Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are We Really Losing the Global Education Game

We often hear concern within our media that the U.S. as a nation is losing its educational edge. The pundits fear that we will cease to be competitive and our mighty economy will stumble. Are our college graduates all doomed to live in their parents basements until the ripe age of 40 or are the pundits full of crap? After all when is the last time you heard a business argue that they are moving their factory to Mexico because of the great public education system. As Catholic educators should it concern us that the talk of globalization is often framed in the context of "competition" rather and the context of increased "cooperation". Which framework is more helpful in solving what are now global issues? As members of the first international organization (the Church) where is our voice in the growing debate?

ASCD recently published a book by Michigan State professor Yong Zhao titled "Catching Up or Leading the Way". The book moves beyond international tests (TIMSS and PISA) or achievement and looks at the outcomes and reform efforts in each country. Having been raised in China and educated in both the United States and China Zhao's perspective is definitely worth a look. Zhao points out that China is racing to reform their educational system to be more like the United States while we are (at least in terms of NCLB and the recent work of the Department of Education) reforming our system to be more like the traditional Chinese system. In general the traditional system in China contains an emphasis on drill and kill activities and rote memorization. Culturally the college entrance exam in China is the ticket to social mobility with the benefits of citizenship often only applied to those who hold college degrees. This myopic focus on one test comes to shape the entire culture. Saturdays are no longer reserved for family and activities but rather math camps and grammar rodeos fill the weekends. The outcome is as predicted: high test scores but low ability. Recently Premier Wen called a national conference lamenting the Chinese system's inability to produce creative thinkers. The majority of patents in the world in the area of invention and new technology are still awarded disproportionately to Americans. This does not bode well for China who longs to become more than just the world's factory and inexpensive labor pool.

American education certainly celebrates the wide spectrum of human ability. Ask any high school principal what their evenings are filled with? It's not grammar rodeos and math camps but rather the wide-array of co-curricular activities that are part of the American high school experience. We know football, basketball, music and band can often steal the show and perhaps garner too much attention. Look at your football budget compared to your science department budget. Zhao argues this balance allows on one end a truly American focus on the importance of the individual but also argues the confidence achieved in one area flows into others. This courage to do your best and to push the envelope is what often defines America and it has served us well.

So China is racing to become more like the West in terms of education while our national reform efforts seem to sap the joy out of any school. Teacher-proof scripted lessons and weeks of preparing for the annual graphite dance on the bubble sheets may raise our TIMSS score but at what long term cost?

Below are three links that are worth a look. One is Zhao delivering a summary of his work. The other is a link on how Asian students are flocking to Liberal Arts schools in the U.S. in pursuit of learning critical thinking and problem solving skills. The third is a slide share presentation that summarizes the book.

Link to Zhao's presentation

Link to Article on Asian students and Liberal Arts Education

Link to slide share summary of the book.

I'm not one to be content with average performance and I don't mean to push off accountability efforts with this post. But until we frame school reform around an agreement about what knowledge and skills our graduates really need our efforts will be empty. I'd argue producing young men and women who think critically, live humanely, lead effectively, and can operate in a paradigm of global cooperation (not competition) would be an excellent start. A thorough grounding in Catholic moral and social teaching would be a nice base as well.