Superintendent's Notebook: China schools prepare students to compete globally

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I recently spent eight days in China as part of the College Board’s Chinese Bridge Delegation. I returned home deeply impressed by China’s efforts to transform its educational system.

Once known for rote instruction, China now is preparing students for the global marketplace by encouraging creativity, teamwork and innovation.

The seven-member delegation from Maine included Sarah Thompson, chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education. Other educators and school officials came from throughout the United States. The trip was sponsored by the College Board, the Confucius Institute, and Hanban, the Chinese national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language. College Board covered part of the cost; Thompson and I paid the rest on our own.

We visited two junior high schools and a K-12 international school in Beijing and Wuxi. As Thompson noted, “The students were so happy to see us and showed us their schools with great pride.”

While Chinese students listen to Lady Gaga and play basketball just like their Portland peers, their academic life is far different.

They attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. That provides ample time for core academic subjects (language arts, math, science and social studies), the arts, sports and other co-curricular activities. Calligraphy, kung fu, traditional Chinese music and dance all are part of the curriculum.

Since 2008, China has worked to transform its educational system from one that rewarded memorization and paperwork, to one that develops students’ higher-order thinking skills. We saw students working in teams and engaged in research projects.

The schools that we visited are educating students to become leaders in a global society. All students learn English. Many take Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate exam. They are preparing for top universities in Australia, Great Britain and the United States as well as China.

The teaching profession is highly respected in China. Teachers go through rigorous training, and they are mentored by retired educators. In recent years, China has hired many American-born teachers. They have helped China develop a more student-centered approach to education.

The Chinese set high educational aspirations, and their children are meeting that bar.

The recently released results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that Chinese 15-year-olds scored better than students from any other country in reading, math and science. U.S. students, by comparison, placed 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math.

But test scores only tell part of the story.

I asked a seventh-grade Chinese student why he was in school. I was really impressed by his response: he wanted to become “a useful citizen.”

The Chinese educational system faces plenty of challenges. Most classes have 40 to 50 students. Education is free only through ninth grade, and students in rural areas have less access to school than those who live in cities. Just as in the U.S., China struggles to fund education, and to turn around low-performing schools.

Still, there is much that we can learn from the Chinese educational system as we work to prepare our students to become global citizens.

The next meeting of the Superintendent’s Book Club will focus on how we can glean ideas from successful educational systems around the world. We will discuss “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way,” by Amanda Ripley.

The author compared education systems to find out why some countries produce students who are achieving at high levels on international tests such as the PISA, while other countries’ student achievement has remained flat or declined in recent years. She followed three U.S. students as they spent a year as foreign exchange students in countries with some of the highest test scores: South Korea, Finland and Poland.

The book club will meet on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in downtown Portland. I hope you will join us.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at Read his blog at