Chinese education is often reported in the U.S. as a system “that stresses memorization over thinking and creativity.” While that stereotype has some truth to it, it is also in some ways wrong. We could also say that the system stresses getting results as opposed to leaving its graduates functional illiterates who cannot study at the college level. Shanghai is really trying to extend its schools’ ambit of effectiveness even to the city’s poorest residents, and such inclusiveness has not kept Shanghai from scoring at the top of the world in the PISA tests.
Hong Kong’s schools also do well on PISA, though it has an education system different from the rest of China’s, and has just modified that system to adopt its New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum. Onlookers familiar with international curricula have noted a resemblance to the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which certainly does not rely on memorization over thinking and creativity. One example will suffice to make this point, though many others might be instanced. In the English courses 20% of the final grade depends on an essay analyzing a prose passage or a poem that the candidate has never seen before, and no part of the grade is based on a multiple-choice test. 30% of the grade depends on oral work, including a rather demanding extemporaneous commentary on a literary passage.
In addition to public and private schools, Hong Kong has a third category, called Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS), which receive public money even though they are private. In return for that money, the schools offer the NSS curriculum to most of their students, who take the city’s school-leaving tests in their senior year. They may also offer the IB curriculum as an alternative to NSS.
If the IB curriculum stresses thinking and creativity in addition to prescribed knowledge, then a student body that did well on its tests would probably count as reasonably creative and thoughtful. What are we to say, then, about a Direct Subsidy School of my acquaintance, given the IB results of its first cohort to try for the Diploma? On its first endeavor, this semi-public school got an average score of 38 out of 45, placing it in the 92nd percentile of worldwide results. More remarkable was its average score of more than 6 out of 7 in English, which almost every student there speaks as a second language. The picture of education in China may be more complex than the newspapers are letting on if such IB results and PISA scores mean anything. They certainly suggest that the students at this semi-public school are thinking and creating just fine, and that the city knows its educational business.
Meanwhile, in the US, No Child Left Behind is being left behind. As usual, the replacement “strategy,” called RAce to the Top, is being highly touted. But NCLB or RAT, not much seems to change. The dismal statistics continue, leaving all the Edbiz press releases sounding ominously like the military bulletins in the Proust novel, announcing French victories closer and closer to Paris.