U.S. Education in Chinese Lock Step? Bad Move.

Jon Krause for The Chronicle

February 05, 2012

The education systems in China and the United States not only are headed in opposite directions, but are aiming at exactly what the other system is trying to give up.

In the United States, through programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, as well as calls for more standardization and accountability in higher education, we are embracing the sort of regimented, uniform, standards-based, and test-driven education that has dominated Asian education systems for thousands of years.

What seems to be underappreciated in this country is how actively the Asian systems are trying to embrace the values and outcomes that we appear to be so willing to abandon: specifically, the American penchant for promoting creativity, individualism, innovation, and nonconformity. In other words, for developing and nurturing the diverse talent that can result from an ethos of coloring outside the lines.

In China obstacles still stand in the way of rapid, comprehensive change, obstacles that are tied to the culture's long history of inflexible, standards-based, test-driven education. Nonetheless, teaching for creativity, innovation, and invention are seen there, as throughout the rest of Asia, as the holy grails of the U.S. education system.

Entrepreneurialism is an easy goal, and more than a few professors in China have been known to say that what is needed is the ability to prepare students who are able to generate more intellectual property for their country. And while many parts of the U.S. college system provide the freedom for this, it is predicated on our core understanding that creativity is more or less an inherent trait, and that what we need to do for our students is to get out of their way, and to provide them with the environment and resources in which they can grow.

Fundamentally, the education system in the United States may be no more capable of actively teaching creativity and innovation than the education system in China is; it may well simply be that the system in China has been more systemically effective at suppressing it. Success may be tied as much to what is not done­—avoiding the smothering uniformity of standardization—than to what is done.

In the United States, we certainly matriculate smart high-school students who are as ready to embrace memorization and regurgitation as their Chinese counterparts (although they are not nearly so good at it). In American higher education, however, at least in the highly social and networked institutions where being part of a residential campus community still characterizes the experience, we intentionally mash students together into multiple, diverse settings. We are good at systematically constructing and providing learning environments where students' inherent, and perhaps dormant, creative and inventive skills can flourish.

China is beginning to understand what our real strength has always been: By embracing a broadly divergent array of knowledge and experience, we bring diverse and unexpected perspectives to any problem or situation, allowing us to adapt rapidly to change. By not standardizing anything, we end up being able to handle everything.

People who excel in our education system are comfortable with nonconformity. They understand, challenge, and reject the limits of the status quo, and they take risks. These are not easy things to measure, at least not directly, but the effects of their loss would be beyond tragic for our future. Even so, the loss of these high-value intangibles, which are essential capacities for creativity and innovation, is what the United States risks losing in a close-minded, bean-counting approach to accountability.

An appeal to reject standards and standards-based instruction and testing may seem like an invitation to embrace feel-good mediocrity, yet nothing could be further from the truth. By recognizing and finding value in the core principles of a true liberal-arts education, China is seeking to avoid the inherent problems that have accompanied its historic approach to education—problems that the United States is already in danger of adopting.

Regulation to create uniformity in education results in undesirable outcomes, and these are showing up in our classrooms. Deviation from the norm becomes at least undesirable, if not "the wrong answer." Where once we embraced the free thinker, we now seek to correct that person according to a government-dictated knowledge base. Students and parents will routinely reject time that is spent on enrichment for enrichment's sake, particularly on nonutilitarian skills that do not directly and explicitly train for testing relevance, including programs in reading, music, and the arts.

Learning activities that require long-term investment to create integrated and diverse understanding are rejected in favor of those that can result in short-term gains, quick fixes that can result in high test scores tomorrow, even if that information is effectively forgotten the day after tomorrow.

In the United States, we are seeing evidence of an increase in something that the Chinese have long had a name for, and which they can point to and say needs to be rejected: gaofen dineng. This term describes the undesirable situation of "high scores with low ability." It's not a new idea. Researchers in the United States are the ones who have studied this the most, and the correlation between high standardized-test scores and shallower understanding has been documented.

Certainly there are students who will do well for the right reasons; however, the education-research community is clear about what China has known for years: Gaofen dineng can be an outcome that not only relates to a student's limited understanding, but also has an adverse affect on the entire learning environment, including the performance of teachers who lose their spirit, passing on the inevitable standards of uncontested authority and a regression to mediocrity.

The United States needs to think seriously about and then learn from the changes happening in the Chinese education system. In their enthusiasm to understand and emulate our perceived strengths, our Asian colleagues are holding a compellingly interesting mirror up to us, reflecting exactly those things that have given us a pre-eminent position for so long.

In addition, we need to replace our misplaced enthusiasm for test-based content standards with understanding, articulating, and measuring the value-added features of the American character that have served us so well for so long.

Here are a few recommendations for the United States in the context of an emergent and increasingly competitive China:

  • Resist any temptation to standardize and overly regulate higher education in the name of accountability. For various reasons, including the low employment rate of college graduates, the fraudulent practices of some for-profit higher-education institutions, and reports of low-quality graduates, there is an increasing effort to impose government regulations and external standards upon colleges. These seemingly responsible actions will inevitably bring more regimentation, standardization, and testing, ruining what has made American higher education the envy of the world—and what Asian countries are eager to emulate.
  • Incentivize the teaching profession. Even without the social and non-normative skills gained by students educated in the United States, students entering college in China have an inarguably stupendous knowledge base, and this reflects well on their teachers and the corresponding system of teacher edu­cation. The United States needs to attract more of our best students into teaching. Even in this era of budget austerity, we need creative, strong, visible, compelling, and cost-effectiveways to make the teaching profession more appealing. One drastic measure would be to make primary and secondary teaching an income-tax-free profession.
  • Reintegrate the disciplines and teacher education. Schoolteachers in China receive a high level of discipline-centered education. A system of normal schools, long abandoned by the United States, has grown in China into a set of full-fledged universities where science teaching and science research are done together. While the United States will never return to the normal-school system, some way of putting teeth into the requirement for our disciplinary and education faculties to work together on this problem is needed. To this end, we should simply require, as a condition of accreditation, a meaningful collaboration between college disciplinary units (chemistry, physics, and so on) and schools of education in the early identification, recruitment, and preparation of future teachers, including programs for engaging precollege students and putting them on this path.
  • Make higher-education partnerships a priority. In a recent editorial, Stanford University's Richard N. Zare suggests approvingly that "we want China to be an ally, not an enemy." To these ends, the United States should create as many bilateral education collaborations as possible with China, in which educators from both sides spend substantial time teaching in each other's classrooms. Direct experience is an uncompromising teacher.
  • Do not forget that the slope of a curve has a magnitude as well as a sign. Only 30 years ago, universities in China reopened after a 30-year hiatus in which higher education itself was held in disdain under Mao's rule. Modern China has emerged from an almost completely agrarian society since then. Not only has change happened, but it also continues to happen­—rapidly.

As higher education in the United States continues to move toward centralized accountability through a system of standards and testing, which already defines the precollege education system, it risks losing the advantage that it invented. Let's not lose our penchant for questioning the status quo, for valuing and rewarding those who see things differently and have the freedom and opportunity to tell their story, and for embracing the simple act of rebellion that comes from coloring outside the lines.

Brian P. Coppola is a professor of chemistry at the Universityof Michigan at Ann Arbor and associate director of the UM-Peking University Joint Institute. Yong Zhao is associate dean for global education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon.