Why China’s Students Excel and the U.S. Lags Far Behind

(MoneyWatch)  The natural reaction to China’s sudden and stunning emergence as the curve-setting leader in global education is to assume that the region’s scores were achieved through highly regimented drive through rote learning. In a country still dominated by its military and ruled by a closed party, that would seem logical. Naturally, that also fits all of our stereotypes about Asian aptitudes and abilities.

Unfortunately, buried within the stories announcing that the United States scored 25th among 34 developed nations on standardized tests given to 15-year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment, or 18th when the scores were weighted, there was an even bigger shock. The Shanghai region of 20 million inhabitants had posted stand-out scores because it has done the opposite of everything school reformers in America are doing in our schools.

Don’t Blame the Teachers’ Union
Just as former Washington, DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee mounts her publicity campaign for her foundation to push her vision of school reform, the OECD PISA report suggests that the reformers being lauded in the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and promoted on Oprah are missing the point.

Rhee, a protege of New York’s retiring schools chief Joel Klein, was dismissed from DC schools when Mayor Adrian Fenty lost an election that was, in many ways, a referendum on her stewardship of the DC schools. Rhee now admits, in Newsweek, that she might have been more tactful in her approach to teachers:

I could have done a better job of communicating. I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation. I should have said to the effective teachers, “You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support, and pay you more.” I totally fell down on doing that. As a result, my comments about ineffective teachers were often perceived as an attack on all teachers.

The problem that Rhee faces is an entrenched teachers’ union that resents performance being tied to test scores. When reformers talk about running the schools more like a business they mean having schools be more accountable, which sounds like a great idea. Businesses run on metrics like profit and loss. For schools to be measured, we rely on test scores.

Better test scores are not quite what the founders of American public education were after. The goal of education in the American republic, the first nation to have universal public education, is to create responsible citizens. Such a definition was easier in the 19th Century when asking a man to vote meant expecting him to be able to read, write and have some knowledge of history and science.

The Problem with Standardized Tests

Today, it’s anyone’s guess what would make a good citizen. Are hedge fund managers better citizens than underwater mortgage holders? Are software engineers better citizens than auto assembly line workers? To take another tack: do the tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind law measure anything that would qualify students to be more productive participants in the republic?

The Chinese clearly have national advancement in mind when they made Shanghai a showcase. Some critics of the report suggest that the Chinese may have had an advantage because they’re focused on advancing their nation whereas our kids are focused on Justin Bieber. Mark Schneider, who worked in the Bush Department of Education, gave the New York Times these reasons for Shanghai’s success:

For one thing, Shanghai is a huge migration hub within China. Students are supposed to return to their home provinces to attend high school, but the Shanghai authorities could increase scores by allowing stellar students to stay in the city, he said. And Shanghai students apparently were told the test was important for China’s image and thus were more motivated to do well, he said.

“Can you imagine the reaction if we told the students of Chicago that the PISA was an important international test and that America’s reputation depended on them performing well?” Mr. Schneider said.

Yes. I think we can imagine. And the results would probably be exactly the same. Whatever the regional pride of Illinois students, there’s little sense that American cities have the social cohesion and sense of civic purpose that would motivate their students to score better on standardized tests even if motivation were the determining factor in tests that measure a decade of learning.

No Child Left Behind, Part of the Problem
As the New York Times points out, Massachusetts is America’s education showcase, a state where students regularly outperform their peers around the country. But in the international rankings, the Mass-maticians scored behind Asian counterparts who have now been eclipsed by the Shanghaiese. So much for regional pride putting us back in the game.

Bloomberg cites the PISA report to explain Shanghai’s success:

China’s success in Shanghai results from the government’s abandonment of a system of “key schools” for elites and the institution of “a more inclusive system in which all students are expected to perform at high levels,” the OECD said in the report.

China also raised teacher pay and standards and reduced rote learning, while giving students and local authorities more choice in curriculum.

The No Child Left Behind reforms centralized learning standards in America. The current school reform champions, who are taking on the teacher’s union with plans to pay for performance that is measured by these national tests, are unwittingly doing the opposite of what’s working in Eastern China.

Less Time on Sports, More Time on Studies
In short, the Chinese have made education a national imperative. It’s a social goal to increase the intelligence of their youth which means elevating the social status of teachers and learning. Where American kids–and parents–seek out sports as an arena for their children to standout, the Chinese are looking toward academics. This is the lesson the OECD draws from the test scores:

Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects.

At a time when state budgets are being crippled by the financial crisis and the loss of tax revenue, when falling property values are bringing down property tax receipts, it seems hard to imagine that America’s schools will be able to find more resources. The good news is that the OECD report suggests the quality of our education is not only a function of the dollars devoted to it. The bad news is that education levels seem to be a measure of social cohesion and well-defined national goals.

The best lesson Americans might take from this latest blow to our national pride is not that the Chinese are beating us but that we’ve lost sight of what we want for ourselves.