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Reproducing Good Schools?

12 February 2010 13,911 5 Comments

I was interviewed yesterday by a reporter from Deutsche Welle asking me about a recent study of stress and depression of Chinese elementary school students. One of the questions was why.

“Two reasons, “ I said, “first there is intense competition among students. In China, what is considered good or successful is a comparative judgment. That is, it is not so much how well you do but how much better or worse are you compared with your peers. And the students are constantly reminded through all kinds of means of their relative standing with their peers.”

The other reason I told the reporter is that success is judged based on a single criterion—test scores in a few subjects: math, English, and Chinese. So all students struggle to get ahead but since the real world is not Lake Wobegon where all children can be above average, there are always winners and losers.  Those who happen to be good at taking tests win and those who are not lose. But regardless, all students are pushed to become winners.

Winners of what?

Ultimately what this intense competition is about is a spot in one of the nearly two thousand colleges and universities in China, but not any college or university, it has to be one that is considered prestigious, or at least better than the one your neighbors get into. The race starts very early. For some children, even before they are born their parents and grand parents act on their behalf—read Chinese poems, play classical music, or teach English to the unborn baby. After they are born, they have to compete for a spot in a better kindergarten, then a better elementary school, then a better middle school, then a better high school, and eventually to a better college. Because the number of seats is limited in the better school, one must be better than those who cannot get in.

Why don’t we create more “better” schools?

China has been trying to create more “better” schools in a number of very interesting ways. One of the most prominent is franchising. Prestigious universities and schools, i.e., those have a brand name, have been building branch campuses or changing the names and management of existing schools in other locations in collaboration with local governments and or real estate developers. The branch campuses carry the same name and theoretically can share resources and faculty with the main campus. The branch campuses are often operated as private or semi private, thus charging a much higher fee than the original government owned main campus. Thus they can bring in quite a lot of money back to the main campus. For this reason, this movement has been criticized in China for “privatizing public resources” or “making money using public resources.” As a result, the Chinese central government has recently moved to stop it and force the existing branch campuses to operate either entirely as private, thus losing the connection to the main campus, or to become public, thus stopping charging extra fees.

China has also been interested in having foreign franchises. For example, the University of Nottingham in England now has a branch campus in Ningbo, China. I have been asked many times by Chinese officials to help bring Harvard or Yale to China (I had to disappoint them every time.)

Interestingly, I found this idea of franchising in practice in England as well and it is called “federation of schools.” The basic idea is very similar, a well known school can be invited to manage other schools by the local authority or a number of schools can be brought together under one governing body. The New York-based Edison Learning system has formed partnerships with schools in the UK and essentially formed its own federation.

I have talked with quite a number of school heads who have become super heads—heads of federations. I also had a chance to visit one of the federations—Haberdasher’s Aske’s Federation and talked with students, teachers, and the management teams of some of the schools in the federation. Unlike the Chinese model of franchising, the English ones do not charge extra fees. And the people I talked with have generally being positive about this movement, listing a number of benefits, including economy of scale, sharing resources, more autonomy, the opportunity for successful leaders and teachers to have a broader impact beyond their own school, and boosting self esteem of schools previously with a low reputation. But there are also criticisms about the business nature of this model. I plan to do more research before I can say more with any certainty about this model.

In some sense, the idea of franchising is not new to American education. We have quite a number of charter school management firms that run tens or hundreds of schools in many states under one model. But I see two major differences between a company that runs a chain of schools and an excellent school trying to replicate itself by “taking in” or “adopting another school.” The mixed results of charter schools we have today have something to do with how they are run. Again, I need to learn more about this.

Creating more good schools through reproducing successful schools is a very interesting idea. As the U.S. pushes for more charter schools, it will be useful to consider a number of questions:

  1. Who will manage the charter school? While states have regulations and requirements, it would be useful to have local input and specifically to consider the education beliefs, model, experiences, and resources the management will bring to the school.
  2. Can we allow existing good schools to reproduce themselves? There are plenty of great schools in the U.S., can we find a way to have them adopt other schools? Can a suburban school adopt an inner city school? This is quite tough given the structure of the U.S. education system but perhaps not impossible.
  3. What if a foreign school or school management firm wants to run a group of charter schools in the United States? If we admire education in other countries such as China, India, Finland, Singapore etc., wouldn’t it make sense to have some of their schools, experts, or education management companies to set up charters in the U.S.?
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  • Chris Fritz said:

    I’m wondering if franchising could also be expanded beyond physical schools. How difficult would it be to coordinate with an admired school overseas, and provide each other with distance learning opportunities? Perhaps via live video during a scheduled class period and/or time-independent online courses?

    The ability to bring in the overseas school’s culture and philosophies would be limited, but it seems like a simpler first step that could be taken to evaluate whether such an exchange would even truly be desirable.

  • Douglas Green said:

    How do they rate schools in China? Do they use something like average test scores? See my posting on the status of cheating in US schools as a way to make the schools and the teachers look better so as to avoid NCLB sanctions and/or pick up incentive pay for improving. (DrDougGreen.Com)
    Doug Green

  • Haisen Zhang said:

    Hi Doug! I’m pretty sure that Yong is an incredible expert on China’s education. But I’d like to give you some more info regarding the school rating standard for what Yong said “good schools” in China.

    There are quite several categories such as school management and educational quality as revealed by a key provincial standard of such kind (????????at: But one of underlying key standards is the percentage of the graduates who have succeeded in going to good high schools and universities, which weighs a lot more in the eyes of the Chinese parents and probably the educational authority.

    One of standards is that over the past three years, over 98% of the high school students passed the tests for high school students [An underlying meaning is a higher rate of enrollment in good universities] and the schools have had students who have made remarkable achievement in academic competitions at the provincial and national levels.

    Hope that could help you a bit.

  • Child Therapy Houston said:

    Reproducing good schools doesn’t always entail a better student in the near future. Nor it is not an indicator of success for every individual. Whether we are studying on suburban or great school the answer will always depend on the striving efforts of the students.

  • NE said:

    To add to your assessment of charter schools in the U.S., please see Diane Ravitch’s The Myth of Charter Schools, an indictment of the current movement – essentially scalability is part of the problem, as well as inconsistent evaluations and leadership. It’s only a problem if it is used as an excuse to deregulate or destroy the institution of public education.

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