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Cross-posted at Education Week.
Western educators tend to ascribe the success of Asian students on international assessments of student performance to Asian culture, by which they seem to mean the high value that Asian families place on student achievement and success in school. Those with deeper knowledge of Asian culture also suggest that the value placed by Confucian societies on the veneration of one’s elders and on hierarchy generally makes it much easier for teachers to control students and produces classrooms in which students are much more likely to do as they are told, and to pay attention in class. This, in turn, makes it possible for Asian schools to have larger class sizes and therefore for those schools to give more time to teachers for planning lessons and improving school performance.
Eastern educators look at Western schools, especially American schools, and they wonder how the American teachers are able to produce students who go on to create new companies and industries that end up dominating the global economy, while Asian brands struggle. But Western schools do not have a curriculum on creativity. One could argue, as we do, that the creativity the Asian societies see in the West is a function of our culture and values. We value the individual more than the group, just the opposite of the Asian societies. Indeed, we celebrate the rebel, while Asians joke that they hammer down the nail that sticks out.
Asian countries are not so sure they should celebrate their performance on international comparisons of student performance, thinking the creativity not measured on those tests is more important than the achievement on the formal curriculum that is measured. But Asians are afraid that the culture of the West that produces the creativity brings with it social disorder and even violence, which they want no part of. Meanwhile Westerners are very envious of the academic achievement of the Asian countries, but want no part of what they see as the conformity and social control that comes with it.
I would argue that the truth is much more complicated that these stereotypes would suggest.
First, Westerners are far more likely than Asians to believe in the immutability of culture, which gives Asian countries an enormous advantage in the struggle to improve outcomes for students. China is a good example. In the latter half of the 19th century, the dominant power in that part of the world was overcome and humiliated by Western countries seeking favorable trade relations with China. As the century came to a close, and the collapsing Chinese government went into its death spasm, thoughtful young Chinese asked themselves what had gone wrong and what needed to be done to restore China to its former glory. Many, especially those in the new Communist Party, blamed Confucianism, Taoism and the other dominant religious beliefs embraced by the Chinese, saying that the pietistic religions had taught Chinese to accept their fate rather then to do what was necessary to improve their lot. The Confucian inheritance had taught the Chinese to accept the old and traditional ways of doing things even when they patently were not working and to accept the leadership of a corrupt and venal leadership that had gravely weakened China. Mao Tse Tung did not venerate Chinese culture. On the contrary, he set out to destroy it.
China was not the only country to be humiliated by the West during the 19th century. Much the same thing happened to Japan when Admiral Perry opened that country to Eastern trade with his Black Ships. The concessions made by the government brought it down and the new government, demanding changes in what they saw as unequal trade agreements, went to Europe to renegotiate those treaties. The Japanese trade delegation was astounded by the technologies and modern institutional forms they saw there and went back to Japan determined to catch up to the West by adapting what they had seen to the needs of Japan. When Mao died, and Deng Xiao Ping succeeded him, Deng did much the same for China, inviting Western companies to invest and set up business in China so that China could learn from the West and become rich.
When we asked Minxuan Zhang, a principal architect of Shanghai’s impressively successful modern education system, what had enabled them to build such a high quality education system so quickly, he said, without hesitation, that the main factor was the way Deng opened up the system to ideas from the West. When we asked the people in Hong Kong, which has a very different but also very successful education system to account for the success of their system, they said it was the unique way in which they had been able to combine the best from the East with the best from the West. We get much the same story in Singapore. All of those governments view culture not as a given but as mutable, as a choice. They are out to get rid of what does not work and to adopt elements of the cultures of others that will work for them.
What is striking about this to me is that education systems can make an immense, perhaps decisive difference in the capacity of countries to adapt to the constant changes that take place in the global economy and politics. It is a case of adapt or die. Culture is “the way we do things here.” If a country does not change the way we do things here when it needs to change them, then it will die. I conclude that the Asian advantage may not be their culture, but their willingness to change their culture if it is not working for them.
