Sep 15

Reflections on the Compton-Zhao Debate

Written by berlinf on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 11:31 am
Filed under:education, General | Tags:, , , ,
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Video: The Zhao vs. Compton Debate

It’s surreal to hear Dr. Zhao from China working in the US defending the US educational system while Mr. Compton advocating that the US learn from China’s system. One thing is for sure: the world is getting flat.

The rest are open to debate.

As I watched this debate, a story that came to mind was the meteorologist forecasting a severely cold winter after seeing Indians hording chopped wood, while the Indian got the idea from the meteorologist who had suggested earlier that the winter would probably be cold. This happens when you make comparisons between two moving targets. In recent years, China is learning from “developed countries” such as US itself, ways to move away from the test-driven education system toward more “rounded education”. I am a reviewer of an educational journal in China and I constantly find papers describing “US experiences” and their implication for China. In the meantime, school curriculum is including an increasing number of subjects that Mr. Compton might be laughing at, such as life skills training. And here we are: Mr. Compton told us that the US should learn from China. Now what?

In my confusion, I asked Dr. Pendarvis, Professor Emeritus of gifted education at Marshall University, and co-author of Out of Our Minds, what is the problem with education in the US. Here is what she said: “I’ll say that to me the biggest problem with education in the US is that it’s too easy. It allows bright children to go unchallenged too much of the time. We do a good job at (1) providing almost all children a good basic education and (2) building many children’s self-esteem (and the belief in themselves, which I think is part of the courage you mentioned). But in terms of an education that develops their abilities and provides the basis for a full life, emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically, we fall far short of where we have the resources (but not the will) to be.”

In reflecting on Dr. Pendarvis’ points on the problem with education in the US, I think China may be erring in another extreme. We provide excessive training in math and sciences often to a fault and definitely adding to the burden of average learners. This was done in the attempt to modernize China. For a time, numerous cities have Math Olympic training classes that recruit huge number of students. Most of them do not have the talent in math at all (Just think of how many students will make it to the Math Olympics competition.) Something like that should be for students talented in math, while other students may have other talents that could be developed. I wrote a couple of articles against this phenomeon (such as 奥数可能让孩子输在起跑线上 Math Olympics May Keep Your Child Behind). Recently I heard that some cities have started to ban such training, as many schools and educators believe that the trainers are mostly concerned about making money. They don’t care one way or the other whether someone develops a talent or interest in math in their later life. Some parents even petition to ban Math Olympics, as this complaint the Fuzhou City Call Center has received. Overt and early exposure could even turn some students bitter and hateful about math. That’s one instance which may help to shed light on the strange phenomenon that China performs so well in International Math Olympics, while few have won the Nobel Prize, (those who did win are living in the US ironically). What could have filled the gap are the things that Dr. Zhao have been talking about, passion for what they learn, curiosity, and self-esteem. This is exactly why China is focusing so much on what is called a “rounded education” . China is doing an excellent job preparing the kids with a solid knowledge base, which is a great potential which cannot be fully exerted until the other pieces are in place. Otherwise, they remain potentials, wasted, forgotten, ignored.

In a typical Chinese phrase, our education as it is, is rather lacking in developing 后劲 (literally, “later strength”, or more freely, sustainability) in students’ interest and growth. That does no good to either the country or the individual in the long run. If you visit the blogsphere in China, you’d find that the ministry of education is probably the most criticized ministry in China.

As we often say, people who do not see very far will have imminent threats. To see what works, it is necessary at least to try to see what lies in the future, instead of just adjusting our moves by seeing what the neighbor seems to be doing at the moment. The book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink offers at least an attempt at keeping the eye on the future. The book interestingly ask people to direct attention towards what he called R-Directed (right brain-directed) qualities such as design, story, symphony, empathy, etc. which the author believes are the keys to the future, not L-directed (left-brain oriented), mathematical and linear thinking. He also said the future can be defined by three “A”s: Asia, abundance, and automation. In spite of what Mr. Compton said about the importance of STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, Pink tells us that in the future you can develop a program to have computers write programs. But the most successful people conceptualize things like Google, Youtube, and the now ubiquitous Twitter which you cannot start by programming them into being. It makes uses of data analysts for sure, but where did these gazelles start? Imagination. Playfulness. The courage to do something different. These are things that I think America is good at educating its children about. Something that should not be lost while trying to improve some scores in math and sciences.

