U.S.-Chinese Exchanges Nurture Ties Between Principals

By Sean Cavanagh — October 02, 2007 6 min read
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Students in art classes are making Chinese puzzles called tangrams. The music teacher has introduced a song in Mandarin. And the physical education instructor is covering a unit about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Those cross-cultural lessons are taking shape in a public school in Nashville, Tenn., with support from a key decisionmaker there: the principal.

Teachers at the Caldwell Enhanced Option School introduced those China-themed classroom lessons after the principal, Carlos L. Comer, returned this past summer from a tour of schools in that country. He took part in an exchange program for U.S. and Chinese principals, organized by university and school officials, that is one of a growing number of ventures in recent years targeting school leaders from both nations.

Mr. Comer, like other Americans who participated in the exchange, returned to the United States intent on building an understanding of China’s culture, and the country’s growing influence, among his students. He also emerged with a personal sense of the sharp differences between the two countries’ education systems.

“The children were very aware of their culture and history, who their ancestors were,” Mr. Comer, who visited several schools in the major southern city of Guangzhou, said of students in China. “There’s a lot of [connection] between the school and the home that doesn’t exist here.”

That understanding is part of what Xiu Cravens, the co-director of the exchange program, had in mind when she helped launch it two years ago. Called the Education Leadership Learning Exchange program, the undertaking is run jointly through Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, where Ms. Cravens is the China liaison for the exchange program, and South China Normal University in Guangzhou.

For American and Chinese principals, visiting their counterparts in the other country is “like learning a foreign language,” Ms. Cravens said. “The ones who learn it are more aware of their own language. That applies to exchange programs with leaders in education.”

Fostering Change

Program participants are selected from the Principals’ Leadership Academy of Nashville, a partnership of Vanderbilt, the 74,000-student public school system in metropolitan Nashville, and the Nashville Public Education Foundation. Leaders of districts in and around Guangzhou recommend the Chinese principals.

Hong Wang, center, a co-director of the foreign-exchange program for Chinese and Tennessee school leaders, greets principals at a reunion dinner in Guangzhou, China, this spring.

In launching the program, Ms. Cravens had a valuable partner in Hong Wang, the executive director of the principal-development center at South China Normal University. Ms. Wang, who had taken graduate classes at Vanderbilt, spoke with officials there about establishing a formal exchange for K-12 leaders.

The first group of about a dozen American principals visited schools in Guangzhou, a city of about 10 million, in June 2006, and Chinese principals traveled to Tennessee last fall. That schedule is being repeated this year.

China has a more uniform, centrally controlled system of school curriculum, testing, and textbooks than the United States, where there is far more local and state influence over K-12 education. Visitors often marvel at the strong discipline and order in Chinese schools, compared with U.S. schools, even when classes number 50 or 60 students. (“Asian Equation,” June 6, 2007.)

Despite those differences, Principal Comer came away from his trip with ideas about practical changes that he could bring to Caldwell, a pre-K-4 school that offers relatively small class sizes and allows parents to extend their children’s studies into the summer.

He was impressed, for instance, with the amount of time that Chinese teachers spend together planning academic lessons. Since his return, he has encouraged Caldwell’s teachers, when possible, to use planning periods to address persistent academic issues, rather than for logistical and other tasks, such as arranging field trips and guest speakers.

Mr. Comer has also spoken to his teachers, all of whom are introducing thematic units on China this year, about spending more time covering major concepts in different subjects, such as science, as opposed to spending a short amount of time on many, disconnected ideas. Many researchers believe U.S. schools present academic content in a scattershot manner, without telling students what is most important.

Above, Peng Guohui, right, a principal in Guangzhou, China, and colleagues gather at a reunion of administrators who took part in a foreign exchange program.

Chinese principals, Ms. Wang said, had heard much about the creativity of U.S. schools and curricula. Chinese government officials are seeking to replicate that creativity in their system, where possible, and to de-emphasize rote, test-driven learning.

But the Chinese school leaders also became aware of their system’s strengths, such as the strong student work ethic and discipline that are encouraged in many schools in their country and the teamwork that exists among teachers, Ms. Wang recalled in an interview earlier this year.

“There are some things we’ve been doing right,” she said Chinese principals told her. “We’ve got to insist on our own traditions.”

Lasting Partnerships

Carolyn Henderson, who has been organizing educational exchanges between the two countries for years, has seen growth in U.S.-Chinese efforts targeting principals, superintendents, and state leaders as trade and tourism between the countries has increased.

Ms. Henderson, who in the mid-1980s was a visiting teacher at the Jingshan School, an elite public school in Beijing, is today a co-director of the China Exchange Initiative, based in Newton, Mass., which organizes a yearly “principal shadowing project” for school administrators from both countries.

American officials find that exchange programs involving school administrators in China tend to have a more lasting effect than those targeting teachers or students, she said.

“China is a very hierarchical society,” Ms. Henderson said. “Simply having a teacher involved is not going to [produce] that same investment.” By targeting a principal or other top school officials, she added, “you can establish a partnership that will mature.”

Ms. Henderson’s program sends Chinese school leaders a letter or invitation, which they can use in obtaining a visa to come to the United States. The process for American school administrators is relatively easy, she said. They typically seek permission from a Chinese consulate, often with the help of a travel agent.

Duties Differ

Cheryl Forster-Cahill, the principal of Ipswich Middle School in Ipswich, Mass., traveled to China through Ms. Henderson’s program earlier this year. She toured about a half-dozen schools, those serving wealthy Chinese communities, along with those in poorer areas, including an elementary school outside the popular tourist destination of Xian, where basic supplies—from light bulbs to chalk—were limited.

“I saw obedience, I saw manners, I saw hope, and pressure,” Ms. Forster-Cahill recalled of the Chinese students she encountered. “But I also saw joy.”

Since her return, the principal has made presentations to student and teacher groups about her trip. And her school, which hosted a Chinese principal last year, is planning to introduce Mandarin Chinese study as an optional language course while phasing out French.

Vanderbilt University’s exchange program seeks to document principals’ experience by having them complete an evaluation before and after their trips. The evaluation, based on the work of a number of academic scholars, identifies strategies that school leaders can use to improve the performance of students and teachers. After the trip, the participants are asked to explain how their encounters with Chinese principals helped them improve their school leadership skills.

Mr. Comer, who is now in his seventh year as a principal, found many similarities in the challenges facing school leaders in both countries. But he also spotted obvious differences. The Chinese principals he met seemed less consumed with paperwork, dealings with parents, and basic administrative duties than most U.S. principals are, the Nashville administrator observed.

“Their role is more as ambassador for the school,” he said. “They do more of the [public relations] work; they get financial help for the school.”

“If I get a free minute in my office,” Mr. Comer added, “there’s something wrong.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at


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