There is an irony here. All of the key East Asian countries were humiliated or colonized by the West and, in the process, opened themselves, sooner or later, to new ideas and influences. Many Western countries, never colonized or humiliated, have been much less open to new ideas from other quarters. The result is that the countries that have been on their knees and then, as a result, were most open to new ideas have been the ones most able to adapt to a rapidly changing world, building their DNA from old genes and new, from Western genes and Eastern genes.
My view is that the Asian countries are building more effective education systems not because of the their Confucian culture, but because they have been drawing on the strongest elements in the culture of both East and West and in the process have been able to create education systems better adapted to modern needs than countries that have not done so. The question is whether the West will be as willing to learn from the East as they have been to learn from us.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
Consider Shanghai. Now one of the best-performing education systems in the world, according to the OECD, it had no education system at all in 1978, when Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China. It had been destroyed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Now boasting a population of 24 million, it is growing by about 1 million people a year, about 400,000 of whom are migrants, most arriving very poorly educated, many speaking a version of Chinese unlike the version spoken in Shanghai.
How on earth did Shanghai’s school board, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, do it? How did they manage to accomplish these remarkable results on such a vast scale in so short a period of time? If you ask them, they will tell you that they have a plan and they pay a lot of attention to careful implementation of that plan. The planning process is the key, both to the quality of the plan and to its implementation.
I know. You will say that this is a Communist country; a handful of people at the top make the plan and then order everyone else to implement it, in the style of the now-defunct Soviet Union, top down. But it turns out to be much more complicated, much more interesting and certainly much more effective than that.
The planning process the Commission now uses is the brainchild of Minxuan Zhang. Almost 20 years ago, Zhang was the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, in charge of planning. His task was to produce the five-year plan to begin in 2000. He wanted a process that would cast a wide net, be owned by a very large number of stakeholders and yet be coherent and powerful. He wanted a plan that would be visionary, but actionable. He wanted the problems to be addressed and the strategies chosen to deal with them to be based on solid evidence. And he wanted a plan that would be so widely owned that everyone involved would want to implement it.
Plans for every aspect of government operations, at every level, are made in China every five years. The plans made for education are part of this system. Ordinarily, the plans begin with general guidance from the national government in Beijing and are then translated into more detailed plans at the provincial and municipal levels. But Shanghai is both a municipality and a province and it has long been regarded as the leading province in China when it comes to education. In recent years, Shanghai put its education plan together first and then the national government put the national guidance together based on Shanghai’s plan.
In each cycle, the work on the plan starts a few years before its projected release. When, in 1998, Zhang started the process for the year 2000 plan, he divided the content into 30 different areas. He then asked the Shanghai Institute for Education Research, a body affiliated with the Commission, to conduct a program of research on each one of those areas, to gather the relevant facts, analyze the challenges and present the relevant research. The job of the research institute was not to do the research, but to organize it. Anyone could submit proposals to do the research. The research institute wrote a solicitation for research proposals and selected the best ones they got. In those arenas in which it received multiple proposals that were sound but offered different perspectives of value, they funded more than one. In the area of education for migrant children, for example, they received 10 proposals, two of which were very good but represented totally different perspectives and they funded both. In total, they selected 45 teams to cover the 30 component parts of the plan.
While this was going on, Zhang asked the mayor to provide funds that would enable many key officials, other stakeholders and groups to hold meetings to discuss the education challenges in Shanghai and provide advice to the Commission as it put the plan together. The results of the research were made available to these groups.
Then Zhang asked three teams to each to take the next step in the process. Each of the three teams was to take all the research that had been done and all the advice that had come from all the meetings and put together a draft plan, working independently from the other two teams. To get this done, Zhang first asked East China Normal University to assemble a team. East China is a national university and does not get its funds from the Commission, so Zhang knew it would produce a plan that reflected its own views, not what it thought the Commission wanted. Then he turned to the Shanghai Academy for Social Sciences to do the same thing, for the same reasons. It, too, is an independent body and very highly regarded, but would present a view from outside the schools community. And, finally, he asked the Shanghai Institute of Education Sciences, which is affiliated with the Commission, to prepare a plan because he wanted to get the perspective of people who knew the system really well and who would, like the other two, be inclined to base their views on the facts, on research and good analysis.