Another important question to ask is in this controversy is, as Dr. Zhao and Mr. Compton have mentioned: from a global perspective, is it necessarily a bad thing for China and India to produce more engineers and scientists and mathematicians? Changes in 2 million minutes may help, but changing the immigration polices and procedures will provide greater leverage. But of course, China has realized its brain drain issue. China is now sending groups after groups of recruiters to New York, Chicago, Boston… all these major cities where universities concentrate to attract talents with attractive packages (such as a RMB 1 Million as a bonus to start with, before the talent has contributed anything.) A silent war for talents has started. Ironically, believe it or not, most parents (Dr. Zhao included) hesitate because we want to have kids receive a US education (which of course is debatable given the scheme of things).

As for competitiveness, comparisons between the two countries can be very difficult to make as there are so many confounding factors that we cannot easily hold constant while trying to measure a particular relationship. As long as this is the case, you can use data to prove, basically, conclusion or preference either way. When I watch the debate between Dr. Zhao and Mr. Compton, there were times I felt they were talking past each other. Dr. Zhao was sometimes speaking for what is in the best interest of the individual, while Mr. Compton, as a businessman, represents interests of the society.

China offers many other advantages that US can learn, but not its curriculum design. China’s curriculum is rather dated and badly needs reform itself. I hate the days when I have to study communist history, socialist construction and the like to pass tests. Things I learned (or rather memorized) and then return to my teachers. Instead of US going to China for inspiration, or the vice versa, educators in both countries should think, as Plato would advocate, about the “ideal” from which both systems are imitations of. Instead of asking what China is doing or what the US is doing, ask what should be the case, where we stand and what the gaps are.

There are many other things US could learn from China, not its educational system. One thing I think that China could teach is the ability or habit to think holistically. This may not be found from Chinese schools but it is part of the Chinese legacy that the US can benefit by learning something about it. I could be wrong, but it looks like that the US system produces all sorts of experts who excel only in one small area because “expertise” and “professionalism” are valued. I often wonder if someone’s teeth are part of the human body since health coverage doesn’t cover it. People in the elitist, professionalism tradition are trained to watch small turfs, without habitually relate things to each other. For instance, insurance companies, health professionals, companies each do their own things (unless Obama seats them together at the same table). They don’t care what each other is doing, which in the professional silos, creates all sorts of holes through which the money of taxpayers, employers and government sink. When a mistake occurs, good luck with handling the paperwork. There is no one in the system who knows what is going on. I am wondering if education has to do with this phenomenon. The US systems are so complex everywhere that you will end up needing experts, professionals and more experts and more professionals. It’s a vicious cycle.

To take the discussion to the next level, there are certain assumptions that should be examined: 

1. Is it always good to “develop talents” in a certain area (such as STEM professionals) locally, given the globalized environment? Deep at heart I think it’s the command and control mentality at work.  Mr. Compton works with many foreigners in his businesses, so I wouldn’t think this is particularly something that bothers him, but there are people who can only trust “our guys” at work. Several years ago, when China first starts to send Chinese teachers to the Conficius Institutes abroad, there were guys who cried threat and wanted Chinese to be taught by “our guys”. To me this is just paranoia turned absurd. It is a time when it pays to learn to collaborate with people as partners, not as subordinates.

2. Is STEM really the number one contributor to a country’s competiveness? I personally doubt it. Dr. Zhao has examined the Math study in 1964 which ranked the US as second to last.  40 years later, it is still the strongest nation in the world.

3. What does the US society need? More engineers trained in the Chinese or Indian methods? Then focus more on reforming the legal immigration system, rather than being obsessed with legalizing illegal ones.   That way you bring more authentic “made-in-China” talents if that is what Mr. Compton wants.

4. Who plays a bigger role in lowering the standard for US students, the curriculum or something else? Such as the lack of competition, bureaucracy of the school districts, or unmotivated teachers?  For that matter I recommend Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto.  What he said mainly in the book is that there is something innately wrong with the Prussian model that the US has adopted that caused students to be held at lower standards.

5. To echo what Dr. Zhao said in the debate, what’s wrong with having China or India lead for a while? Why does the US have to stay on the “top” in terms of competitiveness?

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33 Responses to “Reflections on the Compton-Zhao Debate”

  1. Raj Says:

    berlinf, thanks for the post.

