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Is the criticism of educational practices in China applicable to the US as well?

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Today, January 21, 2014, Education Week published a commentary questioning educational practices in China. It is the most recent volley in a slew of articles criticizing educational practices in China.

For example, on December 20, 2013, Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) drew attention to a Washington Post article. The author of the article asserts, in no uncertain terms, “To me, the recent [PISA] test results were no surprise: Of course East Asian kids test well.” It continues, “But the thing about testing is that it creates excellent followers, not leaders. Doing well on tests requires constant test prep. Granted, when it comes to buckling down and cramming for hours on end, Asians kids will beat their U.S. counterparts to a pulp. But give them a task that is not testable or not directly related to school, ask them to do something not for their college application but for themselves, and they’ll draw a blank.”

The fundamental criticism, it seems, is that the Chinese mindset produces students with a fealty to performance goals. What then is this demigod that drawn so many to its feet?

Dr. Carol Dweck, whose work has been embraced by MCPS, sheds light on why the performance approach, which produces stellar test performance, is popular. She points out that student goals come in two flavors:
(a) performance goals, and
(b) learning goals.

Getting an A in a class is an example of the former; mastery of the subject matter is an example of the latter. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), for example, insists on performance goals: 100% proficiency by the school year 2013-2014. Similarly, the MCPS requirement, “Algebra 2 by Grade 11 with a “C” or higher,” is a de facto performance goal.

The lesson from NCLB is that performance goals tend to elicit teaching to the test. Indeed, as teachers are increasingly asked to teach subjects which require a high level of subject matter competence, for example calculus, teaching to the test is likely to become common place. It creates an illusion of learning and the mirage of good teaching.

Achieving performance goals do not require a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter—by the teacher or the student. Instead, it simply lends itself to prescriptive teaching. It creates an aura of success for both the teacher and the student. For the student, it provides an arguably easy path to a stellar transcript. Similarly, for the teacher, it provides a means of creating the appearance of proficiency and successful teaching.

While we may hurl brickbats at the Chinese philosophy of education, we must be equally cognizant of the embrace of the same philosophy stateside.

Walk into any school in Montgomery County and you will be greeted with graphics of the school’s performance data on NCLB mandated state tests. The Washington Post, for example, ranks schools by an index based on the ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school in 2012, divided by the number of graduates that year. No, the index isn’t based on what is learned; instead it is based on the simple performance measure of how many students are pushed to take AP or IB tests.

Clearly, the criticism against Chinese educational philosophies may be equally valid against the burgeoning embrace of performance goals based teaching in the United States.

There are signs that in Montgomery County, the largest school system in Maryland has embraced performance based teaching. Recently, Montgomery Blair High School math teacher Jake "2Pi" Scott enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame apparently claiming that “his unique strategy for memorizing information” helped “Blair students succeed” in math.

Coincidentally or not, MCPS has been facing “steep failures rates in countywide tests.” Shouldn’t the school system investigate if the “answers for failed math exams” is the embrace of performance based teaching? Rather than blame teachers shouldn't we ask ourselves if we are asking them to do the right thing?

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