The folly of Common Core proponents’ China envy

Mitchell Blatt Travel Writer
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If we don’t emulate China by establishing common nationwide education standards and implementing even more standardized testing, we will fall behind internationally. So goes the argument of Common Core advocates like Michelle Rhee.

“You need to reframe the debate,” Rhee said, speaking to Florida lawmakers in May. “This is about China kicking our butts. Do you want China to kick out butts? No!”

But is it really true that China is “kicking our butts” in education or economic competitiveness?

In 2010, China ranked first in the PISA international standardized test, prompting President Obama to say it is “our generation’s Sputnik moment” and Rhee to say, “We are not going to be competitive in the long run until we fix our public education system.”

But China’s education system is uniquely positioned to produce students who will do well on tests. It’s based on national standards, the knowledge of which is evaluated in a series of nationwide tests. Before entering high school, students take the zhong kao — the high school entrance exam — and before entering college, students study non-stop for a year to take the gao kao — the college entrance exam. Schooling is based heavily on tests and rote memorization.

So it’s no surprise that China did well on PISA.

The important question to ask is, Is China creating a competitive, innovative economy?

China has 19 percent of the world’s population, but in 2011, China only accounted for 9 percent of the world’s share of patent applications. The United States, by contrast, has 4 percent of the world’s population but accounted for 26.7 percent of the world’s patent applications in 2011, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

In China, the use of standards has fostered a high-pressure system that kills creativity.

“When [my son] Star was young, he was very imaginative,” Frank Chen, director of Asian operations for OnSpeX, said. “Now, he appears to be losing his creativity.”

“If he writes whatever he wants in an essay, he will get a bad grade, because the teachers do not like it. But there’s nothing to do about it. I want him to go to a good college. The teachers get bonuses if he goes to a good college.”

Because a student’s performance on the college entrance exam determines which college he goes to, teachers teach to the test, and there is a greater emphasis on memorization than on learning.

This is stifling creative innovation. After Steve Jobs died, Jobs’ biography became a best-seller in China. Chinese people asked the question, “Why doesn’t China have its own Steve Jobs?”

Former Google China CEO Kai-Fu Lee said on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, that China’s education system has prevented China from developing such innovators.

It is a folly to think that raising America’s international test scores will automatically improve America’s education quality or economic competitiveness. A paper by Christopher H. Tienken, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, notes: “According to the World Economic Forum (Schwab 2009), the United States has ranked either 1st or 2nd consistently in economic competitiveness since 1998. … Keep in mind that that U.S. students never scored in the top two spots on any international test during this same period or any prior time.”

An analysis by Keith Baker, a retired researcher for the Department of Education, found that when comparing the United States to countries that outscored us on the FIMS test, the U.S., on average, outranked those countries in the categories of economic growth, quality of life, livability, democracy, and creativity.

Moreover, even if we do make scoring higher on international tests a goal of education reform, Common Core isn’t the right way to do it.

“There is no strong, or even mild, correlation — and certainly not a cause-and-effect relationship — between national standards and national performance on international tests,” Tienken’s report notes.

Right now, the Chinese are discussing how to make China’s education system less reliant on standardized tests and rote memorization. If Michelle Rhee really wants to learn from China, she should look to Chinese reformers. As they know, standardization doesn’t build a globally competitive workforce.

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer living in China and the editor of the Dali travel guide DestinationDali.com. His writing can be viewed at ChinaTravelWriter.com.