U.S. Schools are Better than China’s (So Stop With the Testing Already)

In the latest New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch reviews the new book Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world, by Professor Yong Zhao, who was born and educated in China, and now has a senior professorship at the University of Oregon. The central argument is: Yes, students in Shanghai schools led the world in the last PISA international assessment; and yes, in general, Chinese students are some of the best at getting high test scores. But in spite of high test scores–maybe even because of it–those same students don’t learn the skills necessary to be successful in today’s knowledge economy:

those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, originality, and individualism….standardized tests are a victory for authoritarianism….they reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old.

So in fact these high test scores are holding China back:

The more that China retreats from central planning, the more its economy thrives. To maintain economic growth, China needs technological innovation, which it will never develop unless it abandons its test-based education system, especially the gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.

Professor Zhao is not the only Chinese education expert making such claims; he’s joined by a chorus of Chinese experts. Here’s Professor Zheng Yefu, from Peking University, in his popular 2013 Chinese book The Pathology of Chinese Education:

No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college….Out of the billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winner….This forcefully testifies to the power of education in destroying creativity in China.

Ravitch draws on these books to argue against a current move in the United States: toward additional standardized testing and accountability. The argument for assessment and accountability can sound quite reasonable: How can we know if teachers are effective unless we can measure how much their students have learned? How can we decide which educational innovations are worth adopting if we don’t know how much learning results from them? How can we decide between different policy choices, like more charter schools versus more funding for public schools, unless we know which types of schools graduate smarter students?

Ultimately, the push for more assessment is driven by market-based theories. (You generally won’t hear this in the media, only in academic papers, but it’s the only coherent intellectual argument for additional student assessment.) In capitalism, markets work on a national scale only when everyone shares the same measure of value: the national currency. We buy and sell by trading goods for money, and these exchanges create value. Conservative critics of public schools argue that public monopolies, because they’re not subject to competition and market mechanisms, don’t generate value. However, markets can’t work without a common currency of exchange, and in the case of education, that has to be a common national measure of effectiveness, based in student learning outcomes.

From the conservative perspective, this seems so logical that only a union-loving liberal, one with a weak mind and an absence of critical thinking ability, would oppose it. But Ravitch’s review shows us the dark side of additional accountability: We could turn our schools into China, and kill the high level of innovation that’s driven the U.S. economy to be the most successful in the world in the past fifty years. Her counterargument is powerful, and is grounded in historical facts: The U.S. national government first began its push for additional testing and accountability in 1983 (the Reagan era A Nation at Risk), concerned that our supposedly poor schools would lead us to economic decline; and yet, during the last 30 years, the U.S. has kicked ass in the world’s economic competition. She notes that on an international test of math in 1964, U.S. seniors scored last among twelve nations; and yet in the following 50 years, the US outperformed all the other eleven countries “by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions.”

This could mean that education isn’t really that important to a country’s success, but neither liberals nor conservatives believe that; and the only other possible explanation is that it means that tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter. Ravitch can barely hold back her contempt for arguments that schools are to blame for the 1970s oil crisis, or for the Japanese success in the auto industry in the 1980s: “When the US economy improved, would any of the politicians thank the schools? Of course not.”

Ravitch concludes her review by quoting from Zhao’s new book:

Zhao dreams of schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be confident, curious, and creative. Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach.

4 thoughts on “U.S. Schools are Better than China’s (So Stop With the Testing Already)

  1. A lot of Chinese education experts make the same points. A recent article from Business Week Magazine quoted Qiu Zhonghai, the principal of Qibao High School in Shanghai, described as “a pioneer in the Chinese education system”; and also Jiang Xueqin, a teacher at a top Beijing high school and the author of Creative China, they are “elder statesmen” and “radical pioneers who think the Chinese education system is archaic and in need of sweeping reform.” Jiang says “the Chinese system still puts excessive emphasis on rote learning and memorization, and not enough on the skills students need to build careers and an economy that’s innovative and not derivative. We’re not producing knowledge workers for a global economy.” (Rethinking the world’s best schools, by Amanda Little.)

  2. I agree with your point that “excessive rote learning and memorization” and lack of skills to build “an economy that’s innovative” (Jiang Xueqin) are destructive for nations and individuals, turning “our schools into China, and kill the high level of innovation that’s driven the U.S. economy to be the most successful in the world in the past fifty years”

    Wouldn’t this also happen with Common Core, where there needs to be a “national currency” of testing scores, in order to be sure all states are up to par?

  3. That is Ravitch’s point in her review, I believe. Yes, that is certainly a risk. I am not opposed to all testing, but we need testing that assesses the skills we really want our graduates to have, including 21st century skills such as creativity and critical thinking. It has proven remarkably difficult to develop such tests.

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