When the three draft plans were finished, Zhang asked the heads of the three teams to present their ideas and plans at a meeting that included the mayor, the vice-mayors, the heads of various key commissions and other senior Shanghai officials. The entire group then engaged in a lively discussion of the issues and the proposals for dealing with them.
Then Zhang called the three teams together. He told them he only needed one plan. He would give them two weeks to produce it. He had paid for them to do their work at one of the nicer hotels in Shanghai. They were not to emerge from the hotel until they had agreed on one plan.
When the merged plan had been produced, Zhang shared it with the state education commission in Beijing, the education commissions in nearby provinces, UNESCO, the Hong Kong education authorities and others. Then he asked them to come to Shanghai for a meeting to discuss their reactions with the mayor and the heads of the three teams that had produced the draft. The draft was revised on the basis of this feedback.
Then Zhang released this draft to the public. Suggestions for changes came from every quarter. It was revised again and sent again to the national government in Beijing for final approval. Which was forthcoming, and so the plan was adopted.
The various parts of the Shanghai education system had been consulted throughout the process and the views of professional educators taken into account. They had been asked in the final stages of preparation to present plans for implementing the proposals being made. So the broader plan included a detailed implementation plan. Each bureau in the Commission itself had a plan and each school district had an implementation plan. When the broader plan was approved the system was ready to go. Everyone knew what he or she needed to do.
None of this would have worked were it not for the fact that the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission itself funds all the institutions whose cooperation is required to implement the plan and were it not for the fact that the Commission is an integral part of the municipal government, reporting to the mayor. Nor would it have worked were it not for the fact that Beijing was looking to Shanghai to take the lead on education planning and therefore did not impose a straightjacket on Shanghai as it put its plan together.
Was this bottom up planning or top down planning? The answer is that it is a brilliant combination of both. At no point did Zhang, the member of the Commission in charge of planning, sit down and write the plan. He got other people to do that and in the process produced a very long list of people in and out of government who owned the plan. But, though many were involved, and many ended up owning the plan that was produced, the plan was still coherent and powerful.
Unlike all the plans that had gone before, which were simply collections of separate ideas and proposals, this plan had a strong theme, a driving idea, which gave it that coherence. Because Zhang turned to two teams outside his bureaucracy to take key roles in producing the plan, it was written from a fresh and wider perspective than it would have been had the school system itself written it. But, because one of the three teams came from close to the system and the people who would have to implement it were deeply involved in producing the implementation plans, they were not standing in the wings with their arms crossed in mute defiance when the plan was finally approved.
What was truly stunning for us as outside observers was that when we visited schools all over Shanghai and talked with people in district offices, we found that they were using the language of the plan and the central concepts in it to describe what they were doing. The planning process in Shanghai is not an empty formality. It produces widespread and deep changes in practice at every level of the system. It works. Another five-year planning process has already started and is using the same strategy to organize the work even though Professor Zhang is no longer at the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission.
By and large, we do not do plans in the United States. Decisions on individual policies are made by boards and commissions and bureaus and all that, but these decisions are made independently of one another and none need fit into any overall plan. These decisions are often in conflict, but these conflicts are rarely resolved because the individuals and bodies that make these decisions do not report to each other. Because there is no plan, there is no need to resolve the conflicts. But this makes for incoherence at the operational level.
It does not have to be that way. A state could choose to have comprehensive plans for its education system. So could school districts and municipalities. Any state, district or municipality that choses to put such plans together would do well to look at how Shanghai is doing it as a starting point for their own design.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
Assume for the moment that you could design an education system for an entire state or nation. What would it look like? Why? What follows is not a design, but rather some considerations you might want to take into account as you put one together.
A few guiding assumptions:
The T-shaped curriculum
Here we have our first dilemma. All students will need to have a much deeper understanding of the subjects they study, in particular a conceptual underpinning of those subjects, as well as the ability to integrate what they are doing across subjects, to say nothing of the ability to apply what they know to a changing array of very practical and complex issues and problems.
