Guest Article: School Days in China

Roscoe Mathieu’s back – with a very, very insider look on the state of Chinese education in contrast with the American system. His experience as an English language instructor, working for a full year for pittance and the occasional disease along the entire length of that infamous nation, has given him certain insights into the educational system of the two largest economic powers in the world.

Naturally, he doesn’t like what he sees. Nobody does, except the willingly blind. Having worked directly with the system, a blind eye is apparently not something Mathieu’s been paid enough by the system to afford…

I read this article as a link from the incomparable silveradept and something kept poking at my brain the whole time. High-stakes testing…teaching to the test as a mantra…schools as elimination rounds…something about all this sounded oddly familiar.

Then it hit me.

The American school system is morphing into the Chinese one. Due primarily to the same economic pressures that have formed the modern Chinese school system.

The Chinese school system starts with 小学, “little school” or elementary school, then 中学, middle/high school, and on to 大学, college. Each one is predicated on a regular series of severe exams. In first grade, you take the end-of-year tests…and if you do well, you get to go to a well-regarded school. If not, you go to a school a step down. It’s a series of elimination rounds to insure only the People’s Republic’s best and brightest get the advantage of the best education. All students, by 中学, are segregated into classes by testing. The kids who’ve been doing badly on the tests for more than three rounds go into the small class at the back of the school, where they are essentially left to Rot in Hell until they are legally released to menial construction jobs and prostitution.

I can already hear the conservatives in the audience rising and applauding. Save it, it doesn’t work nearly as well as you think it does.  China’s No Child Left Behind gone wild results in a twofold problem: Widespread corruption and boldfaced lying, and school death spirals. Schools are judged by their test scores, and this is goddamn China, the land that starved itself to save face in the 1950s. Teachers are under enormous pressure to inflate grades. Insufficient As results in angry parents, angry administrators, and tight finances. In parts of south China, it also results in attention from the mob, because if Fat Chow’s little boy fails his English class despite Fat Chow keeping three of his trusted men stationed outside his room to make sure he studies…well, that’s your problem now. School death spirals are a fairly obvious extrapolation of the economics: if a school produces insufficient As and promotions to “good” schools, it loses prestige (and therefore parent revenues. Less bilk potential) and government funding. Without adequate materials, the teaching quality drops, and the school produces less A’s…I’ve seen the results. Entire towns are economic ruins, because all of the students from the local schools tested out too early and ended up truck drivers and farmers because Beijing didn’t want to waste any resources on them after they’ve clearly proven their unworthiness.

The impact on students is even worse. Chinese pedagogy has been based around the test since London, Paris, and Venice were mud huts by the water. Modernization has not changed it much. The idea is to memorize and regurgitate the textbook as quickly and completely as possible, thought optional and possibly suspicious. This has a number of profound effects. I’ve met children who can write the complete works of Shakespeare, rote, from memory, and who blushed and stammered the Chinese for “no speak English” when addressed with “hello.” These students are from the A classrooms, receiving everything Beijing and the school district have to give, they did well on the last elimination round of tests.

Students, in order to study effectively, live at school from 中学 forward, in fortress-like compounds far from town, family, or any distractions. Their dorms are simple, hold four to a single dorm (I’ve never been able to figure out how they all *fit*), are monitored for inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex (even in 大学), and come with a washing machine, bunks, and some desks. Students go to class six days a week, usually from about six (morning exercises) to six in the evening. After that, they study in the cafeteria, the classrooms, or small, isolated cubicles without distractions. They also do this on Sunday. Memorizing the book.

The average Chinese student, at age of 22, can sew, cook, do simple repairs, and perform many other basic tasks of running a household. He or she has also never had extended contact with the opposite sex and may still believe they have cooties. In deadly earnestness. There’s important things to learn, apparently, when one has time to oneself.

The students’ health is visibly affected…I’ve seen baldings, outbreaks of eczema, and incapacitating trembling emerge from the stress related to the almighty Test. Then there’s the legendary, and quite deadly, “flu” that goes around campuses all over the country, killing students who receive their test scores in the mail. Yes, it happens.

The Chinese education system has high standards and expects children to meet them. It is quite accountable, teachers’ jobs are safe and reasonably paid, and is terribly efficient and using the scarce resources available to Beijing in the most effective places.

It’s also, to American eyes, inhumane and a bitter, bitter joke. The best students are the students who sit down, shut up, think as told, and ask no questions, to a degree even the most imaginative hippie commentator cannot begin to imagine. They’re the hypothetical “hyper-disciplined student” from this article, cranked up to eleven. The worst students are housed together and forgotten, and reminded every day that they are failures at life, fated to ignoble and underpaid work and short, nasty, brutish lives because they got a question wrong on a test in the first grade.

In this time of budget crisis, economic downturn, and focus on The Basics, we need to tighten our belts and make sure we use what scant monies we have on the things that students really need. In America, that doesn’t include social studies, art, music, science, or comprehension of reading material. It barely involves math, because the best way to teach math is by (drumroll please) rote memorization. There’s an anti-intellectual current running throughout our country, a side-effect of our fervent and fanatical egalitarianism. But there is hope. If you shuddered at the description I gave of Chinese education, it means you have some concept of a student asking questions, of Socratic dialogue, of experiential learning, and other inheritances of the Renaissance humanist model of education. That means that a more whole, more involved, and ultimately more effective, if less efficient, kind of education isn’t dead in this country. Times are tough, nobody denies that. For schools, times have always been tough. But it’s a war out there, and it will be won by skirmishes: finding extra funds to keep the music teacher on staff, pooling resources for a co-op math tutor or Spanish teacher, keeping the science curriculum focused on critical thinking and logic, rather than superstitious “theory” given equal time.

What are the Basics? Intellectual freedom. Analytical thought. The Renaissance man. Self-expression and self-discipline. Let’s get back to the Basics. Fuck the Almighty Exam.

– R. Jean Mathieu


~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 13, 2009.

4 Responses to “Guest Article: School Days in China”

  1. And in the process of “educating” everyone through teaching to the test and the textbook, actual learning is put away as something antiquated and un-useful, right up to the point where it suddenly becomes necessary at one’s job. There’s a lot of catch-up learning that happens once we get out of school.

  2. ‘I can already hear the conservatives in the audience rising and applauding. ”

    As a conservative I’m already rolling my eyes.

  3. This part of the audience is applauding. However not the system as is but the points the article makes. This blog needs to be more widely read.

  4. I have got a couple of clients in the industry who are interested in improving their profile online by working with some high quality websites.

    We’d be looking to place a guest post on your homepage. Would you be interested in this?

    Do not hesitate to ask me any questions by emailing me :)

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