“Top of the Class;” how to get there?

NBC Nightly News ran a story tonight called, Top of the Class, about a report by Rehema Ellis called, Shanghai kids show intenses spirit for learning.  The program’s focus was to look at school systems in Shanghai that are implementing successful programs with students.  Shanghai students score #1 on international tests.  What, if anything, can the U.S. learn from Shanghai schools about how to educate young people?

In a report by Rehema Ellis called, Shanghai kids show intenses spirit for learning, she writes,

But beyond a commitment to work hard, what I found in China is that Shanghai’s academic success is rooted in a national culture that embraces education as a real asset.

What does our national culture embrace?  Do we embrace education and honor teachers in such a way that our educational community garners great respect? 

In watching the program and reading Ms. Ellis’ report, these are some of the highlights:

  • Shanghai students working very hard
  • She witnessed that students “love learning.”
  • Students’ success is a direct consequence of a whole cutlure that values education
  • Students have nine-hour school days
  • There are breaks for workouts and short periods of stress-relieving exercises.
  • The education system is geared towards college entrance exams
  • Teachers instruct students how to master tests.
    Teachers are among the highest paid professionals in China.
  • Some statiistics: 25% of rural Chinese go to college but 80% of Shanghai students go to college, while 70% of US students go to college.
  • Shanghai students dream of being so much more and that school is their path to achieving their dreams.
  • They have yet to produce a Steven Jobs, Steven Spielberg, or some other highly creative individual of prominence.

After reading her report, I am not sure the highly regimented and test-driven school culture of a Shanghai student is what should be emulated.  While we don’t have the same success with performance on national or international tests as they do, we already have a test-driven culture and that doesn’t seem to be producing admirable results in the United States.  Just look at our scores on the recent NAEP tests, our Nation’s Report Card assessment.

As reported in the Huffington Post, in 2010 only 20 percent of fourth graders tested proficient; 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors made the mark on the test in civics.  Our students are not graduating with a proficient understanding of US history.

National Center for Educational Statistics published the 2010 results in detail.  In math, there appear to be some positive changes since 1990, but the changes over the past 5 years of NCLB are at best stagnant.  In reading, the scores have been essentially flat for the past 8 years. In the 2009 NAEP test in science, 34% percent of fourth-graders, 30 % of eighth-graders, and 21% of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level.  Not very strong for a country that prides itself on being the “best.”  We have a long way to go.

From Ms. Ellis’ report, I did learn that in Shanghai the national culture embraces education and teachers are extremely well respected.  This pattern is similiar in Finland, which is also a high-performing country.  So if we learn anything from this report it is that in the United States we simply do not value education in the same way.  It is compulsory, but it is not high-quality because we don’t place high enough value on the experience to generate the type of enthusiasm that Ms. Ellis witnessed in Shanghai schools. 

In the United States, we need to build greater enthusiasm in our communities for schools and more respect for our teachers.  Of course, our schools and our teachers must earn the respect and encourage enthusiasm from parents and students.  Engaging learning environments with high-quality, experienced teachers who are well compensated is part of the answer.  Those are lessons we can learn from Shanghai and Finland.  However, we need to nurture the creative talents and energies of our students and that will not happen in test-driven school cultures.  In that sense, we need to forge our own path towards excellence and not look abroad for answers regarding how to teach creatively.  We have schools in the United States that do that well.  Let’s tell those stories on NBC’s Nightly News.






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