    By the way, I think you don’t need to make this a mini-post – you’ve put some work in here. Also it would look better for the front page. 😉

  2. Steve Says:

    berlinf, I agree with Raj. Thanks for putting the time and effort into this post.

    When you wrote “Things I learned (or rather memorized) and then return to my teachers.”, I thought of whenever I ask my wife certain questions, she’ll say “I learned that at school but gave it back to the professor on the test”, which just means “I memorized it for the test and later forgot.”

  3. berlinf Says:

    Raj and Steve, thanks. I have removed the mini-post categorization for this one.

    This is a fascinating topic to think about and has a lot of personal relevance to me as I am a parent of two kids too. I am constantly thinking which is the best environment to bring up the kids. I tend to agree with Dr. Zhao a little more than Mr. Compton, but I know that he US system is flawed too in making things easy for kids.

    I think there are middle grounds. There are synergies that can be created if we sincerely examine the strengths of both systems. But to do that, we have to put aside emotional prejudices (for instance our national identity, national pride, etc) to examine the educational systems more objectively.

  4. Steve Says:

    @ berlinf: I’m a big believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Therefore, if as a nation we want to improve our test scores in certain subjects, rather than coming up with all kinds of new theories, why not just use the teaching method that the best countries use? I’ve said before that American schools should use the LDS method for teaching foreign languages because it has been shown to be extremely effective. However, sometimes culture plays a part so the trick is to match the teaching method to the culture you’re dealing with, or make adjustments to a tried and true teaching method to get the results you want.

    When I was training our staff in China, I found I needed to use a more formal teaching method than I’d use in the States. I’d bring everyone into the conference room, set up a PowerPoint presentation, hand out manuals and provide plenty of samples while writing things down on a blackboard or white board. (usually both). I’d try to be as systematic as I could since that seemed to work better. I was dealing with very intelligent and diligent people and it was incumbent on me as a guest in their country and culture to make the adjustment in my teaching style. I just looked at how the locals taught their own seminars and copied their basic methods.

    Fortunately, having been married to the culture for many years made it relatively easy for me to adjust. For someone new to the culture, I think it would have taken far longer to figure things out, simply because of all the other lifestyle changes needed to adjust to the new environment.

    Bringing Chinese or Indian methods to the States or vice versa means making those same cultural adjustments. So no need to re-invent the wheel, all that’s needed is tweaking the wheel to perform on local road conditions.

  5. dewang Says:

    Great post and fascinating perspectives, berlinf.

    Just additional info for readers, I took the liberty of quoting a response Compton wrote to Dr. Zhao, from Compton’s blog, post debate:


    Here’s how I would encourage readers to think about my film and Dr. Zhao’s new book:

    Dr. Zhao is a highly educated, brilliant, articulate academician, scholar and author.

    Bob Compton a modestly educated, reasonably successful entrepreneur, inventor, venture capitalist and philanthropist. We each approach the issue of global education from our respective life experiences.

    My perspective comes from 25 years of investing in high-tech, high-wage, high-growth start-up companies in the US, Europe and Asia.

    And from my own non-expert explorations of schools, mostly high schools, in India, China, Europe, South America and the US – explorations which resulted in my film “Two Million Minutes.” By training, I am neither an educator nor a filmmaker.

    I’m a businessman on the global field of competition and have helped build over 30 new technology companies in the past 25 years. As Chairman, CEO or President I have had to lead companies in global competition every day. I still am, as Chairman of ExactTarget and as Founder and CEO of Vontoo.

    In those 25 years, I have seen a marked decline in American’s education and capabilities to compete with highly educated, highly motivated employees in many other countries – China and India, in particular. Hence I have had to hire large numbers of well-educated employees outside the US to stay in business.

    My life experiences are not cerebral – they are visceral judgments in the daily battles that characterize global business. I don’t win or lose debates – I win or lose customers, litigation, market share or money — every day. Thousands of families – those of my employees – depend on my ability to make the right decisions and keep them employed.

    My need is to find the best talent in the world, then recruit, motivate and reward them or my companies fail and my investors (myself included) lose millions of dollars and thousands of husbands, wives and children are put in economic jeopardy. My community loses its tax base. Daily that focuses my mind like a man to be hanged in the morning.

    So I would encourage every American to read Dr. Zhao’s books, articles and lectures and I would hope he would encourage people to see my film.

    Account for our unique perspectives and decide for one’s self – is American K-12 education, particularly high school, preparing our children to be globally competitive? What is the evidence?

