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A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance

10 December 2010 87,108 37 Comments

Big news! China has become the best education nation, or at least according to some experts and politicians. Chinese students (a sample from Shanghai) outscored 64 countries/education systems on the most recent PISA, OECD’s international academic assessment for 15 year olds in math, reading, and science.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees this as a “wake-up call” and Chester Finn, an influential education expert who served in the Reagan’s Department of Education, likens it to “sputnik,” the man-made satellite launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957 that startled America. And the New York Times published the story with the title: Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators. (By the way, here is a story by that takes a different perspective.)

I don’t know why this is such a big surprise to these well educated and smart people. Why should anyone be stunned? It is no news that the Chinese education system is excellent in preparing outstanding test takers, just like other education systems within the Confucian cultural circle—Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Interestingly, this has not become big news in China, a country that loves to celebrate its international achievement. I had thought for sure China’s major media outlets would be all over the story. But to my surprise, I have not found the story covered in big newspapers or other mainstream media outlets. I have been diligently reading, the official web portal for Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled media organization, but have yet found the story on the front page or on its education columns. Instead, I found a story that has caught the attention of many readers (in Chinese) that provides the real reason behind Chinese students’ top performance.

The story, entitled A Helpless Mother Complains about Extra Classes Online, Students Say They Have Become Stupid Before Graduation, follows a mother’s online posting complaining about how her child’s school’s excessive academic load have caused serious physical and psychological damages:

Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don’t have any self-study time, or physical education classes…

This kind of practice has seriously damaged students’ health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child’s health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit. She has begun to lose her.

This is not the end. After coming home after 10pm, she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5am. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?

The posting has received lots of comments online praising the mother’s courage and adding more exposures of similar experiences.

“I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school,” says one student. “You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day,” says another student to the reporter.

That’s the secrete: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.

But is this what we want for our children? Mr. Arne Duncan should read the letter from the mother because it should be the true wake-up call for him.

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  • Even More On International Test Comparisons | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... said:

    […] A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance by Yong Zhao […]

  • JMushing said:

    I found this article interesting because of the visiting student’s perspective of schools in China:

    Students gain world experience in China

    RHS Junior Rachel Kim loved the experience. She said there were a lot of similarities in how the Chinese classrooms and curriculum were structured, although she said Chinese students seemed to be more respectful.

    “They don’t really have behavioral problems,” she said. “And it was really amazing, they work really hard. The host girl I stayed with was a freshman and she was taking most of the same or more difficult classes than I was. It was pretty interesting. Although, I was able to help her with some of her English.”

    VanderJagt echoed Kim’s sentiments at Monday’s Rockford Public Schools Board of Education meeting.

    “(The school) used the same calculus book and the same literature book we use at the high school. And the technology there was the same stuff we have in our classrooms,” he said. “There also is a very high regard for teachers and administrators in China. When an administrator walks into the room, it is similar to a high ranking official or politician here.”

    So how much does attitude and respect in the classroom have on student learning? Apparently a lot!

  • said:

    I imagine that if you spend over 12 hours a day anywhere, you comply to spare yourself the pain of punishment and the disapproval of your managers, or you go.

    Best regards,

  • wmchamberlain said:

    I would prefer my students to be little “dumber” but a whole lot happier.

  • Wake Call said:

    […] Yong Zhao » Blog Archive » A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan … U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees this as a “wake-up call” and Chester Finn, an influential education expert who served in the Reagan's Department of Education, likens it to “sputnik,” the man-made satellite launched by the . […]

  • Elizabeth Carson said:

    Critically needed STEM reforms must address the content integrity and coherence in our K-12 curricula if we are to root out once and for all the core troubles with our nation’s mediocre achievement overall, stubborn achievement gaps, and lack luster international standing.

    One of the main reasons for the far too many hours of homework and the inordinate amount of test prep can be traced directly to schools’ use of inefficient, poorly organized, content poor programs and associated professional development interventions that make it necessary, if not call for it.

    Better programs and more effective teaching practices would shorten homework hours and lessen or eliminate the need for test prep

    Most of today’s trendy math programs and teacher training -incredibly- still lack the content, coherence and focus of a college preparatory mathematics curriculum, lack the content that students require to advance and that teachers require in order to teach robustly and effectively

    The poor use of class time with mediocre programs and instruction, wastes zero sum class time and education dollars. The over reliance on home to make up for what schools don’t teach steals students’ time for non academic activities and imposes on family time. The fact that only some families will have the ability and resources to make up for the schools’ failures perpetuates inequity and maintains the yawning achievement gaps

    Our STEM troubles will not change until attention is paid to what is taught and not taught, to what is tested and not tested for students and teachers both

    Blaming it on test prep and failed accountability measures misses the larger picture.

