Home > education, feedback loop, math education > Educational feedback loops in China and the U.S.

Educational feedback loops in China and the U.S.

December 2, 2014

Today I want to discuss a recent review in New York Review of Books, on a new book entitled Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao (hat tip Alex). The review was written by Diane Ravitch, an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Common Core.

You should read the review, it’s well written and convincing, at least to me. I’ve been studying these issues and devoted a large chunk of my book to the feedback loops described as they’ve played out in this country. Here are the steps I see, which are largely reflected in Ravitch’s review:

  1. Politicians get outraged about a growing “achievement gap” (whereby richer or whiter students get better test scores than poorer or browner students) and/or a “lack of international competitiveness” (whereby students in countries like China get higher international standardized test scores than U.S. students).
  2. The current president decides to “get tough on education,” which translates into new technology and way more standardized tests.
  3. The underlying message is that teachers and students and possibly parents are lazy and need to be “held accountable” to improve test scores. The even deeper assumption is that test scores are the way to measure quality of learning.
  4. Once there’s lots of attention being given to test scores, lots of things start happening in response (the “feedback loop”).
  5. For example, widespread cheating by students and teachers and principals, especially when teachers and principals get paid based on test performance.
  6. Also, well-off students get more and better test prep, so the achievement gap gets wider.
  7. Even just the test scores themselves lead to segregation by class: parents who can afford it move to towns with “better schools,” measured by test scores.
  8. International competitiveness doesn’t improve. But we’ve actually never been highly ranked since we started measuring this.

What Zhao’s book adds to this is how much worse it all is in China. Especially the cheating. My favorite excerpt from the book:

Teachers guess possible [test] items, companies sell answers and wireless cheating devices to students, and students engage in all sorts of elaborate cheating. In 2013, a riot broke out because a group of students in Hubei Province were stopped from executing the cheating scheme their parents purchased to ease their college entrance exam.

Ravitch adds after that that ‘an angry mob of two thousand people smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”’

To be sure, the stakes in China are way higher. Test scores are incredibly important and allow people to have certain careers. But according to Zhao, this selection process, which is quite old, has stifled creativity in the Chinese educational system (so, in other words, test scores are the wrong way to measure learning, in part because of the feedback loop). He blames the obsession with test scores on the fact that no Chinese native has received a Nobel Prize since 1949, for example: the winners of that selection process are not naturally creative.

Furthermore, Zhao claims, the Chinese educational system stifles individuality and forces conformity. It is an authoritarian tool.

In that light, I guess we should be proud that our international scores are lower than China’s; maybe it is evidence that we’re doing something right.

I know that, as a parent, I am sensitive to these issues. I want my kids to have discipline in some ways, but I don’t want them to learn to submit themselves to an arbitrary system for no good reason. I like the fact that they question why they should do things like go to bed on time, and exercise regularly, and keep their rooms cleanish, and I encourage their questions, even while I know I’m kind of ruining their chances at happily working in a giant corporation and being a conformist drone.

This parenting style of mine, which I believe is pretty widespread, seems reasonable to me because, at least in my experience, I’ve gotten further by being smart and clever than by being exactly what other people have wanted me to be. And I’m glad I live in a society that rewards quirkiness and individuality.

  1. CM
    December 2, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Standardized testing, IMO, is harmful where it determines the worth and the opportunities of a student and thus makes people compete for high scores, while useful for higher-level analyses (it’s comparable data, after all). But why do people in some countries compete (and cheat), and in some not?
    I have long wondered whether a key variable in evaluating an education system is the importance of prestige in education and work, which is in turn more related to culture (and to disparity between wages and cost of living) than to the system itself. Speaking only out of personal anecdotal evidence (plus memories from lectures), I would hypotesize that where prestige is less important and different skills and jobs are regarded with equal importance and quality education at each level (eg. Switzerland, Germany, Norway), people are happier and perhaps even more likely to find employment, because they find satisfaction in their trade, and competition for higher education is lower. Afaik, you find the opposite in France, Japan, China, South Korea and the US.
    I’m Italian and I can see that in Italy the past 20 years or so getting a higher education has become a “must”, while in the past people put more value in the knowledge of their trade. Today, highly educated Italians emigrate because of lack of appropriate jobs (like I did), while local firms find it difficult to fill skilled craftmen positions, and the quality of technical and vocational education deteriorates.
    Any thoughts?


    • RTG
      December 3, 2014 at 12:01 am

      I’ve never thought about it in the terms that you present it, but I tend to agree. In the US, I think the demise of unions coupled with welfare “reform” essentially made it very difficult to “succeed” if you lack a “prestigious” white collar job. And when the political left responded by replacing platforms based on living wages for all (yes, even blue collar workers) with platforms based on higher education and the opportunity to compete for white collar jobs for all…it created a de facto high stakes education system here in the US.


  2. December 2, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    The fact that that test scores are the primary metric for education is damaging the quality of life for children raised in poverty. A case in point: an education journal reported that a recent study could find no link between school breakfast and learning…. as measured by test scores. The notion that decisions about providing a breakfast to hungry children might be called to question because the test scores didn’t budge is absurd on its face… but do you think there is a politician who will advocate spending money to mitigate the effects of poverty UNLESS there is some accountability?


  3. December 2, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this K12 testing compared to the Mathematical Tripos, which has been accused of ruining UK mathematics decades ago (for similar, or different, reasons?)

    @CM: Yes, social constructs in the Western world which have encouraged the professions as opposed to the trades are not helpful to many people, I feel.


  4. December 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    Here’s the Mathbabe’s “School Reform Algorithm”… The only step she left out was the one where “failing schools” are closed and replaced by de-regulated for profit charters operated by donors to both party’s campaigns.


  5. lace
    December 2, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    “there is no fairness unless you let us cheat”. Words to live by


  6. Johan
    December 2, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Good read, thanks. For a long time I tried to figure out why so many people that I considered friends were kinda eccentric. I gradully realized that I liked being around them (and perhaps…;-), and that having “quirkiness and individuality” is an attribute, not a detriment as many people had come to believe. I don’t think I am alone…anymore, so I guess things might be changing for the better, just a bit too slowly. That’s all.


  7. December 3, 2014 at 4:24 am

    For those who are tired of this fight, feel free to move to Thailand and join our semi-homeschool semi-cooperative. Or, less drastic, stay where you are and start your own semi-homeschool cooperative. Or, less ambitious, homeschool your kids.

    In any case, please blog about what you do so I can steal your good ideas!

    More on topic: a standard tension of the educational system is who it is meant to serve: government, business, teachers, parents, students and is the benefit meant to be a practical effect or service to a philosophical idea? For China, these questions have clear answers: the system serves the government and is one, of many, tools meant to achieve social and political stability. Stability is, it turn, defined as the maintenance of one-party rule. As far as I can tell, individuals and ideals don’t count at all in this system.

    In the US, this is a lot more confused and, I don’t think, there is really any agreement on these questions. As a classical liberal, my preferences are for a system that serves individual students with the objective of helping develop curious, questioning adults who also favor open society ideals. Maybe that won’t surprise you, given how I started this comment.


  8. December 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

    “He blames the obsession with test scores on the fact that no Chinese native has received a Nobel Prize since 1949, for example: the winners of that selection process are not naturally creative.”



  9. Savonarola
    December 3, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    I’ve encouraged independent thinking until I’m worried that my kids will be marked as dissidents. They are constantly questioning what they see and hear. They follow instructions to a tee and are extremely responsible, but they are more than willing to look under the china and behind the curtain. I’m not sure what I have wrought.


  10. G3
  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: