One of the perks of continued professional development in the form of college coursework is being required to read books I might not have otherwise taken the initiative/time to read. I received Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization in the mail many months ago through my ASCD membership. I read the cover and thought, yes, this will be a great read, and it was then neatly stacked on the bookshelf next to the other ASCD titles. I was thrilled when it was listed as required reading for my Change in Education course. This book examines the characteristics of the educational systems of the United States and China and the impact on students and our countries as our world becomes increasingly “smaller.”

I also am engaged in Principal’s Induction Program coursework through our state. The required reading for our last session was The Teaching Gap, by Stigler and Hiebert. We spent an exorbitant amount of time the past two days comparing US instructional methods and international test scores in mathematics with those of other countries, particularly Japan and Germany. We involved ourselves in observations of lessons taught, lesson planning techniques, and listened to the same message over and over again: THEY are doing it RIGHT. WE are doing it WRONG.

This troubles me.

Are there aspects of the American education system that could be improved? Of course! Could we involve our teachers in more lesson study, collaborative professional development, and hone their instructional practices? Yes, we should. Could administrators structure schools and classrooms so that time is used more wisely and efficiently for student learning? Yes. Despite our country’s recent need to equate school success with performance on high-stakes testing accountability measures, can’t we develop lessons and instructional units that engage students in higher-order thinking, the use of technology, creation, and innovative thinking? Yes indeedy. Do we need to address the inequalities that exist in our nation’s schools? Absolutely. Those were the big “take-aways” for me from The Teaching Gap.

Another take away is that teaching is a cultural activity. American teachers taught how they themselves were taught. Our “system” is so ingrained in culture, making it extraordinarily difficult to change. (Not impossible, though, and like I said earlier, there is room for improvement.) The Japanese and Chinese cultures influence their educational systems in similar ways. Can we expect our schools to be structured the same way as the schools in those countries, when our cultures vary so greatly? Is it fair to compare apples and oranges on international testing measures and conclude that American schools are in a crisis?

What Zhao’s early message is that American schools are not as “broken” as they appear to be. If they were, how could our country continue to thrive? While our country is now moving towards standardized curriculum for the nation in the hopes of improving test scores (so we “look good” on international measures), schools in China are taking a look at American schools and making changes to be more like us. Zhao makes some great points about how standardization in schools has not necessarily served China well.

So what is great about American education? Why would China want to emulate us? It’s simple. We value individuals. We want all students to develop into lifelong learners. Are all students going to be mathematicians? No. We recognize that, and encourage students to find their passion and develop their strengths. Our system helps students appreciate the gifts they have, instead of focus endlessly on what they don’t have. Our genetically diverse nation allows it to better survive and adapt to environmental changes. The creativity we instill in our children helps breed talent, tolerance, and innovative thinkers that are able to adapt to change.

One of the most meaningful quotes from Zhao is something I think all educators who work with curriculum, with school boards, with policy makers, and with students and teachers need to consider:

“We thus face a choice of what we want: a diversity of talents, of individuals who are passionate, curious, self-confident, and risk taking; or a nation of excellent test takers, outstanding performers on math and reading tests.” (p. 59)

A difficult choice? Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

One comment on “What do we value?

  • I understand your frustration with the international comparison. Here’s another fun activity to do to debunk this notion of “America is vastly behind”. Take a look at sample questions from TIMMS and NAEP. You will notice a fun trend in the difference between the way that we teach our kids to understand and use the important concepts in, say, Math and Science. The two tests clearly display a leniency towards rote memorization and “kill and drill” that other countries still find value to and we don’t.

    Great post!

    P.S. EDUPLN book club just started evaluating Zhou’s book on the group page here: http://bit.ly/aZKmLY

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