Fwd: dsanet: Some Thoughts on Chinese Education

Chris Doss itschris13 at SPAMhotmail.com
Wed May 24 00:07:29 MDT 2000

>From: LeoCasey at aol.com
>Reply-To: dsanet at quantum.sdsu.edu
>To: ARN-L at listsrva.cua.edu, ntpi-owner at list.teachnet.org,
>dsanet at quantum.sdsu.edu
>Subject: dsanet: Some Thoughts on Chinese Education
>Date: Tue, 23 May 2000 11:24:25 EDT
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>The author of this message is LeoCasey at aol.com
>Some Thoughts On Chinese Education
>Leo Casey
>For two weeks at the end of April and the start of May, a group of 16 New
>York area educators, of which I was one, participated in a two week study
>tour of China. The tour was sponsored by the China Institute, a
>educational organization founded by John Dewey 75 years ago with the aim of
>improving American understanding of historical and contemporary China, and
>joined with the support, moral and financial, of my union, the United
>Federation of Teachers. Over the course of our trip, we visited three major
>cities in different sections of China [Chengdu, Xi'an, Beijing] and spoke
>with an interesting and wide array of intellectuals, academics and
>ranging from those who faithfully transmitted the party line on all matters
>and reformers within the government to apolitical scholars and outspoken
>critics of the government and its current economic and political policies.
>the primary focus of our trip was educational, we met with teachers and
>administrators at the universities in Chengdu and Xi'an, a rural elementary
>school in Sichuan province and an elite high school in Beijing. We also
>visited a rural farm, along with a number of historical and cultural sites.
>What follows are my thoughts on the current state of Chinese education,
>some discussion of points of relevance to American education. A longer
>with my more general reflections on China, written with reference to the
>ongoing debate over China's entry into the WTO and most favored nation
>trading status, is available at [LeoCasey at AOL.COM].
>China currently has a system of free, compulsory public education for the
>elementary and middle grades (grades 1 through 9). Upon completion of the
>ninth grade, a student must pass nationwide examinations to proceed into
>school. As well, after the ninth grade, education is no longer free:
>– at a considerable cost – is required for higher education. This
>follows a
>pattern the Chinese government has established in all of its social
>health care, too, must now be purchased. As it is integrated itself into
>global economy, China has increasingly adopted an economic policy which can
>only be described as laissez-faire capitalism, and the Social Darwinist
>ideology of such a system has led to slicing social services down to an
>absolute minimum. All of this has taken place during a decade when the
>Chinese economy was growing at a rate of 7% to 10% annually, and thus
>producing greater and greater economic surpluses and resources.
>Much too little of those growing economic resources have been plowed back
>into education. For the Chinese development model combines laissez-faire
>capitalism with an authoritarian, repressive state, as part of an attempt
>copy the economic successes of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan that is
>taken entirely from pages of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund
>play book. And this state, run by the Chinese Communist Party, is the
>of a great deal of corruption and misuse of funds. Consider, for example,
>that 70% of all food catering in China is for the government and the party,
>and that the Chinese state spends 1.3 times as much on that catering as it
>does on education. (One cannot help being reminded of the distinction
>Plunkitt of Tammany Hall once made between "legal" and "illegal" graft.)
>as few as 20% of those students who want to continue their education beyond
>the compulsory, free stage have an opportunity to do so.
>Teachers are required to have completed at least three years of
>post-secondary education, and as far as we could see, most have a B.A.; in
>the urban centers, there is a move to have teachers with Masters Degrees.
>the elementary school we visited in a rural section of the southwestern
>Sichuan province, teachers were paid 80 Chinese yuan – approximately US$
>65 -
>a month. As a point of contrast, we also visited a combined middle and high
>school the capital of Beijing, an elite public school not unlike a
>or Bronx High School of Science in New York City which is affiliated with
>prestigious Beijing Normal University (Teachers' College) and had the most
>extravagant facilities, such as an Olympic size swimming pool. Teachers in
>this school were paid up to 200 Chinese yuan – approximately US$ 160 –
>month; the first 100 yuan came from the government, and the second 100 yuan
>came from student tuition in the upper grades. (The cost of living is, of
>course, higher in Beijing.) Further, there is a system of merit pay for
>teachers, and their salaries may be reduced if their class(es) fail(s) to
>reach school standards in areas such as student attendance, student
>discipline and student exam grades. (The elementary school had a large
>blackboard in their courtyard on which a running account of how the
>teachers' classes met those standards was kept.) These low salaries for
>educated professionals reflect the generally abysmal level of wages in
>one can imagine what the income of uneducated workers and peasants would
>and why Western corporations are so eager to "set up shop" under these
>conditions in which no free, democratically controlled unions are allowed.
>Yet the wealth which has flowed into the government and state bureaucracy
>private entrepreneurial sector is so great that the gap between the richest
>and the poorest classes in society is now greater in China than in the
>Class size – in both the rural and urban setting – was capped at 50; it
>hard to see how any more children than 50 could be squeezed into a single
>Chinese educators to whom we spoke reported that pedagogy was still quite
>didactic and entirely teacher directed and dominated.  The few classes we
