Out-performance Anxiety

This article in the NY Times this week about the math and science test performance of Shanghainese students is making waves, and in my unemployment-induced idleness I figured I would add my two cents. Shanghai students outperformed all of the 64 other countries who participated in the Program for International Student Assessment by a mile. The article calls the test a “Sputnik” moment, indicating unequivocally that American schools have already begun to fall behind their Chinese counterparts.

Furthermore, many are arguing that these test results undermine the conventional wisdom that Chinese students can only learn by rote. The stereotype may be exaggerated; however, I’ve found that it still holds somewhat true. My students at Peking University last year were, for the most part, underprepared by their high school educations for a college curriculum that prioritized critical thinking and analysis.

At office hours several times I discussed with my students the history section of their college entrance examination (Gao Kao 高考) which they had taken. The test was, for the most part, factual memorization, and my students were equally capable of easily memorizing all of the basic factual information which I required for their midterm. They struggled much more, however, with the papers that I assigned them. While part of this was due to their shortcomings in English expression, I also found that they encountered great difficulty with the process of developing an original argument and supporting it with textual evidence. Many complained to me that they had never written a paper for a history class that wasn’t essentially a simple reproduction of information from the text or from research.

As I attempted to walk my students through the process of forming an argument I tried to think back to when I had learned this skill myself. I’m still not entirely sure; but in high school, at least, I had been given assignments which required that I supplement research or textual material with my own analysis.

This is one of the very few examples where I have found that the “conventional wisdom” that many Americans hold about China was confirmed by my own personal experience. Furthermore, few Americans probably know that the Chinese believe the stereotype about themselves, and are equally concerned by it. My Chinese friends in Beijing loved to complain about how no Chinese person had ever won a Nobel Prize in economics, literature or in the sciences (peace prizes awarded to Chinese dissidents weren’t factored in). They blamed this, at least in part, on the failure of the Chinese education system to foster creativity and critical thinking skills.

So the Chinese education system may produce students able to outperform Americans on math and science tests. But I’m not convinced that most of China’s schools (the elite schools of high-income urban areas, like in Shanghai and Beijing, may be more of an exception) don’t under-train their students for other, less testable skills.

Certainly, to allow a sense of complacency born of American exceptionalism to dissuade us from much-needed education reforms would truly be disastrous. The number of days that American primary schools are in session already lags much too far behind those of other countries, like China. However, any reforms that are carried out must not prioritize test performance over practical skills, and must not threaten the elements of the American education system which truly are exceptional.



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