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Esther Wojcicki: “American Schools Are Becoming More Like Classic Chinese Schools”

Palo Alto HS's famed journalism and English teacher addresses 2014's potential for "hysteria"

Hysteria. That is what I predict will be happening in education circles next year.

2014 may turn out to be frightening for education in America: we will likely see national hysteria over US students' falling scores, both in the recently released PISA test scores (Programme for International Student Assessment) and as a result of the new generation of Common Core assessments. We will see districts scrambling for silver bullet solutions. But the biggest concern I have is those such quick fix efforts could just make our education system bleed even more.

The PISA scores showed that the American students are falling even farther behind other countries... in spite of our obsession with testing and teacher accountability.

In the most recent round of testing, US students slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading. The 2013 test scores (released December 3) shows that the U.S. lags among 65 countries even after adjusting for poverty. Pretty shoddy statistics especially after we spend more than other nations on education--$7,743 per student per year. The OECD data show almost no link between spending on education and PISA test results.

We should be concerned that in our hysteria, our system will become more like the classic Chinese system (Shanghai is not typical of China) that excels at teaching to the test. The problem with teaching to the test is that it leaves no room for experimentation, creativity and, most important, for failure. When kids experience "failure," they learn deep lessons: how to stay determined in the face of obstacles, how to change course, how to invent a new approach. That is how you inspire people to think innovatively and creatively.

Setting aside Shanghai, the Chinese system at large is a rote learning system focused entirely on testing. There is no room for rengades. In a typical Chinese classroom, experimentation is considered a wasted opportunity to teach to the test. Chinese education system is rote based. Is that what we want for our kids?

Just ask how many Nobel Prize winners China has for science. The answer? zero. The only resident Chinese Nobel laureate received a prize for Peace--and Liu Ziaobo is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, US schools have been teaching to the test--and our kids have been doing worse. There may be some problem with what we test for, but the main problem is that we test at all.

The PISA test actually asks students to problem solve and think; our tests don’t. We are focused on multiple choice tests that require students to memorize material. Countries that have higher test scores have engaged students who are involved in collaboration, teamwork, and project-based learning. These include Shanghai-China, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Top performers place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them, according to OECD. Teachers also have considerable prestige.

American teachers have no autonomy in the classroom and little prestige. As a result of Race to the Top program, teachers salaries are tied to test scores, and many teachers are given a scripted curriculum to implement. The lower the student performance, the higher the likelihood of scripted teaching. All American teaching these days, whether it is scripted or not, is geared toward the high stakes tests.

Another important difference between the US and other top performing nations is that we are ignoring the needs of our gifted students. Our push to democratize education and improve all students’ test scores has resulted in a less rigorous curriculum for all students. No Child Left Behind does not require schools offer any gifted or talented programs, simply that nearly all students meet the minimum skill levels. As a result, funding for gifted and talented programs has shriveled as much as 90% nationwide and the overall curriculum has focused on the less talented students.

A December 2013 NY Times’ editorial observed: “Schools have focused on the average and below-average students who make up the bulk of their enrollments, not on the smaller number of students at the top. It is vital that students in the middle get increased attention, as the new Common Core standards are designed to do, but when the brightest students are not challenged academically, they lose steam and check out.”  

The NY Times recommended three strategies:  

1. Increased government support for gifted programs;  

2. More advanced placement courses in schools nationwide;

3. Early college admission for the gifted students.  

These are all excellent suggestions but will they happen?  

Increased government support for gifted programs is unlikely to happen. It is a great idea and it is long overdue, but we are in a continued financial crisis and the nation is focused on improving test scores of the lower performing students as evidenced by No Child Left Behind policies. It is achingly hard to change these policies in midstream.

Adding more advanced placement courses nationwide might be easier to implement. However, finding qualified advanced placement teachers in an atmosphere that is highly critical of teachers is difficult to do. More than 46% of U.S. teachers leave the profession after five years because of the intense stress associated with the present teaching environment.

Providing opportunities for early college admission for gifted students is more realistic. It does not increase costs; it does, however, require coordination with local colleges. Hopefully there will be growing discussion about this idea.

These are all reasonable suggestions, but most school districts will be looking for a silver bullet. Those bullets will likely include even more testing, a stricter adherence to the curriculum standards, and less creativity--a heart-breaking cycle that will lead to even more problems.  

A glimmer of hope can be seen in the blended learning model that is being adopted in many classrooms. This is a model in which students learn at least part of the time via the Internet with some element of control of their learning. And by engaging students, empowering them and giving them the passion to learn through blended systems, we have a shot at real school reform--without the hysteria.

About the Author

Regular_esther-wojcicki
Esther is a journalism and English teacher at Palo Alto High School. She is also Vice Chair of the Creative Commons Board of Directors and CEO of ClassBadges.

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