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From the dean

Should we model our schools on those in Asia?

Photo of Bill McDiarmid

Bill McDiarmid

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As if they needed more reasons to disparage U.S. schools, the media and policymakers have seized on the latest international test results to bemoan, yet again, the state of education. Stories abound on how the U.S. is losing its international competitiveness because we aren’t graduating enough engineers and scientists – particularly when compared to India and China. For those of us who’ve been around for a while, we hear echoes of the near panic that followed the 1957 launch of the “Sputnik” satellite by the Soviet Union. That particular “crisis” in education (seems like we have one about every decade) was, it turns out, a by-product of the ginned-up “missile gap,” manufactured to increase defense spending.

At the same time, there is no question that we need to improve our recruitment into and preparation of students for technical and scientific fields. Is the situation, however, as dire as portrayed in the media? Are Chinese and other Asian students being better prepared to be the innovators of tomorrow? Should we be imitating the educational systems of countries on the other side of the Pacific?

Professor Yong Zhao doesn’t think so. A product of Chinese schools who serves as associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, Professor Zhao’s evidence – in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way? – shows that, although China graduates far more engineers and scientists than does the U.S., the graduates are ill-equipped to be the innovators that the country needs. One measure of innovation is the number of patents applied for and granted. In 2009, Chinese innovators submitted nearly 230,000 patent applications – about eight per million citizens – of which 28 percent were granted. U.S. innovators submitted nearly 225,000 applications – about 465 per million citizens – of which 36 percent were granted. Moreover, as Professor Zhao notes, the Chinese patent applications tend to be for improvements in appearance and functional design of existing technologies, not for new inventions.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Hu Jiantao himself has publicly lamented his country’s lack of genuine talent in science and technology and urged major reforms of the educational system.

Professor Zhao traces the lack of innovative talent to China’s test-driven educational system. The entire system – not to mention familial support – is focused solely on scoring well on the university entrance examination. Students’ scores determine whether or not they will be admitted to university and, if admitted, which rank of university. The test-focused mentality is deeply engrained in Chinese history and culture. For 1,300 years, the civil-service examination determined who ascended to the exalted life of a governmental official. Today, however, Chinese officials as well as many educators recognize the drawbacks of such a system. Consequently, efforts to redesign the entrance exam to assess better students’ higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills are under way. In addition, awareness is growing that high scores on the entrance examination do not necessarily translate into innovative thinking and ideas.

The irony, as Professor Zhao notes, is that “[w]hile the United States is raising the stakes on testing, the Asian countries are exerting great efforts to reduce the power and pressure of testing.” In fact, some Chinese educators are looking to U.S. schools as models of how to develop students’ creative and innovative talents at the very time that an increasing focus on high-stakes test results has narrowed the curriculum and pressured teachers to focus instruction on test preparation.

Locally, the schools of education at Carolina and N.C. State University have recently partnered with the Beijing Royal School (BRS) whose founder, Chinese entrepreneur Guangfa Wang, is attempting to transform the school into a U.S.-style high school. The very features of U.S. schools that Wang most admires – a curriculum that embraces the arts and humanities, extracurricular activities such as clubs and athletics, and interactive classrooms in which teachers push students to collaborate and think hard about real-world problems – are those that are most threatened by our increased reliance on high-stakes tests to measure schools’ success. Ceding to the reality that Chinese families want desperately for their only child to attend a top-ranked university, Mr. Wang is also increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses available to students, virtually all of whom hope to study in an English-speaking university.

Faculty members from both N.C. State and Carolina schools of education have visited the school, and both universities are sending student teachers to experience classrooms there. In addition, N.C. State, Carolina, and Chapel Hill High School faculty members have conducted workshops for the BRS teachers. This past spring, the UNC-CH School of Education hosted two BRS teachers who apprenticed in AP classrooms in Chapel Hill. Next summer, we anticipate the arrival of the first group of BRS teachers who will enroll in the Masters for Experienced Teachers program.

Also, through a partnership with Carolina’s Kenan Institute Asia and Teachers College at Columbia University, the School is collaborating on a Thai Ministry of Education project to help teachers in poor rural schools learn to better engage their students actively in learning math and science. Faculty members Nick Cabot and Cathy Scott traveled to Thailand this year to work with master teachers who, in turn, are working with teachers in the target schools.

For our School, these international partnerships provide faculty and students experiences that are essential to better understand an increasingly interdependent world. Learning how other educational systems operate and are addressing issues that educators world-wide face – Asian educators are not alone in their struggle to help their students develop problem-solving skills – will help our faculty and students better understand and address the challenges we face here in the U.S. Confronting ideas and practices that contrast with our own often helps us define and clarify our own thinking.

These budding partnerships are developing at a time when youth in the U.S. increasingly see their future bound up with Asia’s. A recent poll found that 76 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 reported viewing Asia as the region of the world most likely to affect their lives. Clearly, our young people understand the dramatic economic and geopolitical changes occurring in the world.

Like other schools of education in the UNC system, our School will continue to seek opportunities for students and faculty to engage with Asian schools, universities and government agencies. We owe it to our students to find opportunities to expand their horizons and better understand themselves and others.

And, in the process, we just may come to better appreciate what we are doing right in our schools.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.