Acting Decisively: China’s story

American superintendents obtain close-up examination of a global giant pursuing educational excellence and what it means for us by Gerald W. Kohn and James J. Harvey

While touring China’s Heilongjiang Province last June, Diana Bourisaw encountered a young woman at Harbin Normal University with big personal plans.

As Bourisaw, who was superintendent in St. Louis, Mo., at the time, relates: “She’d scored 16th globally in the International Mathematical Olympiad, and she told me she plans to attend Harvard to study law. Her father had instilled in her the idea that she can do anything. And she can. I’m sure she’s going to get into Harvard.”


That exchange, repeated many times over, encapsulated much of what 25 American school superintendents experienced in China during a 10-day visit in 2008, organized by the College Board as guests of the Chinese government agency Hanban.


KohnChildrenChinese students in a large English-language laboratory seating about 60 visited by Gerald Kohn and James Harvey.

We discovered quickly that Chinese young people are focused on excellence. As the sole child in their families, they are the repository into which parents and grandparents pour their hopes and dreams. Caught up in an extraordinary moment of time, Chinese families with access to education believe they can do anything — and their government assures them they can. As American athletes from Dizzy Dean and Muhammad Ali to city hoopsters like to remind people: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

Growth Signs

So far, the Chinese have backed it up. Leaving the brand-new Beijing Airport terminal for the bus ride into the city, our group, all members of the National Superintendents Roundtable, is struck by the preparations for the Summer Olympics. On both sides of the highway, workers are busily engaged in the task of planting an urban forest and garden. The city will bloom for the Olympics as China has bloomed economically in recent years. The signs of urban redevelopment, highway construction and improvements in the housing stock surround us everywhere we go. The skyline is littered with cranes drawing skyscrapers out of the ground.

Our colleague Mike McGill, superintendent in Scarsdale, N.Y., recalls one of our hosts reporting that Harbin, a city of six million bordering Siberia, had just been awarded the World University Games for 2010. The selection committee worried whether the city would have the facilities ready in time. “We have the full assurance of the Chinese government that it will be done,” replied an official. Another panel member closed the discussion with, “If the Chinese government says it will be ready, it will be ready.”

In the schools, as with the athletic games and economic development, there are troubling side effects. But in education, as elsewhere, the Chinese government has said it will be done. And it will be.

What We Learned
What lessons can we learn from the Chinese experience? We came away with five.

We saw a profound respect for education and pride in learning.
This seems to be almost ingrained in the Chinese character. Before the West in the 19th century destroyed the capacity of the Chinese state to manage itself, entry into imperial service was restricted to those scholars who could pass demanding civil service examinations, administered in the emperor’s palace, the Forbidden City.

Paul Mohr Jr., superintendent of Murphy Schools in Phoenix, Ariz., captured this aspect of our visit. “The impression that struck me in visiting schools is the … absolute enthusiasm of these kids. … I think that’s something I’d like to see more often in our classrooms,” he told us. “I asked a couple of high school students if they liked math,” reported Steve Norton, superintendent in Cache County, Utah. “They looked at me as though that was the dumbest question they’d ever heard. Of course we love math. … You’ve got to learn it and you might as well enjoy it.”


paulmohrjrPaul Mohr Jr. (center), superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District in Phoenix, Ariz., with high school students in China.

We found support for learning enables schools to make big demands on students and teachers.
“A gem,” says a Chinese proverb, “is not polished without rubbing, nor a man perfected without trials.” Chinese schools seem to take that seriously.

 There is little doubt a considerable amount of stress accompanies all this. The educational goal in China is to make nine years of schooling compulsory. That includes six years of primary school and the next three years of junior middle school. Students then are tested for entry into the next three years, known as senior middle school. Only those senior school graduates among the cream of the crop are eligible for universities. The scramble up the education ladder leads into a competitive inverted funnel. Those left by the wayside following the primary or junior middle school years have to fend for themselves in China’s burgeoning low-wage economy.

