Thursday, January 06, 2011

How "Teach to the Test" Can Become a Trap

Here's an interesting essay describing how cultural factors in China make it extremely difficult for its schools to break away from a "teach to the test" model, even though that model is in many ways out-of-date and counter-productive.
Nearly 100% of Western reporters (NPR’s Luisa Lim being the only exception) ... assume that the “lower class” in China will rebel at any moment. Not true. Poor people in China accept that they are poor because they do not have an education; but if their child has the opportunity to get an education, then all is calm. Therefore, allowing some students to get into college without going through the merit exam is a problem for China because of where they come from in history…the severe social injustices of pre-1949. That is what NPR left out... listeners are left to just assume that all China would have to do is end the gao kao and China could let 100 flowers of creative teaching bloom.

China is working toward more creativity, but teachers teach as they have been taught. They do not know how to ask creative questions because they went through school memorizing for the gao kao. Without models, this is not easy to turn around.
The article expresses concern that the U.S. could similarly trap itself with "a Common Core national test (common 'yardstick') in 2014-15, and another name for that national test is 'gao kao.'" I don't think that the social issues in the U.S. would create the same difficulty in breaking away from a "gao kao" model, but I share the author's (and his host's) concern about the quality of education that is likely to result from taking U.S. education in that direction.

It's also interesting to me that for all the overstatement we hear about China, almost no attention is paid to the fact that China's approach to improving its educational system turns ours on its head. It should be no surprise given China's historic approach to sport, but when it comes to the population at large they appear principally focused on selecting children who display significant talent and giving them opportunities that are not available to society at large. You don't necessarily want to go to an average Chinese university if you can attend one in the west - the graduate of a typical Chinese college doesn't get a very large income boost ("the average college graduate earns just 300 yuan -- roughly $45 -- more than average migrant worker") and faces high rates of unemployment. The rural drop-out rate is very high. If you want to be like China, you don't focus on trying to get rural teenagers "college ready" - you focus on finding the best students and giving them opportunities well beyond what you're willing to offer their peers.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the goals of helping top students get to college, regardless of their means, and helping to ensure that every child has the opportunity to get a solid K-12 education at a safe school from good teachers.

    I distinguish myself from the latest set of reformers by recognizing that those are two separate goals.

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