    Will America’s children be able to create new technologies, invent new products and found the new companies that will produce the quality jobs of the 21st century? What is the evidence?

    Are we educating our kids to an intellectual level that they will be the creators, innovators and entrepreneurs in bio-medicine, nano-tech, energy producing new materials, tissue regeneration, gene therapy, bio-polymers, alternative energy, etc, etc. What is the evidence?

    These fields require knowledge of math, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science – even to be a sales rep or provide customer support or to manufacture these products.

    To actually invent or create them one must be a world-class scientist or engineer.

    Is American K-12 education equal to the K-12 education in other countries, particularly India and China. What data or empirical evidence tells us this?

    My daily experiences tell me – “NO” and I see the evidence every day in the global market.

  6. Nimrod Says:

    berlinf wrote:

    This is a fascinating topic to think about and has a lot of personal relevance to me as I am a parent of two kids too. I am constantly thinking which is the best environment to bring up the kids. I tend to agree with Dr. Zhao a little more than Mr. Compton, but I know that he US system is flawed too in making things easy for kids.

    Most of the issues are not curricular but pedagogical. Primary and secondary school teachers in China have more authority (real and cultural) and are better trained in pedagogical methods. US teachers have a lot more freedom and are loathe to give it up because they have a different philosophy. There appears to be some disdain for old (but working) pedagogical methods among US educators, for example, rote memorization, thoughtless drills, and testing. But these aren’t terrible for all things. For some subjects, it’s exactly what you need (but not for all subjects, especially in the humanities and arts). Also there are no fixed lesson plans and no help on lesson delivery, so the US teacher is kind of on his/her own here. That is just terrible, in my opinion.

    So the result of a US education is a lot more hit-and-miss. Certainly there are more bad teachers than good, and even the ones considered good are really not that excellent, and generally they do not demand much from students, because they don’t expect much.

  7. berlinf Says:

    Nimrod, I agree that rote memory (for instance for times table) could be helpful. According to Bloom’s taxonomy, there are different kinds of learning (knowledge, comprehension, analysis, eveluation…). You could effectively learn to “know” something (such as all the countries that border China) by rote memory, but it is rather difficult to teach analysis through rote memory. You’ve got to try something else. That’s where concepts such as project-based learning, problem-based learning, constructive learning, situated learning and the like come in. In the higher order thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation, synthesis, I find the US schools are doing a better job as they use more authentic tasks or projects. China (and Britain and some other countries) focuses on book knowledge abstracted from realities. That’s why in China you have lots of college students having “social adaptation” crisis when they graduate. In the US, the design of student work is more linked to authentic tasks, or at least people realize that there is value in doing so. US schools ask students to turn in “projects” which involve the use of more complex learning. This is something I keep telling Chinese friends about. I’d hate to see US schools lose this good tradition to adopt our rigid pedagogical methods.

    But I agree that you have to challenge students.

    Speaking of rote memory, as I said in an earlier post, it has to do with the Chinese language being concise, using a single-syllabal system, making it easy to recite such tables. It is cumbersome, to say the least, to use the same method to recite the times table in English. I tried it, it is very difficult. Even today, I rememer phone numbers in Chinese, not in English.

    Another important difference I notice is the school time. My professor (in the school of education) once said (some cynicism included) that none of the pedagogical innovations have ever proved to work. The only thing that seemed to have worked is the “time on task”. Chinese kids spent more time at school (from early in the morning to 5 or 6 in the afternoon), while US kids get dismissed at 2:45. In kindergartens my son goes to school at 12 and leaves at 2:45. What can you learn during this short period of time. And it makes it difficult for both parents to be working. Chinese school time correspond to work time. It is harder on the kids, but that increases time on task. Therefore, if Chinese students turn out to be better at Math, that may be due to some other factors than pedagogical or curricular strategies. But I know that the US schools are always on the look for some magic interventions that could “work”. What actually works may be things more banal and less dramatic: a good attitude towards learning, lots of time spent at study, fierce competition and the realization that you cannot have anything unless you do better work than your peers.

    I haven’t watched 2MM to find if this element was considered in making the comparisons.