  • Alan Trevithick said:

    I just discover you, Professor Yong-how wonderful a line you have on the remarkable A. Duncan, Trying to follow his logic on almost any aspect of education—I am mostly focused on the continuing destruction of the faculty and the 3-decade trend of relying more and more on underpaid adjuncts and contingents (I am one of them, so I certainly mean no disrespect)-while Duncan and co. continue to bleat all the while about the wealth enhancing benefits of a college degree…
    In regard to this-NYT today article on Chinese college grads in China-terribly difficult for them to find jobs, as it is here-at end of article one student, encountering the realities of “outside” even with a degree, says “my only regret is I didn’t have more fun in college.”

  • The Best Sites For Getting Some Perspective On International Test Comparison Demagoguery | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... said:

    […] A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance by Yong Zhao […]

  • Laura Troidle said:

    As a parent of such children, I must echo the response of Ms. Carson.

    How is it that nations without the economic advantages our nation has out compete us? Are we assuming it is because they spend more time on school work? Perhaps these nations are more efficient in spending their limited education dollars.

    Just as age 50 is the new “30”, we have succeeded in making college the new high school. There is a viscious cycle of public K-12 education –> colleges/universities–>schools of education preaching the merits of fad programs (esp. fuzzy math programs) without one ounce of truth thus indoctrinating a new generation of teachers who go back to public school and teach the next generation.

    We must realize that the programs/curricula and teaching methodolgies we use in the US public school system are ineffective in making a dent in the sorely needed education all of our students need.

    We must also realize that not every student is going to go through the school system grasping each bit of knowledge thrusted upon them. We need to give up our expectations that every student is capable of the same level of achievement.

    We must not lose site of the fact that we do not know who these students are and we need to provide clear, honest programs that allow for every student (our K-12 AND our education school students) to reach his or her greatest potential.

    As a parent, I do not care how my children test on state, nationwide and international tests. My wake-up call came when my youngest was exposed to a fuzzy math program. I spent the extra hours at home to teach real, efficient math with algorithms (gasp)and fluency. I didn’t need to wait until China scored better than us.

    It is too bad that schools waste time and tell parents they have it all under control at school. They don’t.

  • Peter Pappas said:

    The PISA test results have generated much discussion – is it “a Sputnik” moment or are international comparisons invalid? Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis.

    Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

    Your readers might enjoy answering one of PISA questions. It offers insights into the demands of higher order thinking. Do American students learn how to sequence (higher order thinking) or simply memorize sequences provide by the teacher?

    See my post for the question, answers, and PISA data – “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students”

  • Joe Harkness said:

    My wife (a Chinese citizen) traveled to China with my 12 year old daughter in the summer of 2008. They took with them a DVD of the annual musical production (Mulan) that my daughter’s school puts on. When they visited my wife’s brother in Shanghai, their son, a 14 year old boy, was incredulous that the DVD was a student production. He simply could not comprehend how students could take so much time from their studies to do such a thing.

  • Stefanie said:

    I spent 10 days in China about 10 years ago helping put on an American Language Camp through Concordia College in Moorehead, MN. Being the only teacher in the American group, I was given the group of kids who were the least language proficient. We had multiple jobs while working with students including them about American hobbies, holidays, dining out activities, language, so on and so on.
    I was then interviewed by a radio station in the 2nd largest city in China, Tianjin and asked various questions comparing American education to what I noticed about Chinese education.
    This is what I noticed. Both American students and Chinese students can misbehave. (One Chinese student had actually stolen a book from me.) Both are very social and like to have fun. All are great kids.
    I said the biggest difference that I noticed is that my students in China weren’t used to talking to each other in class. When I tried to have them get together to practice certain concrete ideas in English or Chinese for that matter, they struggled to do it. I told the reporter that we like to get kids to share their thinking etc. Yes, the Chinese students were great at giving me rote information but struggled to defend their thinking etc. Even in minimal ways.
    The reporter told me that it is their wish to become more like the American educational system. And to think, it is our system that has become more like the Chinese system.
    I remember kids being surprised that I was an actual teacher because I was interesting. According to them, their teachers sat at a desk while they read their text and worked. A teacher’s job was boring and their work was hard and boring, according to them.
    I get that these are typical teenagers, but I can’t help but think we have brought more of that boring to our classrooms.
    And last but not least. After I left, a few students kept in contact with me. One was so excited to be honored in front of the whole school for her test scores. At the time I was surprised and appalled that one test score could determine so much about a child’s future and self worth. Another student, very depressed as she didn’t want to go to the school she would be going to due to her poor scores.
    And then their is the daughter of the custodian of the school where we held our camp. He and his wife had the most beautiful child. One that they treasured so much. And I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of schooling she’d get in the Chinese system. . .