Until 1995, the school week ran to six days. It’s been cut back to a more civilized five-day week, but the school day is longer and so is the school year. The elementary school curriculum consists of Chinese, mathematics, history, geography, music, drawing and physical education. Practical work around the school grounds is also required, and we examined a remarkable garden planted and maintained by elementary school students. English is introduced to all students in the third year.

At the middle school level, the academic program picks up steam. Now students are expected to master Chinese, a foreign language (typically English), mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, history, geography, politics, music, fine arts and physical education. Reports indicate that nearly 40 percent of the curriculum in the junior middle school is devoted to Chinese and mathematics and 16 percent to English.

At the high school level, the emphasis changes. Now 50 percent of the time is devoted to math and science and 30 percent to Chinese and a foreign language. At every primary and middle school we visited, we also saw evidence of genuine support for education in art, music and theater.

We don’t claim every child experiences this curriculum. United Nations statistics indicate city schools get 50-100 percent more funding than rural schools. Urban primary schools enjoy Internet access at seven times the rate of rural schools. Girls enroll in pre-primary programs at twice the rate in the 10 richest provinces (including Heilongjiang) as in the 10 poorest. But the expectations outlined above are the new educational norm in China.

We found an impressive commitment to the best pedagogy.
Like everyone in our group, Margaret Hayes, superintendent in Scotch Plains-Fanwood, N.J., fretted about the top-down nature of much of the educational program in China. But she noticed something else, as well. “The Chinese are putting into practice some of the most forward-thinking instructional practices that we as educators support,” she said.

Chinese educators seem committed to developing creativity and higher-order thinking skills. We listened to Chinese school leaders speak in an almost spiritual sense about the goal of producing happy, healthy and alert graduates capable of taking their place in a harmonious society.

And we watched as teachers pursued those goals using the latest technologies in language labs and music classes to help children create their own solutions to problems and explain why different approaches to the same problem could produce the correct answer. It made little difference there were 50-60 children in these classrooms with one teacher. The technology, combined with good instructional practice and the discipline of the students, made for highly productive classroom time.

“In terms of technology, they’ve jumped a whole generation of instructional aids and gone to where we need to be in America,” noted Norton, Cache County’s superintendent. “The projector-screen technology, smart boards, computerized language labs — they’re all very impressive.”

Yet Chinese educators remained eager to learn from the visiting Americans. “We want to learn from the West,” Madame Lin Xu, director-general of Hanban, emphasized. “That’s why we’re collaborating with the College Board … to exchange textbooks, teachers and teaching methods.”

At each school visited, a debriefing session would be held with the school’s administrators and teachers. At these sessions, we were urged to criticize what we had experienced to help the school improve. There was a sense the Chinese school hosts were deeply appreciative of any words of encouragement from the Western visitors. Indeed, when one of us presented certificates of honorary citizenship in the City of Harrisburg, Pa., signed by Mayor Stephen R. Reed, the response was touching, often involving tears of gratitude.

We found China committed to bilingualism in a global world.
During welcoming ceremonies for the Chinese Bridge Delegation at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Peter Negroni, senior vice president of the College Board, traded statistics with Hanban’s Lin Xu and Madame Yandong Liu, a state councilor and a member of the Politburo, respectively.

Today in China, almost 100 percent of Chinese elementary and secondary school students are studying English with a goal of creating 285 million English speakers by 2015. According to Negroni, about 50,000 Americans are learning Chinese, including 11,000 students studying Chinese with the help of the Hanban exchange. The disparity is staggering.

The Chinese have put massive resources behind creating a bilingual nation, one that can work productively with different countries and cultures. In a globally connected world, our commitment to bilingualism is extremely shallow.

“I worry about this,” Roderick Chu told us. Chu is chancellor-emeritus of the Ohio Board of Regents and a College Board trustee. “In Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world,’ we have people dealing with each other all over the globe. We cannot feel that we’re going to be successful as Americans if we isolate and insulate ourselves.”

