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China deserves a pat on the back

Updated: 2010-12-10 14:59

By Patrick Mattimore (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Sometimes it's a good idea for a country to take stock and pat itself on the back for a job well done. That opportunity is at hand for China this week as the results of the Program for International Student Assessment were announced.

A randomly selected representative sample of 15-year-old students from Shanghai outperformed their peers from 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries according to results from the PISA, one of the two primary measures of worldwide student achievement.

The Shanghai students were the only group of mainland Chinese tested and they scored the top marks on all three sections of the test - science, mathematics, and reading - by a large margin.

Finland, a country with just over a quarter of the population of Shanghai, has widely been heralded as an educational model, based largely upon its performance on prior PISA exams. Though the Finnish students continued to perform well, they were no match for the Chinese.

The scores are watched and dissected closely in the US, but caused barely a ripple in China, where the newspaper China Daily didn't report the results.

The New York Times reported that the the test in Shanghai was carried out by an international contractor, working with Chinese authorities, and overseen by the Australian Council for Educational Research, a nonprofit testing group. Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education's research arm in the George W. Bush Administration, said he considered the accuracy of the results to be unassailable.

Even critics of standardized tests lauded the test. Warwick Mansell, a British education expert who has written about the tyranny of testing, described PISA as "on the whole a quite good test." Mr. Mansell said in an interview that the PISA exams "test understanding of concepts - not just rote learning."

The PISA tests, released Tuesday, are from 2009. It was the first time mainland Chinese students had been measured on the test and the results stunned educational leaders, particularly in the US, where that country's scores were decidedly mediocre - 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading.

Current US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the results "should be a massive wake-up call to the entire country." He added: "We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we're being out-educated." Chester Finn, former Assistant Secretary of Education said that "Americans would be making a big mistake to suppose that Shanghai's result is some sort of aberration."

Finn surmised that China can replicate this type of educational excellence in 10 cities by 2019 and 50 by 2029. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Finn took China's superlative performance as a challenge to the US, saying it reminded him of Sputnik.

Clearly, Sputnik and China's economic rise are on Americans' minds as President Obama warned a group of students that he addressed in North Carolina earlier this week that the US faced a new "Sputnik moment." He said the United States is in danger of being left behind in the sciences and technology just as the Russians had bypassed America in the space race in the 1950s.

Mr Obama added that nations with the most educated workers will prevail in the economic competition.

Mr Duncan was even more emphatic saying that "our children today are at a competitive disadvantage with children from other countries," and that America's long-term economic prosperity was at risk.

China still faces educational challenges. Many rural and migrant children do not receive the type of education that they should. But the PISA results should hearten all Chinese and assure people that the country is on the right education track. As one expat with two children told me this week after hearing about the results on CNN, “Why do you think we stay in China?".

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.


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