The NYTimes wrote about the results of China’s debut in the Program For International Student Assessment, PISA, which is a standardized test given to fifteen year old students around the world (link to article here). The exam measures student proficiency in reading, match, and science. As stated in the article, students in Shanghai, China performed at the top in all categories (see results to the right).
The results have shocked many observers as per the below quote from the article:
“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching. Mr. Finn, who has visited schools all across China, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”
My experience includes working closely with international students, including many from China, studying at American universities. These results do not surprise me. I have personally found Chinese students to be bright, highly motivated learners. This shouldn’t be a surprise, and my personal feelings may be biased as a student willing to study in another country should probably display a higher than average interest in their education.
However, this also doesn’t surprise me as education in China is seen in a far more prestigious, and serious, light than I have found it to be treated in the US. Teaching jobs are given esteem in both salary and professional respect and students view their education as a means to raise their family’s social standing. In many respects, the Chinese system currently has more of that long held American dream of using education to better your environment and class standing. Additionally, students in that country put in far more hours and take rigorous and competitive national exams, all designed to reinforce the need to do well in school.
I also believe that too many critics view China their an American lens. After visiting China first hand I came to find that most US media reports on events in that region were far from giving a balanced perspective, and worse were often filled with bias. From this NYTimes article one would think that Shanghai was the education capital of China. The commentary almost makes it feel like these results are a one time fluke, that Shanghai is somehow an outlier for the rest of the country. It doesn’t mention that some of the top ranked universities in that country are in Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin, etc. No question there is disparity in China, and that may be more of the intention of the quote I listed above. However, to be stunned by these results, or to treat them as some special outlier, would be to disregard the successes of the Chinese educational system while ignoring many of the current problems within US schools.
One final personal perspective on this subject. The last twenty years has seen a growth in the number of Chinese companies that partner with Western businesses. In many cases, the partnership was a way to learn about business processes before attempting their own process improvement. Likewise, Chinese schools have partnered with American universities and K-12 districts to study their progress like a case study. What’s most important is that educators in China have not been afraid to make changes to their curriculum and pedagogy when they came across ideas that might lead to improved student performance or to correct areas that they identify as problems.