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US Educational Reform: Is China a model to follow?

Shanghai’s Pisa Test Scores, should we be worried?

Much has been made about the PISA scores and countries relative position over the past few years. Nothing has garnered more headlines than those who come in on top, mainly Shanghai China and other Asian locations. This has lead to considerable hand-wringing and fear inducing headlines about America’s failure to “win” on the PISA test and what it means for the state of American schools.

In most people’s minds, high test scores by students equal better schools and teachers. Though seemingly logical, does the PISA and other standardized testing systems really prove this causal link? Perhaps not…

Though headline grabbing statements about the superior education systems in the Far East do sell newspapers, make for flashy graphics in NCEE reports, and incite parents, teachers, and politicians to disgruntled action, they prove little else than one group’s ability to score attain high test scores and may shed very little light on the true nature of a particular education system. Besides, there are many other factors at play, from culture to parenting styles, which may have more an influence on a student population’s scoring on a standardized measure.

Take Asia has a whole and you are presented with countries and regions with a long history of Confucian influenced cultural development and an orientation towards rote memorization, conformity, and education systems solely focused on test results. What do these differences mean on the ground? Simply put, Asian students spend a lot more time in class and doing homework.

It is not uncommon for a student in Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, or Japan to start the school day earlier and end much later. High school students in Shanghai typically are in school by 7am or 8am, stay in class until 6 pm, and then spend from 7pm to 9pm in study sessions. After that, it’s time for homework. And what do they do when they are not in school? They go to private cram schools, language schools, math and science schools, and any other type of school their parents can afford. Weekends, winter and summer vacations, and most of their waking life is spent studying. If these kids can’t do well on tests, then there is nothing they could ever hope to do well on. If any US state wants to match Shanghai or other Asian regions’ test taking ability, are Americans prepared to sacrifice their children’s childhoods to do so?

Another factor leading to Shanghai’s high standing is that not all Chinese students actually attend high-school. Statistics are not easy to come by, but according to the Chinese government’s own admission, the rate of high school attendance is somewhere around 40%. That’s right, in Chinese schools; about 60% of students never receive a high school education. While contributing to high test scores, just imagine how high America would score if only the upper class were tested, this is not the only consideration. The selection of students to sit the test is also skewed in China’s favor since it is the local government that selects students to sit for the test and they only select the best of the best. If America put as much emphasis on high test scores as Shanghai education officials, then there would be an awful lot of American children without a high school education and only the brightest would be assessed.

Thankfully that dystopian reality will not come into being, but education officials here at home are still far too focused on testing results. If a nation puts all their focus on test scores, they will achieve great test scores. China proves this. However, in the average person’s daily adult life, how valuable is one’s ability to past tests? In the real world, when we look back over the past century, how much advancement in science and technology can be attributed to the nations at the top of world testing charts?

When a nation’s true ability really counts, the true test of its educational culture can be seen in American dominance in the fields of Science, and so far, America remains on top. Will it continue to do so in future? Not if it gets caught up in face building test results like its Asian competitors. When it comes to teaching I am generally against standardized assessment of teachers and students as the sole means of determining proficiency in any given area.

I prefer to look at what a child or teacher can do. What a child can apply those lessons to or how a teacher improved the performance of their worst students. The top students in class will be top regardless of who teaches them, but the weak students that gain just a bit of strength in an area is much more reflective of teacher and education system’s ability.  If this was what the PISA test was testing, I am sure America would be somewhere near the top and places like Chin at the bottom. So let’s reform how we perceive education, let’s take the emphasis off standardized testing, and let’s create a school system where the weakest and most vulnerable students are provided a fighting chance.

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