Sunday, December 12, 2010

Brutal Chinese Sputnik Moment

UPDATE: Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, weighs in on this PISA business ( in maybe not a terribly helpful manner, by managing to point out, in a round about way, that Finnish teachers, for instance, are 100% unionized—they are PISA all-stars—but then also talking up the wonders of the Chinese system where, she assures us, on the basis of a NYT article, that, in Shanghai at at least, “which outranked all its competitors,” the emphasis is on “support for struggling teachers and schools.” Let’s stay on track here: my excruciatingly rigorous research tells me that your basic Finnish teacher starts at a salary of maybe $35,000, with oodles of Scandanavian-style benefits, of the sort that would make a Boehner buckle, while a pedagogue in old Shanghai starts at more like $3000 and good luck on the job security. The cheaper the labor the higher the “productivity” thereof, seems to be the mantra of the Duncans and their ilk, whose scoldings and proddings are in fact the only explanation for the willingness of our Weingartens to fall into these kinds of traps. Look out!

I wonder where the next model for excellence in education will come from? Bangladesh? Mars? Remember Japan? They were doing great for a while. At the moment China is having a good showing, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in response to recent reports from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment, a kind of fashion contest and variety show produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), saying that the scores are "an absolute wake-up call for America," and that the “brutal truth” is that “we have to get much more serious about investing in education.''
Shortly thereafter, President Obama, his resolve no doubt stiffened by the urgency of his advisor’s stout rhetoric, appeared in front of an audience at a North Carolina community college, to pronounce that  “Our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind.”
Actually, doesn’t that mean that “our generation” already had a Sputnik moment? But, wait, Obama wasn’t even born in 1957 when Sputnik went up. I was. I was five years old, and I was outraged that the commies had pulled off this extraordinary technological feat and I demanded that my parents immediately engage math and physics tutors for me and my brothers. So, maybe MY generations’ Sputnik moment is “back” but not his. I mean, I accept that he was not born in Kenya and isn’t a secret layer-of-the-path for the coming Mahdi—but he can be a little sneaky.
Anyway,  have a look at “A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance,” by Yong Zhao, University Distinguished Professor at the College of Education, Michigan State University: Professor Yong has been “diligently reading, the official web portal for Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled media organization”—I bet Duncan hasn’t been doing that, what do you think?  And Professor Yong has not found the story trumpeting China’s PISA results. Instead, Professor Yong discovers poignant testimony by parents that their children are being zombified by a stunning regimen of test preparation and he concludes:  “That’s the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.”
Look too at NYT today, the article “China’s Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs.”
This details the difficulty that Chinese college grads are having with jobs—there aren’t any.
But their PISA scores are good! Their college completion rates are great! So saith the Duncan!  
At the end of the article is a quote from one young man who seems to have found some perspective. “Now that I see what the outside world is like, my only regret is that I didn’t have more fun in college.”
I hope he can hold on to that new found wisdom after the Duncans of his own country start telling him that education is a life-long journey and that we all need to keep our skills sharp in this ever-expanding global economy and that he should go back to school and get some new credentials that will boost his chances of getting a job as a prison guard or a phlebotomist or whatever it is that’s going to be the big booming thing over there, guaranteed, plain as the nose on my face, 100%.