Gaining a much deeper understanding of the core subjects in the curriculum would appear to demand much more class time. The assumptions above would also imply that students would need to spend much more time involved in carefully orchestrated in-school extracurricular activities and out-of-school activities, all of them used as opportunities to develop the skein of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values discussed above. Where is that time going to come from? How can the school staff make sure that these activities actually produce the student growth and learning they are intended to produce? Can these issues be addressed by better management of the time already available?
But that is not all. The assumptions above predicated that the student will need not only to be more broadly educated but also that the student will have to enter the workforce with a much higher initial skill level in a particular area. All over the most developed economies, population levels are falling and people are living longer. This challenge cannot be addressed by extending the time allocated to initial education because that would make the ratio of employed people to unemployed people too small for the employed to support those being educated as well as those in retirement. Somehow, all this will have to be packed into the time now taken to educate the young.
Experience, not subject matter, as the organizer of the curriculum
The content of the core subjects in the curriculum is essential. But it is, taken together, only a small part of what the student described above has to learn. Where is the student to learn perseverance? Concentration? Focus? How to be humble when successful and resilient in the face of failure? How to lead others and be a good contributor as a team member? Value people who are different? Gain courage and self-reliance? See the value in providing service to others? Tell the difference between right and wrong? What would the curriculum look like if conceived not as the teaching of subjects but rather the organization of experiences for students that enables them to cover the whole range of knowledge, skills, attributes and values discussed above? How does that change the role of the teacher? The school schedule? The way it is organized? How student assessment is done?
Dilemmas of qualifications and assessment
Our education systems were designed to sort students based on tests of disciplinary knowledge by looking at their performance relative to one another on tests taken at the same point in their progression through school. But now we want all or nearly all to master a very demanding common foundation curriculum before they go their separate ways, because performance below that level will make it increasingly difficult for them to function productively in society in which intelligent equipment does most of the routine work. That will mean that the standard will have to be held constant while students master the foundation curriculum, while the time taken to achieve that standard varies.
But, once that standard has been achieved, the society will still want students sorted along various indicators, not least to provide the basis for admission to selective colleges, as they progress beyond the foundation curriculum. Will selective colleges, organized mainly for cognitive development, be interested in changing their admission criteria on the basis of the non-cognitive attributes and values that employers and the broader society are interested in? If they don’t take these non-cognitive attributes and values into account, will parents, teachers and students care about them as the competition for college entrance becomes ever more intense? How can the society come to agreement on the qualities it wants in its graduates and then align the incentive structures among all the educational institutions to provide the needed experiences and credentials?
Applied learning in this new world
Not so long ago, it was clear that some students needed a cerebral form of education that would qualify them for university and the jobs available to university graduates, while others, less cerebral, need a more hands-on education that would qualify them for jobs not requiring a university education.
That clarity is now gone. What is emerging instead is the realization that most students, regardless of destination, will need a much stronger intellectual foundation for whatever they choose to do and most students would prosper from a learning environment in which they are constantly applying what they are learning to real world problems working in concert with others.
It is, further, becoming clear that young people would be better served by an education system that lets them move easily and often between the acquisition of academic and career qualifications, in both directions. And even clearer that, just as students should be able to move laterally between academic and career and technical pathways, there should be no dead ends in this development system. But there are dangers here. It is easy for project-based learning to degenerate into schooling that provides neither qualifications for rewarding work nor serious academic mastery. It is very hard to organize employers to provide sound work-based learning experiences in economies in which employers who make that investment find the young people they train being stolen from them by employers who did not make such investments. Only a handful of nations have succeeded in negotiating these rapids successfully.
Teacher quality: The key to all the rest
In a recent blog, I described an elite school that provides for its students much of what is described here in terms of the experiences students will need to gain the required knowledge, skills, attributes and values. There is little doubt that the achievements of that school are due to the very high quality of its faculty and leadership.
Assume for the moment that the aim is to provide for students from low-income and minority families a similar set of experiences, mediated by the same kind of care and support for the development of the students. In that case, the task all too often begins with the challenge of gaining the trust of deeply traumatized young people who have learned to trust no one, and who have no confidence in themselves or their ability to succeed in an overwhelmingly hostile world.