  8. Wukailong Says:

    I don’t think brain drain is the problem it used to be in China with all the home-coming “turtles,” though I do think it’s a problem for the rest of the world (including China) that a vast majority of the high-ranked universities are found in the US. That puts the US in a distinct advantage that’s hard to match for other countries. Even other developed countries and areas like Japan and the EU need to raise the quality of their education to compete better with American universities. I don’t think people graduating from high-ranked schools are necessarily better than others, but they’re quite likely to look for jobs and internships in the country they went to university.

    On the other hand, US immigration policies have hardened over the years. It might make it more difficult for them to attract talents when other countries begin to develop.

    In this stage of development, I think it’s good for China to focus on their traditional educations of choice – engineers and lawyers. There’s still a lot of infrastructure, social as well as industrial, that needs to be built. I’m quite sure this orientation will change in the future.

    Finally, as for rote memorization – it’s good for some things. When it comes to learning new words in a language, I don’t think there’s any better way. Even sentence patterns should be learned in this way for good effect. Of course, after a while you need a more flexible approach, but for young students it’s probably a good thing to do.

  9. dewang Says:

    I agree – it is a huge advantage for the U.S. to have a disproportionate number of the top universities in the world. If we just look at MIT and Stanford Engineering:

    Stanford University school of Engineering
    12% undergrad are foreign students
    44$ graduate are foreign students

    422 undergrad
    2483 graduate
    4153 undergrad total
    6146 graduate total

    10% undergrad are foreign students
    42% graduate are foreign students

    The U.S. is essentially attracting the best of the best from around the world. And I agree that the majority of these students end up remaining in the U.S. and contribute their talents towards the U.S. economy.

    Obviously, if the number of foreign students at these top universities become the majority over U.S. citizen/resident students, then that might be cause for alarm for the U.S., but I don’t think the American public would allow that situation to occur.

    I meant – if MIT and Stanford complains that there aren’t enough qualified students from U.S. high school graduates, then I’d say that’s cause for concern.

  10. dewang Says:

    Regarding rote memorization – I have always been impressed whenever one of my Chinese friends blurbs out a proverb to perfectly describe a situation. Fool’s Mountain is in fact a Chinese proverb you all know. I wonder if it is because there are so much development to the Chinese language over thousands of years, and inherent in the language itself, there’s a lot of depth and knowledge.

    Many students are able to comprehend the meaning of what they memorize. In that case, I’d say they “learned” it – they didn’t “memorized” it. For many other students, they eventually understand the meaning. Before that understanding, it is viewed as “memorization”, and hence the complaint of ‘rote.’

    Berlinf – the multiplication table in my head is in Chinese also – even though I have been in the U.S. for 25+ years. When I first arrived in the U.S., my teachers thought I was using calculators to do my math assignments. I got too bored and I used to do the math all in my head without doing the “carry” and intermediate steps.

    My point is, even when I was really young, ‘rote memorization’ of the multiplication table actually was very helpful to my studying of other math concepts.

  11. TonyP4 Says:

    #9. From my memory on an article, US has about 40% of the top colleges in the world and China is way, way down. It is hard to define a top college but this estimate sounds logically correct judging from the Nobel Price winners and the top leaders of the world.

    With the huge number of Chinese students in US and Europe, I hope they will return to work and do research. Some Chinese colleges have very good research environment already. I do not think it will take too long for China to catch up all the way to the top – hopefully in my life time.


    We have a separate discussion on multiplication table. It is a great, ancient Chinese invention. Anyone knows how ancient?

    Do not reveal our secret to the west, haha.

    It is like the myth that US is destroyed first by the Russian missile with computer calculations in metric system than the US system with a lot of conversion with feet and lb, provided everything are equal. Just joke of the day!

  12. Berlin Says:

    Tony, that’s a good one.

    Conversion between pounds and kilograms, between miles and kilometers, between Celcius and Farenheit, etc, drive me crazy.

    I like the metric system much better, as it adds less cognitive load to the brain. For instance I know that 1 kg is just 1000 grams. 1 CM is 10 MM, etc. Multiplying things by 10s, 100s, 1000s is easier. Now try multiplying something by 12. Most people would have to use the calculator. I wonder if the international metric system is dumbing us down? But I doubt it. It just liberates the brain so that it can work on something else, I suppose.

    So I am doubting if the US school children’s problem with math is partially due to the complexity they have to deal with. You go to any fresh vegetable peddler in China, and you’ll be amazed at how fast they do the calculations. Partly because the Chinese old measurement system (such as jin) is still related to the metric system rather easily,for instance, one Chinese jin translates to half a Kilogram. With a generation or two, China has made the transition from the old Chinese measurement system to the international system. I am not sure if the US wants to make that transition or not.

