Cape Elizabeth school chief finds much to learn, share in China trip
CAPE ELIZABETH — Superintendent of Schools Meredith Nadeau visited two Chinese cities for eight days this month to study the country's education system.
Nadeau traveled as part of the 2013 Chinese Bridge Delegation, which included 381 K-12 and higher-education teachers and administrators from across the U.S. The delegation was sponsored by the College Board, the Confucius Institute, and Hanban, the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.
"Any time you can learn about different structures for education, that's a great opportunity," Nadeau said. "It was a wonderful first-hand experience to walk into schools in a different country. I think it gives you greater perspective on your work when you can see how other people and cultures and societies approach it."
The delegation was headquartered in Beijing, where Nadeau said she visited the Beijing Royal School, a private international school. She and a group of 30 educators from New England also traveled to Wuxi, a city of 6.5 million people in the Jiangsu province, where they toured Wuxi No. 1 Middle School and Dong-Li Middle School, before rejoining the larger delegation in Beijing to share their findings.
In comparing the American and Chinese education systems, Nadeau said there is plenty for the countries to learn from one another.
"I don't think we'd want to emulate classrooms of 50 students," she said. "We might not emulate some of the practices around special education being totally in separate schools. But I did (appreciate) the structure of routines, the fact that physical activity is built into the schedule more than once during the day, and the emphasis on the arts, even more so than we see in some parts of the U.S."
The countries use vastly different systems, Nadeau said. School is mandatory for Chinese students through ninth grade. Parents must pay tuition if they want their children to attend high school, where enrollment is also determined by competitive testing, and the fees are often too high for students who live in rural areas.
Between 30 and 40 percent of those who attend high school score high enough on exams to attend universities, she said.
Nadeau said Chinese teachers are beginning to wrestle with one issue that cropped up in American classrooms a decade ago: students playing with cellphones.
"Kids are kids, no matter where you are," she said.
Nadeau paid the $900 cost of the trip and used three professional days, plus vacation time, according to the town's website. She visited several legendary tourist attractions, including the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.
She created a blog to document the trip at Capesupt.blogspot.com, but couldn't access it from China, due to the country's Internet censorship policies. So she emailed her content – photos, information on Chinese education, personal observations – to a friend in the U.S., who posted it throughout the week.
This fall, 58 Cape Elizabeth Middle School students, or about 10 percent of the student body, signed up for an after-school Mandarin language course being offered through the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine.
"Adolescents are naturally curious," Nadeau said. "I think they enjoy the opportunity to begin learning an additional language and just to continue to expand their horizons about the world in general."