“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” — Aristotle
It was July 2012. In Hong Kong’s historic Victoria Park, the crowd of 90,000 was buzzing with anger. As protesters lined the streets, keeping off the hot July air with umbrellas, cries were heard chanting, “No thought control!” and “Preserve one country, two systems!” The protesters, students and parents from around the Chinese province, were opposing the rollout of a standardized “Moral and National Education” for primary and secondary public schools – one almost identical to the compulsory education found on mainland China. (Joyce Lau, “Thousands Protest China’s Plans for Hong Kong Schools,” New York Times)
Although the protest ended peacefully, it became a landmark battle in the grueling war between educators in Hong Kong and the Chinese Department of Education resulting in the retraction of the “Moral and National Education” reform. Many from Hong Kong, which has been historically exempt from this type of national indoctrination, protested for months, claiming that the compulsory educational reform was a way to “brainwash” students into compliance with the mainland Chinese governmental system. Others just saw this new reform as an extension of compulsory common education that pre-determined student success based on arbitrary rules.
Flip Side of the Same Coin
Although the U.S. Department of Education is not attempting to roll out a “moral education,” there are some dissenters who say that Common Core could quickly turn America into a Chinese educational state. In a recent YouTube video, Chinese-American Lily Tang Williams argues that the current Common Core system in the US is more like the Communist education she received as a young child under the Mao Tse-tung regime and warns against copying China’s model:
“[Children] are trained to be test-takers, not to be critical thinkers. High school kids are even more miserable because of the pressure to perform – the pressure to pass college exams, which is once-a-year nationalized exam for three days. And if you screw up one time, it’s like your life is done. You have to come back next year to retake the exam. That’s the only way you can go to college. So, why do we want to be like China? Do not think test scores matter [like] it’s everything…That kind of system actually suppresses free minds. It kills innovation, it kills the joy of learning. Is that what we want for America?” — Lily Tang Williams Chinese Immigrant: Common Core Reminds Me of Communist China
In fact, the battle over Common Core and the shift towards over-testing in the U.S. has made many educators and parents feel that they are being forced to teach in a police state, inspiring protests and demonstrations across the country. Just this month, students in New York, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, and Pennsylvania opted out of Common Core tests by the hundreds of thousands.
Bob Schaeffer, an administrator with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, suggests in a PBS Hour interview that the U.S. has reached a tipping point – much like those in the Hong Kong protests of 2012, “There is a widespread sentiment among parents, students, teachers, administrators, and local elected officials that enough is enough, that government mandated testing has taken over our schools.“
Scholars and education policymakers warn about potential perils of copying China’s traditional method of learning through excessive testing. In a Business Insider post on the topic (Here’s the one big problem with China’s supposedly amazing schools), Abby Jackson explains why over-testing is the wrong path:
“Chinese education produces excellent test scores, a short-term outcome that can be achieved by rote memorization and hard work,” writes Zhao [Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?], who grew up in China and taught there, “but like the Chinese government itself, it does not produce a citizenry of diverse, creative, and innovative talent.”
“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she goes to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge for college,” Zheng Yefu, a professor at China’s Peking University, said, according to Zhao’s blog. While that might be an overstatement, other scholars have noted the dearth of Chinese-educated Nobel Prize winners. In order for China to produce more Nobel Prize winners, “Chinese academia will need to modify their teaching styles to emphasize more creative problem solving, rather than the traditional approach that values … memorization,” the prominent statistician Howard Steven Friedman wrote in the Huffington Post.
Though no one is expecting children to become Nobel Prize-Winners, their well-being and the well-being of the teachers who spend over 30% of their time on testing students, has taken priority in this debate.
This has prompted lawmakers to reevaluate how effective the Chinese-inspired test-driven educational culture really is, and has served as a catalyst towards a Common Core ideal that is more about deep inquiry and problem-based learning than testing. Florida Governor Rick Scott recently signed a bill that limited testing to 45 hours each school year. Then, in February 2015, a Senate committee sent a bi-partisan bill to update No Child Left Behind to allow schools to determine how much weight Common Core high-stakes tests would receive.(Kimberly Hefling, “Education Committee Sends No Child Left Behind Update to House,” Huffington Post) And, finally, Common Core-aligned curriculum like IAT’s project-based learning science are giving teachers and students inquiry-based and integrative ways to gain deep understanding of Common Core concepts.
A Change Is Gonna Come
Since the politically-charged education protests in 2012 against this restrictive way of learning, the Chinese education system has become more and more integrative, interactive, and creative within their own common core education — a change that has been undoubtedly influenced by the American-way of learning. This has suggested to many that the problem is not a set of compulsory educational guidelines, but, in fact, how those guidelines are implemented.
