U.S. and China are like two ships passing

By Curtis Finch

MOISD Superintendent

It’s interesting to watch the evolution of K-12 education in the state of Michigan and the nation. We look for answers in Europe and Asia and they are doing the same, except they are looking here to improve their systems! We are passing each other like two ships in the night.

They have national, high-stakes, elitist sorting systems, while we have compulsory, customized, and flexible local systems; we are turning into them and they are turning into us. Why is that the case? I believe it’s a mix between human nature to always want to improve something and the illusion of the “grass always being greener on the other side.”

Americans have a fascination with the Asian educational system, as their students score well on international tests. In their sorting system, only the best take the tests. The Chinese system has more “honor” students than America has students! I’ve always found it interesting that the Chinese want the principles of democracy and a free economy to work in their communist nation while preserving the foundation of communism. The internet is putting tremendous pressure on their system even though it is filtered for their people; human nature cannot resist the taste of free will.

I recently read an article about a superintendent from Wisconsin, Randy Refsland, who spent a year in China as an educational consultant. His observations are worth repeating as they reinforce the premise of this article – be careful what we wish for.

The good things about the Chinese system are:

1) the respect for educators (teachers are “rock stars” in China);

2) the work ethic of students (most high school students go to tutoring after school);

3) the societal respect for education (it’s their way to American Universities);

4) the emphasis on math and science; and

5) the world view shared by students and teachers (China is not the center of the universe). These are all admirable parts of their system.

Communism is at the heart of the weaknesses of their educational system. Randy saw four parts of that Asian system that were not helpful to students.

They were:

1) Chinese teachers lecture only, and most class sizes ranged from 50 to 75 students - even at the elementary level;

2) teachers teach to the national and international tests with little authority to wander off the path;

3) no special needs students are in sight, anywhere; and

4) corruption is rampant with the high-level stakes testing.

As Asia and Europe try to become more inclusive, creative, and flexible, we are trying to become more nationally-driven, more controlled, and create a greater emphasize on high-stakes testing. When is the last time you went into your local school? Students today are graduating at a higher rate than ever (with higher standards), students work with all races, nationalities, and disabilities with ease, and today’s educators are the most highly trained in history to handle the variety of students’ abilities and needs.

There is nothing wrong with the recent push for “accountability” as long as we don’t lose the good parts of our system. What if we finally reach the other shore and find out we are on the wrong side?

Dr. Finch can be reached at cfinch@moisd.org and followed on Twitter at CFinchMOISD