Faced with that challenge, the educator must first establish trust and hope before there is even the possibility of real learning. The challenge for the policymaker is how to establish policies that will attract to teaching and keep in teaching high school graduates who have the knowledge, skills, attributes and values that the best employers are looking for and will pay well at a time when the demand for such people is rapidly outstripping the supply.
But, because most of the teachers we have now are the teachers we will have for a long time to come, the even more pressing question is how to help the teachers we have now to continually develop and improve over time. There is plenty of evidence this can be done. But it is now clear that getting the new teachers that schools will need and raising the quality of the ones we already have to the required levels entails a transformation in the way we source, compensate, educate, train and support teachers, as well as the way we organize and manage schools.
Regular readers of this blog will recognize most of the elements of the picture I have just painted. But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the contribution made by my recent conversations with Antony Leung of Hong Kong and many more such conversations with my other Hong Kong friend and colleague, Professor Kai-ming Cheng, whose thinking on these topics has deeply influenced my own.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
In my first dispatch from Hong Kong in this series, I described the Diocesan Boys School: low beautiful colonial buildings on a leafy campus scattered across acres of land on a priceless Hong Kong hilltop, the lovely harmonies of English choral music being practiced by the school’s choir, which has sung at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; the sons of Hong Kong’s elite acquiring the skills they would need as the next generation of the city’s leaders.
Ho Yu College and Primary School is not like that. Located far from the city center on Landau Island, in an area that has long been home to Hong Kong’s poor, Ho Yu is concrete and functional, located on a plot of land that would fit into a tiny corner of the DBS campus. The principal, Ms. Lee Suet Ying, came here about 15 years ago to find a school controlled by street gangs, the faculty cowed, their morale broken, and the students frightened and angry at a world that seemed to have abandoned them. Almost all who made it to graduation became truck and taxi drivers, got factory jobs, or cooked, washed dishes and served customers in the countless roadside food stalls and shops.
We arrived a little after 8:00 am. Ms. Lee was standing in the schoolyard with other faculty members, greeting the students. On my first trip to China years ago, as often as not I would see schools begin with an overbearing pep talk, delivered in the schoolyard by the principal to students who would then turn to calisthenics, all lined up in their uniforms, military style, loudspeakers blaring out marching music. This was not like that at all. Ho Yu is a “through-train” college and primary school, meaning that it enrolls students from grades one through twelve. We watched the older students shooting basketballs in small groups and the younger ones racing up to Ms. Lee and the other faculty members, grinning, looking for a hug and laughing when they got it, folding themselves into Ms. Lee’s skirts, her hand curling around their faces in a caress that was returned in their eyes.
Ms. Lee had started out as a high school history teacher and then became a high school principal, at a school run under the auspices of a group that embraced the teaching of three religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And then they asked her to add a primary school to her high school, to become the principal of this through-train school.
The students’ parents were often illiterate, their homes violent, and their future bleak. Many of the students were afraid to come to the school because of the unchecked power of the Triad gangs. Expecting little from their teachers, they would sit in class sullen and unresponsive, hardly learning.
Her first task, Ms. Lee said, was not to educate her students&mash;that would come later—but to get the students to trust the faculty and staff. Her top priority was to find staff who had both the desire and the skill to reach out to the students, take a personal interest in them, and help them address the problems they faced in their daily lives. They took the kids on trips to places they had never been before, took an interest in their personal lives, tried to run interference for them when they got in trouble, got help for them when they could. They were there for these young people day and night, and in the process earned their trust.
It was a very slow process. It took, Ms. Lee said, five years. Which is to say that Ms. Lee paid very little attention to academic achievement for five years after becoming principal of this school. She knew that she would not be able to lift the academic performance of her flock until the school had become a refuge from a very difficult world and the faculty had become people with whom the students could feel safe and, indeed, loved. The students would not have confidence in themselves and believe they had a future worth investing in until they had adults in their lives who believed in them.