In a recent interview with the New York Times (Q. and A.: Yong Zhao on Education and Authoritarianism in China), University of Oregon professor and Chinese native Yong Zhao explained that China’s interpretation of Common Core education has expanded over the last few years. And, strangely, this has come at a time when the U.S. concept of common curriculum seems to have been contracting:
“The U.S. has certainly become more like China in recent years. The No Child Left Behind Act has increased the stakes and usage of standardized testing. President Obama’s Race to the Top and other initiatives continue to push testing into schools and classrooms by associating test scores with teacher evaluation. So, American education today has become more centralized, standardized, and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterized Chinese education.”
“I think China has been doing the right things in recent years. They have been working very hard to minimize the impact of tests, reduce academic burdens on students, broaden the curriculum, grant more autonomy to schools and local governments, ease educational inequalities and reform college admissions to admit the emergence of different talents.”
For China, education is, indeed, changing. Just two weeks ago, Zhao optimistically trumpeted the dawn of a new era in Chinese education in an article, The Dawn of a New Era: China’s College Entrance Exam Transformation:
“The year 2015 will be remembered as the beginning of a new era in Chinese education, according to some Chinese press[in Chinese]. It is the first year when a suite of policies aimed to transform the college entrance exam system or gaokao is to be implemented. The reforms are not a simple redesign of the exam, but rather a transformation of the entire college admission system. Because of the life-altering power ofgaokao and the magnitude of the changes, this round of reform will likely bring transformative changes to education at all levels in China.”
“In a nutshell, the reform aims to create an American-style college admission system, but implemented in the Chinese way. The defining characteristics of the admission process used by most U.S. higher education institutions are multiple measures, multiple choices, and multiple opportunities, in contrast to the existing Chinese system characterized by limited measures,limited choices, and limited opportunities.”
A great example of this next generation of Common Core implementation can be found at the University of Hong Kong itself. Three years ago, students passionately protested the rollout of the Chinese “moral education.” Fast forward to today, and you’ll find a renewed spirit of inquiry, creativity and community and less testing. The driving force? The University’s Common Core Curriculum.
One look at their Common Core curriculum website and it’s clear that this is not curriculum focused on test scores or rote memorization. Instead, it is focused on bridging knowledge gaps, connecting students to their history, and doing personal investigations that result in a better understanding of art, literature, science, math, and politics (the description of the curriculum is more reminiscent of American Universities than you might expect). According to the University of Hong Kong website, the goals of their Common Core program are:
- To enable students to develop a broader perspective and a critical understanding of the complex connections between issues in their everyday lives;
- To cultivate students’ ability to navigate the similarities and differences between their own and other cultures;
- To enable students to more fully participate as individuals and citizens in global, regional, and local communities; and
- To develop the intellectual and communication skills that will be further enhanced in students’ disciplinary studies, and, in turn, contribute to the quality of their lives after graduation. (“Common Core Curriculum,” University of Hong Kong)
They achieve these goals through:
- the artistic and imaginative expressions of ideas and emotions;
- the reciprocal relationships, on various scales, between individuals and communities;
- the relationships between human beings, scientific ways of knowing, technology and nature;
- identity-formation, social tensions, and the negotiation of differences; and
- continuity and change that link the past, present and future
This all sounds well and good, but what about assessments? That’s the kicker. Here is how Common Core students at Hong Kong University are assessed:
“Since learning occurs best when it is most active, Common Core courses use diverse modes of assessment such as essays; journals, scrapbooks, or observation logs; making a short video, map, or soundscape; engaging in relevant experiments and fieldwork; constructing a website; creating an exhibit of work; or undertaking group projects or presentations. Occasionally, there will also be a traditional exam or a quiz.”
Although China has long supported the idea of a one-size-fits-all education, their newly-found interpretation of common core curriculum with only occasional testing (practically an about-face from their past) indicates that they are slowly beginning to adopt a some of America’s more creative, inquiry-based teaching. While America, at the same time, is struggling to adopt elements of China’s educational system. With globalization being a key factor, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Common Core can be a way to raise the standard of education authentically — through integrative and inquiry-problem-based curricula that connect across disciplines. It’s only through the blinders of rote memorization and aggressive, test-based teaching that cultures – both East and West – run the risk of long-term failure.
Read the University of Hong Kong’s 2014-2015 Common Core Curriculum HERE.
University of Hong Kong Common Core Curriculum Student Testimonials
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