    This may be irrelevant to the topic though.

  13. Wukailong Says:

    US is kind of unique in the world in that it doesn’t use the metric system:


    This is a good thing to remember when “the West” is discussed. It isn’t just the metric system. 😉

  14. TonyP4 Says:

    The most loved game is American football and the game is based on moving the ball to 100 YARDS, so they do not want to change it to metric system as it does not sounds right in meters – one reason.

  15. berlinf Says:

    Ah! I see where that resistance came from 🙂

  16. Steve Says:

    @ Tony: “Three meters and a cloud of dust” just doesn’t sound right. Good point! 😛

  17. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Isn’t there a Chinese saying that goes something like “everything finds its level”? So a question of whether one education system is better than another, IMO, is impossible to answer. If the system is the “processor”, then any assessment of the processor’s worth has to take into consideration what this processor is trying to make, and what kind of raw material it is given to work with.

    To answer the former is in fact a societal value statement. Does society wish to make a phalanx of computer geniuses/rocket scientists/brain surgeons, and does it consider anything less to be a failure. Or does society put more emphasis and value in producing a population with a broad base of skills, such that, when the rocket scientist’s toilet breaks, someone can fix it.

    To answer the latter is also a reflection of society’s priorities. Can a person show their worth by doing something other than making supercomputers, rockets, and cutting brains? And if someone’s inclination lies in areas other than the aptitude for taking a test, is it the system’s responsibility to make a square peg fit into a round hole, or rather to help that individual excel as much as possible in areas that correspond to their strengths/interests?

    I’m all for rote memorization to a point. In fact, when I came to Canada, my math skills so far exceeded those of my peers that it gave me ample time to learn English from scratch for the next 2 years. And without a foundation of some fund of knowledge that must be learned, no education system can help to create high achievers. So the prototypical “Chinese” way is required, at least to a point. It does amuse and dismay me at times how the Canadian/American system seems to celebrate mediocrity in education, seemingly to a fault trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

    At the same time, the more “liberal” aspects of North American educational philosophy help to create top flight talent that rivals any other nation/system. Of course, to truly test the merits of the local system, one would have to transplant our system to another country, train students with our system while keeping them in their native environments/realities, and see what happens in 10 years. Clearly, this will never happen, so any opinions on the merits of one system vs another will remain only that.

    At the end of the day, as with probably most if not all things, the happy medium is probably somewhere in the middle. The local system can probably do with renewed focus and emphasis on the fundamentals; the Chinese system can probably stand to de-emphasize test-taking and encourage more critical thinking.

    All of which brings me back to Jay-walking segments on the Tonight Show maybe 2 years ago, when Leno asked some So-Cal residents questions like: can you name a country that starts with the letter U. The answer that took the prize (for me at least) was when someone said Yugoslavia. I don’t recall if she was blond, but she may as well have been. The US system has seemingly produced her, and the likes of Steve and Allen and many of you besides. If that doesn’t bespeak of a system capable of incredible flexibility, I don’t know what does.

  18. Berlin Says:

    “Or does society put more emphasis and value in producing a population with a broad base of skills, such that, when the rocket scientist’s toilet breaks, someone can fix it.”

    Great point to consider. Grand comparisons are made between systems without this issue being given proper attention. I remember Tony made the same observation earlier. In China, college is producing more graduates than society knows what to do with them, when in the same time, factories are facing crisis finding skilled workers. College students, however, wouldn’t stoop to take such positions, as there are still remnants of perception of a college education to be the start of an elitist career. Not long ago, (I am not sure if it still is the case), a student graduating from a college is holding a “Cadre’s residence status (Hukou)” (干部户口), which is rather different from “worker’s hukou” (工人户口). When you need to transfer your “hukou” from one city to another, there is a two-tier system: you can transfer your hukou via cadre recruitment (招干),or via worker recruitment (招工), much like the National Interest Waiver versus Labor Permin in the US system. Therefore, there is an “identity” issue involved here which make Chinese college graduates less flexibile mentally to move to “lower” jobs, which the society is needing more at least at the moment.

    China’s system could be improved by placing greater emphasis on vocational training (having some high school students going to vocational schools) as being an alternative choice to college, while making continuing education more solid and accessbile so that people can still get college degrees later on.

