Is the US education system broken? Or is the Chinese system too rigid and smothers creativity? These questions have been hotly debated for a long time.
Below is translated from my Chinese newspaper column, which looks at these questions from a different perspective.
Chinese college entrance exam that grabbed the national attention has come to an end amidst the simmering summer heat. For many young people, the fate of their future has been sealed by this single test, sadly no different than the feudal court exams in the past 2000 years. In addition to the college entrance exam, for students in China, there are a variety of quizzes and exams, midterms and finals, that have become the lifeblood of the students, parents and teachers alike. For the majority of students, every exam is a painful torment. The purpose of study for Chinese students is to prepare for this torture. They have to do tons of homework every day and night.
American schools do not attach importance to exams, and only occasionally give exams. Since 2005, the New York City public school students in grades 3-8 are required to take the annual standardized test. But these American tests are far less emphasized than the Chinese counterparts. Americans also view exams as far less important than how Chinese people view them. In bookstores, among the vast variety of books for young people, books on exams typically only occupies a tiny corner.
The New York State Standardized Test mainly tests mathematics and language. This test arose from a 1983 report released by the Reagan administration's National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation at Risk: Educational Reform Imperative”. Based on a large number of actual surveys, the report worried that American education was in the state of failure, and it could not provide the talents needed by the nation. This conclusion was based on an exam taken by American children along with the children of other countries, in which American children ranked very low. The report led to a series of education reforms, the most recent one initiated by the Bush administration in 2001, "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)”. The Act provided for funding from the federal government, and implemented by each state, to provide help to every child with special needs (new immigrants, those failing tests) . Kuang-Ye also benefitted from this bill. During the first year after he came to the United States, every day after school, the teacher will keep him and other new kids for half an hour to teach them English. Special summer school was also provided for them during the summer.
Under the Act, the federal government requires each state to develop indicators of basic education to achieve, including states annual standardized tests, and push students to achieve these target indicators as defined by the state. All public schools must take such tests, and the federal government decides the amount of funding according to each state’s needs. Schools failing the tests could lose funding, or even be shut down.
Since day one, such tests have attracted a lot of criticism. Some critics say that it could cause teachers to teach only test-related material. Many parents send their children to private schools, partly due to the consideration that private schools do not have such tests, so that children will not be like uniform robots and participate in standardized tests. Parents focus more on the development of children's individuality, and believe that every child is an individual, each is special. In the eyes of the American parents and children, the criteria of a good school are small classes, fewer tests, and more activities, so that the children can experience happy learning and have a rounded development. Chinese parents generally consider a good school to have high test scores and a high percentage of students rising to a higher level school.
In addition, some experts believe that students have individual differences, such as gender, personality, physical fitness, learning style, cultural background. if all students are evaluated using a single set of tests, it may favor some students but disadvantage others.
Some believe that in order to meet the requirement of the tests, public schools could cut subjects not under evaluation by NCLB Act, such as art, history, and music, to concentrate the limited resources into dealing with the language and mathematics tests.
Some criticize that such tests will smother creativity of gifted children.
Some say that these tests will cause some schools to cheat in order to meet test standards. For example, they may let students with poor grades to drop out of school early.
Some even criticize the federal government to have overstepped its authority in education, beyond what the constitution allows. They suggest that for states with adequate funding for education, they do not have to listen to the federal government.
Some people are opposed to any form of tests. They prefer traditional assessment methods: teachers' comments, classroom performance, homework. These evaluations make up a comprehensive assessment. Private schools generally do not participate in the state tests, but continue to use this comprehensive evaluation method.
The middle school that Kuang-Ye attends is a public school. The principal Ms. Shwartz has long experience at education. Her guiding principle is: to provide a private school education with the cost of a public school. The principal is not a fan of the state test. At the beginning of one semester, I chatted with her, and asked her: "how do parents prepare the students for the state test?" She said: "Don’t worry, the level of my students is far higher than the state test." The teachers under her paid even "less attention" on the test. Kuang-Ye did only three sets of simulation tests before the school took the official test (Note: In China, each semester students take as much as 10-20 simulation tests). I asked Kuang-Ye’s teacher, Mr. Horst, about his view on the state test. He said that the test was to mainly evaluate the school’s teaching, and the students did not need to worry. They just need to study as usual, and there is no need to specially prepare for the test. Sure enough, on the day of the test, other than the test itself, everything else was business-as-usual.
The way the principal runs the school, one needs not to worry that schools be shut down for failing the state test. However, she also does not expect to get particularly good test scores. The principal refuses to follow the baton of state tests. She has her own education philosophy, which all parents agree with. Most of the children in the school came from middle-class families. They represent mainstream American values.
An eighth-grader in the same school as Kuang-Ye, had once attended a different middle school in New York when he was in seventh grade. The children of two of my Chinese friends also attend that school. They told me that the school was very good, had tight controls over students, and had more homework. However, this schoolmate of Kuang-Ye’s, came back after finishing the seventh grade. He said that the other school was like a prison, had too much homework, too many tests, and too little freedom.
One day I received an email from the parents of some of Kuang-Ye’s classmates from elementary school, calling on the parents to take to the streets to protest against the statewide exam. Protest slogans listed in the mail:
"Enough is Enough," "Our Children Are Not Lab Rats" and "We Demand More Teaching and Less Testing."
The email said: Today, our children will not attend classes. We take the children to the protest rally, to teach our children the best civil lesson - citizens have the power to stop bad policies of the government!
One parent wrote in a blog that they found out about a company called Pearson that was reaping enormous profits from the state tests - it won a five-year contract, totaling of $ 32 million, to be used to develop the New York State 3 - 8 grade tests. The test questions prepared by the company often contained ridiculous mistakes.
The blog complained that, during the test period, normal learning and life are disrupted; children spend a long time preparing for the test, and the study of other subjects is delayed; some of the public school teachers cannot return to their normal job several days after the test, because they have to spend this time to grade the test sheets. Public school parents are just too gullible to speak out. Try take this stupid test to private schools, those powerful parents will never yield to it! The reason the United States went into the war in Iraq is because the parents of these soldiers were too gullible! Parents of those private school children will never agree to send their children into this war. Although this opinion seems a bit far fetched to me, but it reflects how some of these parents think.
Compared to American parents, Chinese parents are really gullible. They have long complained of the various types of exams, but they never dare to say "no", and reluctantly submit their children to endless suffering. A Chinese parent left a message on my blog that said: Binbin is two and a half months younger than Kuang-Ye, and is working hard on rising from elementary to middle school. She recently gave herself a new netid: nonstop sadness. What a sad state of mind! I am speechless.