    I was idealistic at that time and thought China could become like us. . . I thought maybe a student would get to choose their life path verses having a test choose it for them. How sad that our system is more like theirs – test, test, test, test, test.

  • Daiyu Suzuki said:

    Thanks to Yong Zhao. This is a great contribution. It ultimately comes down to an essential question like this: What does it mean to learn?? We don’t need another “radical” policy to boost students’ test scores; what we need it to go beyond the discursive limits of test scores that dominates today’s global educational discourse…

  • Douglas W. Green, EdD said:

    It is hard to imagine that the Chinese sample is representative and random. The government can control whatever it wants to and winning this race would be a priority. I suspect other countries do the same thing. I hope we in the US care less about tests and more about letting students explore what they are passionate about.

  • Piaoguo said:

    Spartan train soliders from infant? put them in cold weather, naked! Those survived will definitely have genetics for a future strong warrior

    US special forces like Delta,Rangers,or SEAL pick best of best from military applicants, put them in a swimming pool for 2 hours

    this is the nature positive and negative selections, wake up! professor, you are the thumb-up gladiator survived Chinese education, while the kids with a whining mom is the looser, just this simple, should he survived middle school, he would complain colledge, should he find a job, he will blame the company

    Chinese Gaokao not only sieved out those with low IQ, also differentiate those can’t arrange time wisely,can’t handle pressure mentally and physically.

    The world is changing, towards a more fierce competition everywhere, wake-up kids, prepare for the training to fight!

  • Piaoguo said:

    Any one got a 1st-grader can try this Q, from one of those night-extra class of MAth Olympiad for CHINA 1-GRADER

    Six kids are having lunch together. Each of them has one bowl for rice. And each two of them need to share a bowl for the meat. Each three of them need to share a bowl for the soup. Please figure out how many bowls are needed for all the kids?

  • Jimmie Froehlich said:

    Dear Mr. Zhao,

    This week, I finished reading your book “Catching Up or Leading the Way” at the same time the news of the PISA results were published in the NYTimes. Today, I had the peculiar experience of telling the principal of my son’s middle school why my wife and are are transferring our son to another school: too much homework. We are fortunate there is another school available which may be able to provide a more personalized and positive education experience for him.

    Thank you for your book and it’s commonsense ideas of how to improve education for all students (a democratic ideal) and not just those who are able to keep up with the crushing amount of homework, makework and just plain seat work which denies our children opportunities to develop as individuals in a positive and supportive environment.

    Jimmie Froehlich

  • Kapitano said:

    I’m a teacher, which means I have a choice. I can either teach the subject, or train students to pass the exam – there’s not the time to do both.

    It doesn’t help that a lot of the ‘correct’ questions to exam questions are wrong, ambiguous, or out of date. A few are literally meaningless and learned by rote. And it doesn’t help that most teachers don’t grasp that there is a difference between competence and exam success.

    I always teach the subject, because I’m on the side of the students.

  • robb rogers said:

    Shanghai is the only city in China to take the PISA test.
    Shanghai is China’s wealthiest city –highest socio-economic status families.
    ALL “sorting” academic tests produce achievement results reflecting the socio-economic status of the test taker.
    PISA compares apples and oranges.

    Finland, Germany and the U.K. track students into Trade-Tech and University-prep before high school.
    Only those students who make the academic cut into University-prep track take the PISA.
    U.S. students taking PISA represent a full socio-economic cross section.
    Apples and oranges.

  • David said:

    I’ve been working in the education system in China for 5 years. Rob, was right pointing out this study is definately biased, comparing apples to oranges. Chinese students are also tracked like those in Finland, UK, and Germany. They only go to high school if their scores are high enough, or they are then tracked into trade schools or go directly into the factories to work. There is also a vast difference in the quality of education in metropolises such as Beijing/Shanghai vs. much of the rest of China. So you are comparing a wide range of american students vs. China’s college bound and brightest.

    I also agree with an earlier statement too, that so much pressure is put on education here, to get to high school, then to get into university that students may be in class 12-18 hours a day. The competition is fierce to get into better schools, and families value this above anything else. Many jobs that might require only a high school education in the US, require a university degree in China.

    I do have to say one thing though, although rote learning isn’t the best way to learn for many subjects it works quite well in Math which chinese students excell in. They don’t focus on story problems or why equations work but only in doing it the correct way and repeating it meticulously.

  • H. Ruan said:

    We should not deny the success of Asian students (including those from Shanghai)acknowledging their efforts to learn from other countries. What China really needs is a more rigorous, competitive, and better managed high education system. Having that said, the issues within our own educational system remain beyond the competence of current leadership. Our leadership should understand that testing is not the only solution to the education problems.

