International Opinion

The Chinese work ethic and other news

By Diane Ravitch — June 11, 2007 2 min read
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Bridging Differences was on a brief hiatus while Deborah Meier traveled in China. Today, the blog returns with a new post from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deb,

I hope you had a wonderful trip to China and that you are not too wiped out. I have been there a few times, first in 1987, most recently in 1998. I hear it has changed quite a lot since then.

Lots of things happening in your absence, none to gladden your heart. The Center for Education Policy released a report on NCLB, concluding that it was overall having a positive effect on achievement. CEP, as you know, is run by Jack Jennings, who was a top legislative staff person for the Democrats in the House of Representatives for many years.

Then came a column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on May 28, called “The Educated Giant,” (available only through TimesSelect) where he commented on how successful the Chinese education system is. Apparently he was there with his wife and two of his children at the same time as you. From the column, it seems that his wife was born in China. They returned to her native village and were greatly impressed by the schools they saw. He wrote that “the level of math taught even in peasant schools is similar to that in my kids’ own excellent schools in the New York area.” Kristof noted that Chinese students are “hungry for education and advancement and work harder” than American children. Chinese children, he said, show up at school at 6:30 a.m. to get an extra hour of tutoring before school starts at 7:30 a.m. After a lunch break (from 11:30 til 2 p.m.), they return to school from 2 p.m. until 5. He says they do homework every night and weekend, and even do homework for an hour or two each day during summer vacation. He concludes that we need to “raise our own education standards to meet the competition” from China.

I would have loved to discuss Kristof’s article with you. I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about it, and my view is that most American kids are unwilling to work all that hard. The slacker mentality would not be tolerated in China. Here it is a dominant style.

Next came a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, which equated state proficiency standards with NAEP standards. What it found—no surprise!—is that state standards vary so widely that a fourth grade student in Mississippi who was rated “proficient” might well be judged “failing” in Massachusetts. The report, called “Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales” was quite amazing. One point that came through in this report was that many states rate students as “proficient” who would be rated “below basic” on the NAEP scale.

I know you don’t give a hoot about NAEP, and that you think its cut scores are way too high. But the important point that came across in this study is the crazy variability in state standards. The states with high standards are Massachusetts, Wyoming, and South Carolina. Close behind are Arkansas, Nevada, Connecticut, California, and New Mexico. The other states have set low to middling standards. I am sure this made the Bush administration unhappy, but the fundamental idea is that this variability makes no sense. We need accurate and consistent information about student progress.

I look forward to hearing whether your impression of China echoes that of Nicholas Kristof. I have a sneaking suspicion that it did not.



The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.