Educational feedback loops in China and the U.S.
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:
- 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).
- The current president decides to “get tough on education,” which translates into new technology and way more standardized tests.
- 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.
- Once there’s lots of attention being given to test scores, lots of things start happening in response (the “feedback loop”).
- For example, widespread cheating by students and teachers and principals, especially when teachers and principals get paid based on test performance.
- Also, well-off students get more and better test prep, so the achievement gap gets wider.
- 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.
- 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.