  • Cheryl said:

    I find it intersting that no one ever brings up that the testing scores are only those of the top 10% of the Chinese elite students. The US is one of the few nations in world that tests all of the learners no matter what. We are competing agains countries who not only teach to the test but also who weed out those who don’t fare well on tests by the time their are in kindergarten. To compare ourselves to those test scores, all we’d need to do is skim off our top 10% — bet we’d fare well then.

  • Adam said:

    Your conclusion is not consistent with your argument. Students who are spending 18 hours a day on their studies are likely learning more than test-taking skills. Perhaps the real “secret” is that students need more academic engaged time in order to learn AND do well on tests.

  • 911 for Education | Shaping the Vision said:

    […] I recommend Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way. You can also read Zhao’s blog post, A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan and others at his […]

  • Micah S said:

    To JMushing:

    That article is skewed by the undisclosed fact that Jincai High School is one of the few (but growing number of) schools in Shanghai that has an “international division”. An international divisions in a Shanghai schools is a separate “school within a school” that follows a (probably) American curriculum, hence the quote about the calculus and lit texts, and by law is not allowed to enroll Chinese students, only int’l students ie children of expats and returnees. The calculus textbook is a clue to this because the Chinese university entrance exam doesn’t test calculus so local kids don’t study that subject in high school.

    And I don’t think respect for authority is one of the top desired outcomes of education, even less so than high test scores. And personally I think that a little less respect for “the classroom” would be a good thing.

    I came to this article through a link from “Be Like Shanghai? (Sorry, Mike)“, another weblog post worth reading about the Shanghai PISA scores.

  • Social Etymologies | Will National Standards Become the Operating System for our Schools? said:

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  • Michael T said:

    It is impossible to compare educational systems using two or three metrics [Math and ELA assessments]. If we take a critical and thoughtful approach to school effectiveness we would find that the United States has the MOST comprehensive education system in the world. I’m sure we could improve our international standing if we only had ELA in the morning and Math in the afternoon. But I’d rather prepare a child for the rigors of the real world than prepare them to be test makers.

    BTW – Yong Zhao: Great book: Catching Up or Leading the way. I love your anecdote on talent show!

  • Test-Based Accountability and International Comparisons—Lessons Ignored | said:

    […] is a city not a country and because only 35% of Chinese students ever enter high school and because ‘when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on the…”The two most repeated and compelling claims about education in the U.S., then, are factually […]

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  • Qi said:

    Shanghai is one of the most developed cities in China. 90% of its high school graduates go to colleges. Nation wide last year, 72.3% for 9.33 million applicants.

    There are two kinds of high schools. One is called general high school, and the other professional high school. Over 90% of the middle school students go to high school.

    In general, a student routinely under-performs in (in all kinds of exams) can’t be said to have learned well; a student routinely perform (in all kinds of exams) very well can be said to have learned very well.

    For middle or high school students, Math is one area that can’t learn well by rote. Learning by rote is more the way to learn Biology and English than to learn math or physics. Asian American students do better here in math, because they exercise more in that area AND they do it in more efficient ways as their parents did in those Asian countries. Most of the outstanding Asian American students in math won’t be top math students in China. The students in China do much harder math problems than their counterparts here, from 1st to their last high school year. Their math teachers’ are also much better trained/learned.

    The students in China have been studying TOO hard. Their scores show it. I don’t see why their being much better students/learners has to be mainly associated with their being much better test takers.

  • Bob Calder said:

    I can’t believe people in the education business are not completely familiar with this. You guys should give up and let the conservative ed reformers have their moronic way with the nation’s schools for believing Singapore is representative of greater China. Chester Finn has been watching this for over ten years as has Diane Ravitch. Finn deserves to be ridiculed for pretending to “discover” anything new.

    Last week, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida sent out an announcement declaring the state has made significant advances. But since the conservative hammer brought reforms to our state over ten years ago and the results at 8th grade aren’t significantly different from the last two international measurements, he is wrong. Fourth grade always looks good. Eighth grade is not so good.

    They are all missing the narrative of Minnesota, Ontario, Finland, and Massachusetts. Massachusetts throws every reform that comes down the pike at their school system. But MN, FI, and ON have systems that resemble ours thirty years ago from the testing and supervision standpoint. They have loose systems with less testing and less oversight. We systematically ignore them. We are therefore a deliberately ignorant people led by deliberately ignorant leaders.

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  • juliana momodu said:

    Learning system pervasive in Asian countries is more by rote and discourages critical thinking outside the box, with strong adherence to the curriculum and, with a view to passing standard tests.

    What Zhao is proposing is a type of balance which makes learning intriguing and equips students with the skills to learn,unlearn, relearn and prepare for whatever job the future market throws at them or whatever job they have to create as entrepreneurs to be global citizens.

    Finland is a good example of a country that has gotten the balance he is proposing . The country spends less but achieves more!

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