>(for most of our time in China, there was a week long national holiday)
>to confirm that judgment. (Since we did not understand the language, and
>to rely either upon our China Institute guides or our contacts for
>translations, there was a limit to what we could determine on our own.)
>However, there was also a general recognition among these Chinese educators
>that this was not ideal, and that pedagogical changes needed to be made.
>young graduate student in the school of education at the university in
>was extraordinarily well-read in Western educational literature [he was
>completely conversant, for example, with Donald Schön's concept of teacher
>reflective practitioner], and he was fascinated with the lively and
>discussion we had over dinner one night, as myself and another New York
>educator took on a representative of the New York State Education
>on the subject of "high stakes exams." It is very hard to know how
>his views were, however, and his own comments seemed to suggest that he was
>well in advance of most his colleagues in the educational profession in
>Interestingly enough, the Chinese educators did note that there was a trend
>away from the extraordinary emphasis the Chinese schools and government had
>previously placed on 'high stakes exams,' as it was generally recognized
>the amount of pressure they had placed on students was not conducive to
>learning. But this trend is relative to what was: national examinations
>continue to be the ‘gateways' to higher education.
>Although there is little of much quality written in English on Chinese
>education, I found an interesting text by Howard Gardner
>(To Open Minds) which recounts his own exchanges, on a series of trips and
>collaborations which started during the 1980s, with Chinese educators. It
>an interesting juxtaposition to read Gardner as we traveled through China.
>Gardner confirms the judgment that Chinese education is heavily on the
>prescriptive and conservative side of the educational spectrum, focusing on
>direct instruction of well-established bodies of knowledge and skills. Not
>too surprisingly, given his own theoretical work on "multiple
>and his research focus on arts education, Gardner finds that this approach
>stultifies individual creativity and discourages critical thinking. Without
>accepting in its entirety Gardner's views of educational pedagogy, there is
>little doubt that his general observations regarding Chinese education are
>close to the mark.
>What is interesting in Gardner's analysis, however, is that he never
>considers why Chinese education developed in the direction it did. There
>of course, many factors in the development of Chinese education. For
>China has never had the strong legacy of individualism that marks Western
>cultures, and so individual creativity in education would not be deemed to
>of the same value. And an authoritarian and repressive government, such as
>that which has ruled China for the last half-century, is not about to
>encourage 'critical thinking' of any sort. But, at best, the current
>government inherited and reinforced a classical tradition of education, one
>with deep roots in classical Chinese philosophy. What Gardner never
>considers, but what seems to be a fascinating issue for me, is the role
>literacy plays in shaping Chinese education and pedagogy.
>Since I am not a linguist by training, when I discuss Chinese literacy, I
>venturing into a field where there are many extraordinary gaps in what I
>know. But the major points seem fairly straightforward to me. Chinese
>language differs dramatically from various European and Middle Eastern
>written languages in that it is pictorially, rather than phonetically,
>Chinese characters were developed from illustrations. To be literate in
>classical written Chinese, therefore, there was no choice but to memorize
>several hundred basic characters. The total universe of characters ranges
>50,000, but like German compound nouns, these involve combinations of
>different characters. The net effect of all of this was that, until the
>post-WWII period, literacy was limited to a very small elite of the Chinese
>people – government bureaucrats and scholars. (Note that the official
>dialect, used nationally, is called Chinese Mandarin, after the Chinese
>state officials and scholars known as mandarins.)
>When the Chinese government decided to embark on a program of national
>literacy after the Revolution, they first developed a romanized form of the
>written language, with the first version being produced by the Russians
>thus conforming closer to the demands of Russian language). In 1979, the
>government officially adopted pinyin, based on the International Phonetic
>Alphabet, for these purposes. [This was the point at which the spelling Mao
>Tse-Tung was changed to Mao Zedong.] Today, in the mass instruction of
>literacy in Chinese schools, students are first taught the pinyin version
>written Chinese, and only when this form is successfully mastered, do they
>move on to the written characters.
>It seems to me that this experience provides a most interesting
>counterfactual for debates in American education over the appropriate place
>of phoneme recognition in the teaching and learning of literacy. The
>experience seems to suggest, at least to me, that phonetic instruction must
>play a larger role in literacy instruction than the more extreme variants
>'whole language' instruction would provide, although by no means does it
>accord it the exclusive place the 'phonics' purists would give it. The
>comparative study of literacy acquisition seems, to me, to be a fruitful
>for much more discussion among American educators.
>Leo Casey
>United Federation of Teachers
>260 Park Avenue South
>New York, New York 10010-7272 (212-598-6869)
>Power concedes nothing without a demand.
>It never has, and it never will.
>If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
>Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation are men who
>want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and
>lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.
>-- Frederick Douglass --

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