracing the sort of
regimented, uniform, standards-based, and test-driven education that
has dominated Asian education systems for thousands of years.

What seems to be underappreciated in this country is how actively the
Asian systems are trying to embrace the values and outcomes that we
appear to be so willing to abandon: specifically, the American
penchant for promoting creativity, individualism, innovation, and
nonconformity. In other words, for developing and nurturing the
diverse talent that can result from an ethos of coloring outside the

In China obstacles still stand in the way of rapid, comprehensive
change, obstacles that are tied to the culture's long history of
inflexible, standards-based, test-driven education. Nonetheless,
teaching for creativity, innovation, and invention are seen there, as
throughout the rest of Asia, as the holy grails of the U.S. education

Entrepreneurialism is an easy goal, and more than a few professors in
China have been known to say that what is needed is the ability to
prepare students who are able to generate more intellectual property
for their country. And while many parts of the U.S. college system
provide the freedom for this, it is predicated on our core
understanding that creativity is more or less an inherent trait, and
that what we need to do for our students is to get out of their way,
and to provide them with the environment and resources in which they
can grow.

Fundamentally, the education system in the United States may be no
more capable of actively teaching creativity and innovation than the
education system in China is; it may well simply be that the system
in China has been more systemically effective at suppressing it.
Success may be tied as much to what is not done?-avoiding the
smothering uniformity of standardization-than to what is done.

In the United States, we certainly matriculate smart high-school
students who are as ready to embrace memorization and regurgitation
as their Chinese counterparts (although they are not nearly so good
at it). In American higher education, however, at least in the highly
social and networked institutions where being part of a residential
campus community still characterizes the experience, we intentionally
mash students together into multiple, diverse settings. We are good
at systematically constructing and providing learning environments
where students' inherent, and perhaps dormant, creative and inventive
skills can flourish.

China is beginning to understand what our real strength has always
been: By embracing a broadly divergent array of knowledge and
experience, we bring diverse and unexpected perspectives to any
problem or situation, allowing us to adapt rapidly to change. By not
standardizing anything, we end up being able to handle everything.

People who excel in our education system are comfortable with
nonconformity. They understand, challenge, and reject the limits of
the status quo, and they take risks. These are not easy things to
measure, at least not directly, but the effects of their loss would
be beyond tragic for our future. Even so, the loss of these
high-value intangibles, which are essential capacities for creativity
and innovation, is what the United States risks losing in a
close-minded, bean-counting approach to accountability.

An appeal to reject standards and standards-based instruction and
testing may seem like an invitation to embrace feel-good mediocrity,
yet nothing could be further from the truth. By recognizing and
finding value in the core principles of a true liberal-arts
education, China is seeking to avoid the inherent problems that have
accompanied its historic approach to education-problems that the
United States is already in danger of adopting.

Regulation to create uniformity in education results in undesirable
outcomes, and these are showing up in our classrooms. Deviation from
the norm becomes at least undesirable, if not "the wrong answer."
Where once we embraced the free thinker, we now seek to correct that
person according to a government-dictated knowledge base. Students
and parents will routinely reject time that is spent on enrichment
for enrichment's sake, particularly on nonutilitarian skills that do
not directly and explicitly train for testing relevance, including
programs in reading, music, and the arts.

Learning activities that require long-term investment to create
integrated and diverse understanding are rejected in favor of those
that can result in short-term gains, quick fixes that can result in
high test scores tomorrow, even if that information is effectively
forgotten the day after tomorrow.

In the United States, we are seeing evidence of an increase in
something that the Chinese have long had a name for, and which they
can point to and say needs to be rejected: gaofen dineng. This term
describes the undesirable situation of "high scores with low
ability." It's not a new idea. Researchers in the United States are
the ones who have studied this the most, and the correlation between
high standardized-test scores and shallower understanding has been

Certainly there are students who will do well for the right reasons;
however, the education-research community is clear about what China
has known for years: Gaofen dineng can be an outcome that not only
relates to a student's limited understanding, but also has an adverse
affect on the entire learning environment, including the performance
of teachers who lose their spirit, passing on the inevitable
standards of uncontested authority and a regression to mediocrity.

The United States needs to think seriously about and then learn from
the changes happening in the Chinese education system. In their
enthusiasm to understand and emulate our perceived strengths, our
Asian colleagues are holding a compellingly interesting mirror up to
us, reflecting exactly those things that have given us a pre-eminent
position for so long.

In addition, we need to replace our misplaced enthusiasm for
test-based content standards with understanding, articulating, and
measuring the value-added features of the American character that
have served us so well for so long.

Here are a few recommendations for the United States in the context
of an emergent and increasingly competitive China:

* Resist any temptation to standardize and overly regulate higher
education in the name of accountability. For various reasons,
including the low employment rate of college graduates, the
fraudulent practices of some for-profit higher-education
institutions, and reports of low-quality graduates, there is an
increasing effort to impose government regulations and external
standards upon colleges. These seemingly responsible actions will
inevitably bring more regimentation, standardization, and testing,
ruining what has made American higher education the envy of the
world-and what Asian countries are eager to emulate.

* Incentivize the teaching profession. Even without the social and
non-normative skills gained by students educated in the United
States, students entering college in China have an inarguably
stupendous knowledge base, and this reflects well on their teachers
and the corresponding system of teacher edu?cation. The United States
needs to attract more of our best students into teaching. Even in
this era of budget austerity, we need creative, strong, visible,
compelling, and cost-effectiveways to make the teaching profession
more appealing. One drastic measure would be to make primary and
secondary teaching an income-tax-free profession.

* Reintegrate the disciplines and teacher education. Schoolteachers
in China receive a high level of discipline-centered education. A
system of normal schools, long abandoned by the United States, has
grown in China into a set of full-fledged universities where science
teaching and science research are done together. While the United
States will never return to the normal-school system, some way of
putting teeth into the requirement for our disciplinary and education
faculties to work together on this problem is needed. To this end, we
should simply require, as a condition of accreditation, a meaningful
collaboration between college disciplinary units (chemistry, physics,
and so on) and schools of education in the early identification,
recruitment, and preparation of future teachers, including programs
for engaging precollege students and putting them on this path.

* Make higher-education partnerships a priority. In a recent
editorial, Stanford University's Richard N. Zare suggests approvingly
that "we want China to be an ally, not an enemy." To these ends, the
United States should create as many bilateral education
collaborations as possible with China, in which educators from both
sides spend substantial time teaching in each other's classrooms.
Direct experience is an uncompromising teacher.

* Do not forget that the slope of a curve has a magnitude as well as
a sign. Only 30 years ago, universities in China reopened after a
30-year hiatus in which higher education itself was held in disdain
under Mao's rule. Modern China has emerged from an almost completely
agrarian society since then. Not only has change happened, but it
also continues to happen-rapidly.

As higher education in the United States continues to move toward
centralized accountability through a system of standards and testing,
which already defines the precollege education system, it risks
losing the advantage that it invented. Let's not lose our penchant
for questioning the status quo, for valuing and rewarding those who
see things differently and have the freedom and opportunity to tell
their story, and for embracing the simple act of rebellion that comes
from coloring outside the lines.
Brian P. Coppola is a professor of chemistry at the Universityof
Michigan at Ann Arbor and associate director of the UM-Peking
University Joint Institute. Yong Zhao is associate dean for global
education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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