Throughout my public school education, the most coveted seats in the classroom were in the back row. It was a safe haven where you could goof off with friends, daydream, draw childish cartoons on your Pee-Chee folder and, in general, ignore the wah-wah-wah of the teacher.
I thought of the back row when I read an amusing (some of you humorless, rational people would probably call it disturbing) feature story in ForeignPolicy.com about boot camp-style cram schools that get Chinese high schoolers ready for the pressurized college entrance exam known as the gaokao.
A typical day at these schools can last from 6:10 a.m. to 10:50 p.m. (10 minutes at the beginning for hygiene and 10 minutes at the end to thank Chairman Mao for the opportunity, comrade). In between are lectures, practice exams and studying for mathematics, science, history, literature, a foreign language and Chinese (oy-y-y, what else?). This isn’t nearly as rigorous as a contemporary U.S. high school curriculum that may revolve around cultural sensitivity, excuse-making and nutrition (because kids apparently need to be taught how not to eat themselves to death). Lest you shed a tear for Chinese cram school students, they do enjoy two 30-minute meal breaks, not including 1 hour of separate down time, per day.
Like the dreaded SAT en Los Estados Unidos, China’s gaokao has been accused of bias against students with disadvantaged backgrounds, although not necessarily because of the way the questions are worded. Cutoff scores for admission into China’s best universities are lower in urbanized areas than they are in rural areas. The many Chinese who may have migrated from rural areas to cities to find work still retain legal residency in their home areas, so their kids can’t take advantage of the lower gaokao score thresholds.
When you’re one among 1.351 billion people, everything becomes competitive. The escape route from a lifetime of back-breaking work to a better life leads straight through a high gaokao score. Schools, whatever their innumerable flaws, are where kids make it happen. It doesn’t look like this fact is lost on the students. Check out the video below and the amount of respect the students pay to their teacher.
This provides a start contrast to what happens in some U.S. public schools. You would probably have the same overcrowded classroom, but some of the students would be twerking, shanking each other or exchanging text messages during class. I imagine many teachers would either be too overwhelmed to instruct properly or become too indifferent to care. Former Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty hired Michelle Rhee as the superintendent of D.C. schools in 2007 to make drastic changes to the District’s failing public education system. After a series of controversial reforms – ya know, revolutionary changes that incentivize good performance and reinforce accountability – she was fired in 2010 after Fenty lost his re-election bid, partly because Rhee pissed off two constituencies that will surely get you booted from public office in D.C. – teachers’ unions and African Americans.
Rhee has many critics, as this linked Washington Post account of one of her town halls details. However, American public school systems remain adrift without people like her who have a clear vision to improve performance and who are unafraid to rock the boat.
I wrap up this light discussion about education with three tidbits to consider. First, it’s only a matter of time before the social factors that have contributed to China’s incredible economic rise will also, over time, contribute to the Middle Kingdom’s plateauing and descent. A lopsided guy-girl ratio created by China’s one-child policy, the hyper-competitive college admissions process, massive migration to the cities and a crappy job market will create a very unhappy adult population unable to care for its own extended families – as tradition demands – let alone make ends meet for themselves. And as this article in The Economist points out, modern Chinese aren’t shy about making their opinions known via social media.
Second, I hope the U.S. public school system gets its act together to improve the overall quality of students entering the workforce. America will only be as strong as her weakest link, as reflected by some of the crumbling urban school districts that have been churning out societal victims, not contributors, for decades. When I walk down the street and encounter a gaggle of wilding teenagers smoking and joking, I shudder at the thought of them caring for me when I’m infirm someday.
Third, American kids should thank their lucky stars they grew up in the U.S. and not China, where they’d be practically strangling each other for a chance to brush their teeth first in the cram school bathroom, let alone get a front-row seat in class.