Drew Scheberle, Chamber Sr. Vice President, recently returned from China as part of an educational exchange with People’s Republic of China, organized through Texas A&M University at College Station.
Last week, 15 year old Shanghai students scored far ahead of 64 other countries’ 15 year olds in math, science and reading in the latest PISA assessment (Program for International School Assessment). Shanghai’s population is nearly 20 million; Texas’ population is 24 million.
Tuesday, I returned from 11 days in Beijing and Wuhan, visited a few schools, talked in English to Chinese principals, teachers, students and province education officials. So this is by no means definitive. But Austin and Texas needs to understand: Our talent base competes with China…and the rest of the world. We need to prioritize achievement in Texas education.
For those Texas students who graduate high school with a commensurate education to those in Shanghai and graduate from university in STEM fields, high wage job opportunities should still be there in the short-term. But I witnessed huge operations for 3M, Abbott, Intel, AMD, Microsoft…the who’s who of American technology companies. Will Austin, with its relatively small population, be able to maintain its middle class wages if its bottom 75% are not much, much smarter?
There is no sugar-coating it: significant numbers of our competitors in China and the industrialized world are competing well or even out-hustling us.
I believe there are several reasons those Shanghai test-takers out-performed the rest of the world.
Ø Chinese Students Work Harder. Like all others in the industrialized world, Chinese students from elementary to high school spend more time per day and more time per year learning and studying. In the competitive schools I visited, students began class at 7:30, took 2 hours for lunch, returned to class until 5pm or 5:30pm, then studied after dinner. Compound that over 12 years. Texas legislators and school district leaders should not be considering reducing education time to address potential state revenue allocations.
Ø Competition and the Desire to Eat. Enrollment in Chinese higher education is limited to a small percentage (but huge number) of high school graduates. Student performance on the gaokao examination system is the primary way to gain college access. This creates tremendous stress on students. But Chinese poverty is still very significant. You want to eat, you study. Large numbers of Chinese do that…even when the possibility of a white collar job after graduation is not assured. (http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/educated-and-fearing-the-future-in-china/)
At dinner last Friday with several Tsinghua University professors in Beijing (ranked #3 in China), Dr. Matthew Ferchen echoed a comment made by many in China and the USA: Chinese education is too focused on rote learning. That comment has been used to dismiss Shanghai academic performance, despite the fact that PISA is not a multiple choice test; it is primarily a short- and long-answer test. I believe it is true, the Chinese government believes it is true. Six years ago, the Chinese central government began to reduce class sizes and roll out a plan across its tens of thousands of schools to instill more creativity into the classroom.
With classes of 60 students (seen an intro college class lately), anything beyond lecture is very hard to make interactive. But I did witness a high school class at Wuhan Experimental School, where all 55 students participated in the lesson on Chinese idioms. Students led the lesson, students competed to answer the questions, each student was called upon.
So what are the implications for Austin and for Texas?
- Texas math standards should be immediately revisited by Texas State Board of Education.
- New accountability must be organized primarily around college/career readiness.
- Pace of improvement must accelerate in new accountability system.
- School district budgets must prioritize college readiness/enrollment when cutting budgets.
Finally, I recall a conversation from several years ago with a Harvard University PhD graduate, a true intellect, a warm family man and a guy who likes to play hoops every day for lunch. We were talking about the time required to be globally competitive. He asked, “what if we don’t want to work that hard?” I responded “what is our option?”
I think these are two of the most important questions of the 21st century.