Americans are up in arms because while Shanghai, China, achieved first place across the board on the 2010 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. high school students tested 31st out of 65 economic regions in mathematics, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. President Obama referred to the issue as “our generation’s Sputnik moment” and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan labeled it “an absolute wake up call for America.”
Shocked by Shanghai’s performance, Duncan proclaimed, “Where students have longer days, longer weeks, longer years — that’s making a difference.” But, before American adults decide whether to extend the school lives of their children, we should first look at the Chinese model of education that policymakers are fixed on outstripping.
The Chinese education system is geared solely toward taking tests. From first through 12th grade, Chinese students spend every second of their school day preparing for one test and one test only — the Gaokao (literally translated as the “High Test”).
Chinese universities don’t consider grades, extracurricular activities or essays; they don’t hold interviews. They evaluate students entirely based on one test score — the Gaokao score. Students don’t apply to or contact universities before admittance; on the contrary, universities contact students and only once they have received provincial and municipal Gaokao marks.
What this means is that a Chinese student’s entire academic life hinges on one test at one point in time.
For most high school students across China that don’t live in “Tier One” cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Guangzhou, they must study relentlessly because they are at a statistical disadvantage to students from more developed regions. High-caliber universities from developed cities will accept a higher ratio of students from developed regions than students from rural regions. For example, a top Beijing university will admit 600 students from Beijing, 600 students from Shanghai, 400 students from Hangzhou, and 200 students from all of rural Hunan Province. The number of students in all of Hunan Province vastly outnumbers that of Beijing or Shanghai, but far fewer students from this region are given a chance to succeed at a high-caliber institution.
At Lixian Number One High School, a highly ranked public school in Hunan Province where I taught for six months, students attend class from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and seniors preparing for the Gaokao are generally in class until 11:30 p.m.
Students attend class Monday through Sunday with a meager five-hour break on Sunday afternoons.
Students don’t switch rooms for classes; they sit in the same room all day except for morning aerobics and a weekly gym class. They do aerobics daily in unison — 5,000 students moving uniformly, all expressionless.
“Homework” is also done in a regulated environment called “evening self study.” During this evening period, students do their work silently under the surveillance of an assigned teacher.
This education system produces superb standardized test takers.
But, it also produces a dearth of innovation and independence.
When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the aging nuclear physicist Zhu Guangya in 2009, Wen asked Zhu what China needs to strengthen its development. Zhu’s answer was simple — “innovation.”
My students could score an 800 on the Math SAT, but they had great difficulty identifying their goals. They could perform complex scientific equations, but they didn’t know how to send an e-mail. They would uniformly respond to questions without deviation, and they were often discouraged from asking critical questions.
The Chinese system doesn’t teach students how to think, it teaches them how to test. It doesn’t teach students how to stand on their own two feet, but rather how to follow instructions from higher authorities.
The Chinese education system restricts students’ freedoms: the freedom to decide when and where to do one’s work; the freedom to decide how to do one’s work; the freedom to manage one’s time; the freedom to ask important questions; and the freedom to explore issues, topics, arts, sports, activities, events, and interests outside of the classroom.
This freedom is what leads to innovation. It provides children with the valuable opportunity to test their potential and better understand their strengths and weaknesses. It is in the absence of an externally regimented day (one that lacks choice) that individuals often find their passion and genius.
When Finland, the industrialized country with the fewest school hours, topped the PISA charts on the past several exams, there was little talk in the U.S. of having shorter school days, weeks and years. Yet, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a director at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, notably stated, “Increasing time comes from the old industrial mindset. The important thing is ensuring school is a place where students can discover who they are and what they can do. It’s not about the amount of teaching and learning.”
So, before America extends the school life of its students, we might consider: Should standardized tests and longer school hours, days and years be at the crux of American education reform?
Reporter Andrew Stein has studied at two Chinese Universities, taught in a Chinese public high school, and was awarded a 2009-2010 Fulbright Research Scholarship for work in China. He can be reached at email@example.com.