Andrew Kipnis in his provocative book, Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China, addresses what he refers to as “educational desire”—the extreme interest in educational achievement that crosses China’s class and regional lines. He argues against the idea that Western nations are the models for innovation in China, noting that the turn toward testing and teacher audit, central to the Chinese system and now being pursued in the United States, “suggests that the diffusion of cultural models from the West has been overemphasized.”
Kipnis’s book shows how China and the United States are engaged in a true global exchange in which both countries are adapting elements of the other’s educational system. The Chinese have relied on examinations to determine rank, dating back to the earliest dynasties. The elite in these societies were expected to pass civil service exams that required extensive knowledge of Confucian texts. The form, if not the content, of this method of education, continued through the Maoist period, when children were expected to memorize Mao’s Little Red Book. The method has since been accommodated to the current gaokao, the rigorous test that determines whether a student can go to college, which sifts them according to their scores into a strict hierarchy of universities.
Teachers are audited regularly for their ability to prepare students for this test. Classes are constructed so as to determine which teachers can raise student scores. This is done by mixing weaker and stronger students in the same class and then gauging how they perform on yearly exams. Class size is considered less important than teachers, who serve as exemplars both for students and, if their students perform at a high level, for other teachers as well. As Kipnis notes, this model finds echoes in the “No Child Left Behind” policy, and in other recent efforts in the United States to test student achievement and audit teacher performance.
By the same token, there is a strong movement in China to soften the demanding exam and audit model. The buzzword for this shift is “quality.” Chinese policymakers have called for teachers to add quality to their curriculum—to spur original thinking, encourage questioning (up to a point), and promote more extracurricular hobbies and interests. Taking to heart the accusation that their system has stymied innovation, the Chinese are emulating the American educational system, which has traditionally emphasized creativity and individuality.
It is easy to take a Polyanna-ish view and see the making of a utopic combination of the two methods—a meeting in the middle that is supportive of both individual creativity and of rigor and accountability. Obviously, the ideal balance is elusive. We see this in our own schools, where accountability can be abused in the form of “teaching to the test” or where teachers help students cheat in order to raise scores and bolster their image. Similarly, in China, says Kipnis, quality is often misunderstood or applied in perfunctory ways. But he also warns us to be careful about passing judgment too quickly on a given method, even if it seems to have severe drawbacks, and to be open to the idea that a successful education can be hard to quantify and can proceed through different routes. In the following passage, he is writing about the Chinese system—but he could be addressing the American one as well, if we adjust the vocabulary:
While I would not endorse the unnecessary enforcement of particular political views in the classroom, I accept that memorization, exemplarity, and discipline have an important place in educational settings. Strict school systems are often the most egalitarian, as lax discipline in school settings simply means that the discipline required for school success is unevenly applied—more in families with the patience and resources to do so themselves and less elsewhere. …
But … I do not agree with the scholars … who argue that the rote memorization of Chinese classics improves the moral character of young schoolchildren, or that it raises their overall level of Quality. Indeed, I do not accept that there is such a thing as Quality. Any educative system must strike a series of creative compromises between instilling the discipline necessary for some to excel and many to feel competent and admitting, in the end, that there is something arbitrary about what is learned. Excelling at school must be valued, but forms of excelling or just getting by that do not involve school success should also have a place.
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