  19. Steve Says:

    @ SKC #17: Those are all good points so I wonder if the best point that Bob Compton made was in pushing for more qualified teachers. I’ve often wondered why teaching degrees are more important than actual subject knowledge. No teacher should ever teach a subject who doesn’t have in depth knowledge of that subject. No matter how good a teacher you are, if you don’t know the material cold your students will have a difficult time learning.

    @ Berlin: Do you think the second tier high schools ought to offer those vocational courses while still offering college prep courses for those who desire them? I’m sure the first tier students all want college prep so to me it’d make sense to give the second tier students more vocational options.

  20. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Steve:
    I agree that, with any system, it’s the implementation that counts. And for an education system, the teachers are where the rubber meets the road. Which is also why it amazes me that some companies sell good cars shod with all-season rubber, but that’s a story for another time.

    I certainly agree that teachers require a good knowledge of the subject matter. BUt I also think that teachers need to be well-versed in the art of teaching. I think expertise is particularly required in higher education, but there’s a difference between knowing your stuff and being able to convey that understanding to someone not yet in the know. And if we’re talking K-12 education, where, let’s face it, the curriculum isn’t rocket science, I think teaching skill has a larger role to play.

    Teacher “accountability” is actually quite a hot social/societal topic in my neck of the woods. The question is: what makes a good teacher? The easy (and to me, lazy) answer is test scores. But to me, the teacher who can take a D student and make him/her into a B student is as skilled, if not moreso, than one who can take an A student and keep them there.

  21. shane9219 Says:

    >> Young foreigners hunt jobs in China amid crsis

    “When the best job Mikala Reasbeck could find after college in Boston was counting pills part-time in a drugstore for $7 an hour, she took the drastic step of jumping on a plane to Beijing in February to look for work.

    A week after she started looking, the 23-year-old from Wheeling, West Virginia, had a full-time job teaching English.

    “I applied for jobs all over the U.S. There just weren’t any,” said Reasbeck, who speaks no Chinese but had volunteered at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In China, she said, “the jobs are so easy to find. And there are so many.”


  22. Steve Says:

    @ Shane: If you want to google article links, please post them on the Open Thread. This section is for opinions and ideas. If you post a link, explain why you posted it and why it is relevant to the thread topic. This article has nothing to do with the Compton/Zhao debate.

  23. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Shane:
    #21 has nothing to do with the education system of US vs China, and everything to do with the fact that there’s a huge market for teaching English in China.

    One first has to ask what Ms. Reasbeck studied in college and whatever other factors made her apparently not marketable in the US. One can also surmise, if a person who can’t find work in the US can easily do so in China, about the relative employment standards of the 2 countries.

  24. TonyP4 Says:

    @SK, #23

    Teaching Mandarin is in high demand in the states after decades of ignoring China, its culture and language. English is the most popular language, but eventually Mandarin is the most spoken.

    After the Wall Street collapsed, a lot of Chinese with professional Wall Street experience are losing jobs and are returning. Most have been educated in US and the west and are making very good salaries. These are the brains China needs. This could be the second wave (from my definition only). The first wave is composed of some high tech researchers lured by incentives in forming companies or running foreign corporations in China.

  25. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Tony,
    maybe I’m misunderstanding what you wrote. Are you saying that Mandarin will eventually be the “most spoken” language in the US? (I’m also not sure how you define “most spoken”).

  26. Chops Says:

    Why learning Chinese Is So Hard for non-Chinese


    “… any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you’re coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms.”

  27. Chops Says:

    It may be easier for a Chinese who knows Hanyu Pinyin to pick up English than an English speaker who knows just 26 alphabet letters to pick up thousands of Chinese characters.

  28. TonyP4 Says:

    @sk #25.

    Most spoken. Spoken by most people (most of 1.3 billion Chinese + foreigners who can speak Mandarine).

    As contrast, most popular by different countries. It is important measurement as an international language.


    The graphical character requires memorization. Most European languages based on Latin and they’re related somehow. Chinese characters are artistic while Latin is easier to input into computer. Japanese and particular Korean adapted to Latin from Chinese.

    My children picked up English like the word ‘Exit’ by spelling it earlier than my picking up the same Chinese characters.

