My View                                                     Page 12-13


My Sabbatical Year in China:

Likes and Dislikes



I spent the past year on an unpaid sabbatical from my superintendency in south-central Wisconsin to live and work in China. I served as the chief academic officer for an educational foundation that runs Advanced Placement courses in 14 Chinese high schools.

During my year abroad, I had the opportunity to visit more than 20 cities ranging in size from 2.5 million (Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province) to 23 million residents (Shanghai). In each place, I spent considerable time in high schools, working alongside Chinese administrators, teachers, students and parents. I also worked with teachers from 18 other countries around the globe.

China has compulsory education for students 6 to 15 years of age, in grades 1-9. When students enter the 9th grade, they spend the year reviewing all previous curricula to prepare for the all-important national exam, the Zhong Kao. Their exam score determines the quality of the high school they may enter in grade 10 — or even whether they will be permitted to attend high school. Nationwide, 10-15 percent of students do not score well enough to qualify for further schooling.

High school is essentially a two-year program in a traditional Chinese high school, with the third year being a thorough review for the final nationwide exam, the Gao Kao. The student’s choice of college and academic major is determined by performance on this exam. Talk about high stakes!

Desirable Qualities
I found several things to admire about the Chinese education system, but I also discovered it is not quite as wonderful as many educators in the United States might think. My personal observations stem from the schools where I worked, almost all of which operate international programs that prepare Chinese students to go overseas to college.

The four things I found most admirable were these: the respect parents and society have for education and educators; the work ethic of most students; the high expectations in math and science instruction; and the worldview of Chinese educators and schools.

While I would love to bring all of those attributes back to my school district, the first two would be difficult to transfer. Each nation has its unique cultural norms and traditions involving formal education. As much as we’d like to see widespread respect and a high work ethic, we can’t hope to match the Chinese.

On the remaining two areas, we have real opportunities to address. The worldview I experienced could be seen in the increasing number of Chinese high schools that are creating international programs and the escalating number of Chinese students coming to the United States to study. According to the Institute of International Education, 194,000 Chinese undergraduate and graduate students attended U.S. universities in 2011-12, up from 68,000 five years earlier. China understands its growing role in the world, and its focus on international education confirms it.

Students and schools in our country don’t seem to embrace this to the same degree. I believe we need to encourage students to look at exchange programs on the secondary school level and to revise our curricula to reflect viewpoints and issues that are not just Eurocentric.

Finally, the Chinese place a strong emphasis on math and science instruction. The expectations for what a high school student needs to know far exceed what we expect from students. A Chinese teacher and parent commented that the material covered on a sample SAT math exam I showed her was similar to what her daughter studied in middle school. I have no doubt our students can handle higher expectations and expanded content just as well as their Chinese peers. I hope the Common Core State Standards in these two areas will raise the level of instruction and course content while we avoid the Chinese method of “drill, drill, drill.”

Unsavory Aspects
The list of things in the traditional Chinese education system that we don’t want to emulate is quite lengthy. Teaching methodology is mostly straight lecture. Science classes seldom have hands-on labs, and all instruction is designed to teach exclusively to the test. The humanities and arts classrooms are given little thought, with only English and Chinese instruction given priority. English teaching is primarily learning words without context or usage, and for the most part, instruction is poorly done.

The Chinese regularly discuss their desire to be more like our country in producing students who are more creative, but when suggestions are provided to do so, the Chinese answer is invariably “no.” Class sizes are substantial; I saw up to 75 children in a primary classroom and 64 in secondary classrooms.

Students are pushed hard in China. A typical student will have a school day that starts at 7:30 a.m. and runs until 9 at night, six days a week. Little time exists for kids to be kids. China has few students with any type of disability in their classrooms; they usually are not educated in any meaningful way.

Finally, corruption and unethical behavior abound in Chinese schools. Grade changes and transcript doctoring by administrators are common. Outright bribery takes place involving teachers and principals, and in many schools it is not uncommon for students in the final year to be absent most of the time and still receive excellent grades.

China is a fascinating place, and I met many talented educators who are trying to change things. However, the sheer size of the nation and the unwieldy bureaucracy make any transformation a formidable prospect.

Randy Refsland is the district administrator of the Clinton Community School District in Clinton, Wis. E-mail: rarefsland@clintonwisch.com

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