Everyone thinks of China as this great, untapped market that should be easy to crack, reported Dutch scholar Kristopher Schipper, delivering a tour de force on Chinese history at Peking University. “This is a big market,” he said smiling, “for people who know Chinese.”

We discovered China is able to commit to action and move decisively.
China’s progress since it turned toward market socialism in the early 1980s has to be seen to be believed. A few years ago, Britain had the fourth largest economy in the world; today China holds that spot. It has dragged more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than any other society in history. It consumes more steel and concrete than Europe and the United States combined. By damming rivers, laying railroads across the Himalayas and sending humans into space, it has announced its arrival as a new superpower on the world stage. 


KohnGerald Kohn, superintendent in Harrisburg, Pa., greets primary school students during his China study mission.

Much of that comes from the ability of the state to commit to action and then to move decisively. “It took us a couple of years to get people to agree to double the size of a school and do some renovations on others,” noted Jane Edmonds, superintendent in Mendham Borough, N.J. “Here in Harbin, they announced plans to relocate this major university to the outskirts of town, and two years later it was all done — classrooms, dorms, labs, library. The whole thing. It’s astounding.”

Several of us listened as a high school student described what he saw as the difference between the United States and China. “You analyze and we act,” said the student.

There are practical advantages to having a Central Committee and a Politburo. When decisions are reached, the entire apparatus of the state can swing into action. Cities can arise out of pastures. Factories can be erected beside ports. And nearly 100 percent of students can be put to work learning English.

Selectivity Rules
Still, it’s not all bright uplands and sunlit fields. Despite the lessons to be learned from China, there are disadvantages and lessons about what not to do, as well.

To lay out the most obvious first, the heavy hand of the state and the Communist Party of China lies over every aspect of life, including the schools and universities. A senior official at each school and university seemed to be a member of the party. Roundtable participant Don White, superintendent in Troy, Ill., asked a young teacher whether she hoped to move into administration. She shook her head. She wasn’t interested in the party affiliation that school leadership entailed, she said.

The ferocious selectivity that characterizes the movement through the middle schools would not be tolerated in the United States. Students make it into the senior middle school years only after testing, a funnel that narrows as middle school graduates contemplate university enrollment. We estimate that at least 10 percent of Chinese students never make it beyond the primary grades; perhaps 50 percent of middle school students fail to enter the final three years of school (senior middle school), victims of entrance exams or pressure to enter the workforce. That is to say, half of Chinese middle school students fail to enter what would be the high school years in the United States.

Savage inequalities in wealth and traditional attitudes about women play themselves out in schools. Landless peasants and the urban poor were, until 2008, shut out of so-called public schools in which up to 63 percent of income was generated by tuition and fees. Diana Bourisaw asked about students with disabilities. There really is no provision for them. The response indicated that students needing special education slow down “regular” students and are better off in separate programs.

Regimentation and structure also made a striking contrast with the energy, enthusiasm and creativity we saw in the schools. “I don’t know how that would work in the U.S.,” noted Dan Fishbein, superintendent of the Ridgewood, N.J., schools. “Our students, parents and teachers want a little more room to develop.”

Acting Decisively
The contrast between an individualized American system, centered on self, and a structured Chinese system, grounded in the group, is hard to miss. One wonders whether an education system encouraging conformity instead of independence can succeed.

At the end of the day, however, Americans need to pay attention to these developments.

It’s clear Americans also need to find a way to act and move decisively. As McGill told his school community in Scarsdale on returning from China, “There are 233 million school children in China and 50 million in the United States. If China educates only the top quartile of its children to a high level, it will have more graduates able to think well, communicate effectively and solve complex problems than a United States that somehow manages to educate every single one of its students to the same high level.”

McGill’s solution is the right one: “We’ll have to make up in quality what we lack in size and numbers.”

Gerald Kohn is superintendent in Harrisburg, Pa. E-mail: gkohn@hbgsd.k12.pa.us. James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable in Seattle, Wash.