  29. Berlin Says:

    I taught Chinese to some Americans before. We all enjoy these lessons tremendously. I think the trick is that you do not try to teach Chinese the “easy way”, what works for Americans in particular. You have to teach them the hard way, the way Chinese kids would have learned them. Teach them about the strokes. The Pinyin, etc. Because it is a different system and should be treated and learned as such. Somehow the learners will have to be taught to shake themselves off the expectations to relate it to English. Once that psychological barrier is no longer a problem, I think it is as easy for an American as a Japanese to study Chinese.

    In my class we have several Japanese, Americans, a Vietnamese, a Dutch, and I find that the Americans among them actually performed better.

    I kept telling people Chinese is not difficult to learn, because all you have to remember are something like 2000 characters. That’s the operating “vocabulary” for a junior middle school dropout and the college professor. Remember how hard it is to keep expanding your English vocabulary? The difference between a middle school dropout and a college professor can be huge.

  30. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Tony,
    understood. Yes, Mandarin might be the most spoken simply by virtue of CHina’s population. But as you suggest, English is the most popular as it is the international language. Someday that may change…if English is not surpassed as the international language, it may at least become rivaled.

  31. anon Says:

    the reason why US schools are failing are simply because of internal conflicts within different school systems and state priorities. take into account that in different areas, schools perform better and can perform pathetically low. education in china is taken seriously whereas, education in america (trying not to generalize, but its hard) is not taken as seriously because 1. its free and 2. its required. although i agree with free education, i also believe students shouldn’t waste taxpayers money by ditching because they hate it.

    each school district or school has their own standards and system. because of diversity, immigrants and social status, there is a varying array of standards and expectation. i don’t know about china’s school system, however i feel that their strictness implies that they expect the most of their students and expect them to take school seriously.

    even though american schools focus on developing an individual’s talent(s), there should also be a focus on math, english and the sciences. too often do americans over look ignorance and naivety for talent. talent does not make it okay to be illiterate or ignorant.

    in my opinion, US education is only dominant in universities (also because smart foreigners apply and study there) but lacks in secondary education.

  32. pug_ster Says:

    #31 anon

    Actually, the reason why US schools are failing are because of Unions. Unions promote by seniority and not by the teacher’s ability to teach. It is very hard to fire teachers because the teacher was inept to teach. There is some controversy in DC’s school’s system where Michelle Rhee who took over Superintendent and firing teachers and principles from underperforming schools. She opted teachers out from the Union terms and have the teachers pay based on their performance instead.

  33. TonyP4 Says:

    Hi Anon & pug_ster,

    Great ideas.

    Education should start from the family – not from the school. In some ghettos, I notice a lot of them collect our generous welfare system, and are single parents, teenager mothers, fathers in jail, prostitute mothers for multi generations. Their children have little chance to succeed in life no matter how much the government throws money in.

    It has been true for generations, but the government still throws money in the school rather than fixing the root of the problem. Could be throwing money has higher impact to get the votes in next 4 years than fixing the long-term problem. I know little how to fix these social problems except cutting down the benefits and forcing them to work. The education for these unfortunate kids is to teach them to be good citizens and not a liability to the society. A lot of these schools are in urban.

    Suburban schools are doing far better. I agree they should concentrate in science and maths. However, I like a rounded-education too. If you are very smart and make a lot of money but your name is Madoff, are you contributing to the society?

    We’r living in a wealthy society in US. My theory is wealthy society tends to be more permissible – more folks enjoy life from their parents’ hard works. China will be too when she is getting richer – most likely not in my life time. Most US folks like to be managers instead of studying the hard subjects like maths. and science. We can just hire foreigners and/or train them in our great colleges.

    To illustrate, an Indian graduate will likely to stay in the US than return to their native country where it is so backward even in Tier I cities. Indian and most foreign graduate students study hard as they do not have so many distractions (social life including sex , TV shows, vacations…). When they do not succeed in college, they’re nobody – it is quite an incentive to study hard and succeed.

    My personal experience. My parents could only afford to buy me a one-way ticket to US to study and living expenses for several months. My American housemate (MIT doctorate candidate) who was addicted to playing tennis got a MS degree so MIT could get rid of him after spending 10 years playing/teaching tennis there. He was a genius but the distraction did not allow him to use his talent.

    Rhee is a pioneer and a thinker outside the box. Hope she will succeed. Unions are part of the obstacles in our permissible society. They hand out our industry to foreign countries. Today, Boston Hyatt has a hard time to get rid of union workers who are making $15 per hour in hotel jobs that do not require high school education.

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