Saturday, January 22, 2011

Our Bad Schools vs Their Awesome Schools

If there is one thing in the education debate that absolutely drives me insane it is when our scores and schools get compared to those in other countries. This seems to have happened a lot this week, particularly with the Chinese President's visit to Washington and the recent never ending commentary on Tiger Moms. Even Michelle Rhee has gotten into the act.

Five years ago I spent two weeks teaching English in a school in Xian, China with the program Cross Cultural Solutions. It was an amazing experience and I loved every minute of it. Based on everything we hear in the media about the amazing Chinese schools and students' discipline, academic rigor, and brilliant test scores I went in expecting a very different experience than the one I had.

Grant it, my experience with Chinese schools is only two weeks in one school, so I cannot speak to what the entire country is like, but I felt I was able to get a sense of the cultural differences between our education programs and why some methods work for them that do not work for us.

The first difference I immediately noticed was the schedule. The students had class for 45 minutes and then a bell would ring. Everyone would dash from the seats as though they were in high school and sprint to the dirt courtyard for a 15 minute recess. While there was no equipment or even grass, the children brought balls or jump ropes from home and spent 15 glorious minutes in free play until the bell rang again and they sprinted back to their seats for 45 more minutes of work until their next 15 minutes of play.

One of the breaks between class- In the background you can see the children playing.

Our elementary school kids in the US get 15-20 minutes a day, not every 45 minutes.

When the teacher walked into the room or spoke directly to a student, the children/child immediately stood up to show respect, as we all imagine Chinese children to do. But that was about where the strict sense of respect ended. Each class had about 50 kids sitting in rows, two at each desk, with the teacher in the front of the room. Those in the front paid attention and raised their hands, but in the back they didn't seem to regard the teacher one way or the other. (This wasn't just my classroom management- I observed this is classes with other teachers. In fact, I observed this in classes when I was with the principal.) The kids in the back of the room talked and whispered, drew pictures and outright refused to take out their workbooks. Of course, they stood up to show respect when asked, but there wasn't a sense once everyone sat down that they'd meant it.

Because of my crazy America-Education ways I couldn't stand to stay in the front of the room. Instead I walked up and down the aisles, trying to prompt the students to pay attention. None of the other teachers knew what I was doing. And when I confiscated razor blades from a boy who was using them to carve a hole in his desk- nobody cared. In fact, the teachers asked me if we took personal items away from kids in the US. I tried to explain our issues with weapons, but gave up.
Can you imagine what would happen to one of our kids if he or she brought razor blades to school?

Torturing the poor, shocked boy in the back of the room.

The teachers did not know their students' names- each teacher, even in elementary school, teaches one subject- so teaches the same lesson over and over again throughout the day to classes of 50 or more students.

And of course, there were no special education students in the classrooms. One of my fellow volunteers was working at the school for children with special needs- and it wasn't exactly what the rest of us were doing. There were definite gaps between general and special education.

There was a huge difference between rural and urban education as well. Another volunteer sat in on regional planning meetings who were focused on improving rural schools- their first task was to find a way to get running water into these schools. Then they needed to find a way to get the kids in rural environments into the schools.

When I planned with my teachers I did not get the sense that they were personally invested in the lessons in the same way we are as US teachers. They taught the lessons in the teacher's manual and it was up to the kids to follow along. When I tried to change the lessons a bit to promote more student understanding the teachers looked at me strangely. It suddenly didn't seem like my job to make sure the kids were learning- that job belonged to the kids. Our job was to present the material from the manual.

Note the open windows- this was in the middle of March and it was chilly out there. The kids stayed in their coats most of the time, and so did the teachers. But the windows stayed open because it was good for their circulation. 

The children got to and from school by being dropped off by a grandparent. Since there is a forced retirement age in China most families have grandparents who are able to pick the children up for the noon lunch break as well as at the end of the day. This of course also tells the students that they are important in the family, and that their education is important as well.

I was surprised by all this, coming from an expectation that Chinese schools were more academic and focused than American schools, to find such a lack of respect among the children, so much time for recess, and the attitude that the children are responsible for learning the material. The differences between the school systems were far greater than I had naively expected them to be.

The schools are different because the culture is different. We can share ideas on how to make our schools better, but we have to understand that some of the reasons their schools are successful would not work in America because we don't have the same culture they do. This is true with any country we'd like to compare our scores with. We're not educating children inside air-tight boxes, we're educating children who are direct results of their cultural identify.

When we compare our test scores with other countries no one talks about how these countries track their students- the lowest performing students never actually take the tests so their scores never bring down the overall national average. I'd rather live in a country that believes that every student, regardless of their past performance, has a chance to make something of themselves. It is the American Dream- it's what we do- we believe in the underdogs. We've worked hard as a nation to make sure our schools do not track students- and we're going to keep working hard to improve the success of all of our students. We're not going to give up on the children who have trouble reading, or the children who come from troubled backgrounds. We're fighting to give those children the best education there is, believing that everyone of them has amazing potential.

We need to stop comparing our country's schools to countries who do not believe in the power of untapped potential like we do. I'm proud all of our students take those tests and that we report all of our scores- it's who we are as a country. Let's celebrate that while we continue to strive to improve education.


magpie said...

Great insight and pictures,
Hoo Roo ☺☺☺

kate said...

Very interesting to hear your perspective. Thanks for posting this!