To this day, the faculty is there for the students, whatever it takes. The gates open at 8:00 am. Classes end at 4:30 pm and that’s when the sports and extracurricular programs begin. Most students and teachers are gone by 6:00 pm. But many stay, partly because they are so deeply engaged in what they are doing. Ms. Lee recently tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm. Many teachers objected, saying that their students had nowhere else to do their homework and, in many cases, there was no one home and they wanted to make sure their students were safe. But the teachers, I said, must have their own families to go home to. Oh, said Ms. Lee, it is the younger teachers who do not yet have kids of their own who are objecting to closing the school at 8:30 pm.
But when the time came, Ms. Lee was all business. I asked her whether her teachers specialized in math and science or language and social studies in the primary grades, as is so often the case in Asian schools. Ms. Lee looked at me with eyes of steely determination. All my teachers, she said, have majored in the one or two subjects that they teach. Even the primary school level teachers specialize. You cannot, she said, really teach a subject well, even at the primary school level, unless you have studied it hard at the graduate level. When students are having trouble, she said, the teachers must be able to make accurate guesses as to the nature of the student’s misunderstandings. That requires deep understanding of the subject.
We asked Ms. Lee how she selected her staff. She turned to two other faculty members in the room. Both vice-principals, they had been with her for fifteen years. One had served at the Diocesan Boys School, the prestigious Hong Kong high school referred to earlier, before coming to this school. We asked why she had come to Ho Yu. Because, she said, these students needed me more. We asked Ms. Lee why she picked her. Because of her smile, she said. She explained that her vice-principal had met all her academic standards, which were very high, standards on which she would not bend. But that was not enough. She was determined to have teachers who could earn the trust of the students. She wanted she said, “teachers who could bring sunshine into the lives of these students.” The capacity to bring sunshine was just as important as deep knowledge of the subjects they would teach. She wanted teachers who would love their students and do whatever was necessary to help them succeed.
We took a tour of the school. The last classroom we visited was its pride and joy, a biotechnology lab. A few years ago, a wealthy businessman and scientist had donated a sophisticated biotechnology laboratory, focused on genetic research, to a local university. He had included in his gift equipment that would enable the university to engage school children in the study of biotechnology and genetics, but, as it turned out, the university had no interest in educating the wider community. Ms. Lee, ever alert, seized the opportunity. The donor was delighted. Ms. Lee worked with him and with her teachers to develop a curriculum, materials and training for the teachers.
The students were off-the-wall engaged. When we walked in, we found not only a very impressive array of equipment, but carefully framed materials that did a wonderful job of explaining in plain English some rather complex topics in technology and biology. The whole instructional system was project-based. Ms. Lee explained that access to this kind of equipment gave the students the feeling that the sky was the limit for them if they were willing to put in the hard work needed to gain the necessary skills; they were valued not just by the staff of the school, but by the wider community.
Then Ms. Lee took us outside to a paved parking space marked off by carefully painted yellow lines. Parked with perfect geometric accuracy within those lines was a bus. She explained that they had worked with that donor (who had paid for it all) to custom design every facet of that bus apart from the frame and its Volvo power train. It was gorgeous. Inside was a mobile laboratory, outfitted to enable everyone from the very young to the very old to learn about biotechnology, not just by reading about it or watching videos, although they were certainly there and very well done, but to doit. It was bit like a modern crime lab, a place where the visitor could take a tissue sample and analyze the DNA. It was, we thought, impossible to visit this bus and not walk away excited about biotechnology, what it is, how it works, and what it could accomplish. The bus goes all over Hong Kong, a roving educational facility, realizing the donor’s dream.
Today, Ho Yu College and Primary School sends 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education. There are, of course, schools in the United States with dedicated staffs who have taken their school from the ranks of poor performers to much higher performance. But this school visit made me think. Would our accountability systems tolerate a principal who spent five years building trust in her teachers before turning to academic performance? How many principals of our elementary schools would insist that all teachers specialize and all have bachelors’ degrees in the subjects they teach? How many of our elementary school faculties would get upset if the principal tried to lock the doors at 8:30 pm? How many local business owners would equip a school in the worst section of town with a real biotechnology lab? How many of our schools serving almost entirely free and reduced lunch students are sending 80 percent of its students to some form of postsecondary education?
Date: July 15, 2016
Date: July 8, 2016
Date: July 1, 2016
Date: June 24, 2016
Date: June 17, 2016