Eli Broad and Bill Gates have ponied up $60 million to "wake up the American people about their schools." The $60 million fuel a campaign to make education a major issue in the presidential election of 2008.
No matter what its good intentions might or might not be, "ED in 08" is shaping up as one of the sloppiest, most unprofessional, irresponsible campaigns in memory (why such a campaign is necessary in view of the schools being blamed for Sputnik (1957), urban riots (1967), "grim and joyless classrooms" (Chuck Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom, 1970), the SAT decline (On Further Examination, 1977), letting the Japanese eat our lunch, (A Nation At Risk 1983), and the myriad of recent publications about the Chinese and Indians threatening our lunch, is not clear. Broad is 73 years old. Did he sleep through all 50 years of this fuss?
I will deal with this allegation more extensively in the 17th Bracey Report in October's Phi Delta Kappan, but for now consider this statement in the section of ED in 08's website, More Time and Support for Learning:
"China provides 30% more education than America..."
What on earth does this mean? Thirty percent longer year? Thirty percent more curriculum coverage? Thirty percent more years in school? Thirty percent higher test scores (China has never taken part in an international comparison for reasons that will be obvious momentarily)? A 30% longer day? I think this last might be true, but it is also true that most Chinese students get about two hours a day to go home and eat lunch. There is very little difference in how much time American and Chinese kids spend learning.
As reported by Vivian Stewart, vice president for education of the Asia Society, "Currently, only 40 percent of Chinese students go to upper-secondary schools." That is, past the 9th grade. "Its long-term goals include: a world-class education for the top 5 percent to 10 percent of high school students; universal 12-year education by 2020...." ("China's Modernization Plan", Education Week, March 22, 2006).
Jim Fallows is an former editor of and currently writer for the Atlantic Monthly who has often written about education and who is currently stationed in Shanghai. In an email to me this spring, he called the schools in Shanghai "awful." Deborah Meier and Eleanor Duckworth, two of the nation's premier educators, were gentler. They were invited recently to consult with Chinese educators. The Chinese are concerned about the quality of education schools are providing even for the elite. In an August 18 email, Deborah said "the idea that they have a superior education system is beyond absurd."
She also wrote that most of the "immigrant" Chinese kids are not even in school. "Immigrant" is the word applied to Chinese families who have moved, illegally often, into the cities from the poor rural regions. All Chinese schools charge tuition and they cannot afford it. Immigrant Chinese kids are legion.
Deborah says that they were told "that in many rural areas there are virtually no teachers--even if there are schools." As for the schools she visited, "The schools we saw were middle class ones in Shanghai which were working with the University and seemed pleasant enough but had 50 kids in a class and a relatively ordinary pedagogy."
China has come a long way and its plans, as outlined by Stewart anyway, are impressive but it has quite a ways to go. Fourteen years ago, Lena Sun in the Washington Post noted that "many state-run schools [in contrast to the private schools that have high tuitions], especially in poor, rural areas, have no heat and sometimes no electricity. Some students have to share notebooks, use pencils with no points, and sit on hard, backless wooden planks. Education is such a low priority in some areas that classrooms are used as cow-sheds." They should file an adequacy suit.
What most struck Sun was the press for conformity starting in pre-school: "Every child gets his or her cot ready for the required nap, whether they are sleepy or not. There is virtually no unstructured time...Even toilets breaks are scheduled into the day; the children squat together over one long trough in the communal bathroom." ("Chinese Swaddled, Not Coddled," March 20, 1993).
The state of rural education in China was shrewdly captured in a 1999 movie, Not One Less, by Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Shanghai Triad, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, House of Flying Daggers, etc). A 13-year-old girl is pressed into service as the teacher for a one-room school house when the regular teacher must return to his home town to perform filial duties following the death of a parent. The film deftly contrasts the old poverty of rural China with the new poverty of urban China.
Why is it that education "reformers" feel obligated to idealize education elsewhere and demonize it here?
After Bill Gates' demonizing speech to the National Governors Association in 2005 (Gates is 50% of the $60 million behind the ED in 08 campaign), I wrote an article, "Yo Bill Gates: If You're So Rich, How Come You Ain't Smart?" I wrote about the general fear-mongering tendency in Stanford Magazine's July/August 2006 issue, "Believing the Worst." Putting the title and "Bracey" into Google will pull up the article. A much shorter, but slightly more current version is here.
Somebody needs to shake up "ED in 08." In the meantime, as my granma, a school teacher with an 8th grade educaton used to say, "Don't pay 'em no mind."
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