The New York Times recently published "The Shanghai Secret," a column by Thomas Friedman that explained how Shanghai's students received the world's top scores on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment exams. Administered every three years (the 2012 results will be released Dec. 3), PISA is designed to assess how well 15-year- olds worldwide are prepared to apply their educations to real- world situations.
For some, the fact that students from Shanghai did particularly well on the 2009 assessment says a lot about the trajectories of the U.S. and Chinese economies and the two nations' abilities to innovate. As Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of President Ronald Reagan's Department of Education, said in a 2010 New York Times article about the Shanghai scores: "Wow, I'm kind of stunned, I'm thinking Sputnik."
In his column, published Oct. 22, Friedman suggested that Chinese schools are succeeding because of "a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system." The unspoken extension of that statement is that U.S. schools American students finished behind Shanghai ones on the 2009 assessment might not be focusing on these basics enough, even though educators know they should be.
This is a simple, seductive view of China, tuned to unnerve an American public afraid of falling behind an Asian competitor that, by most accounts, is pulling up alongside the United States, if not ahead of it. Yet for all its merits, Friedman's view of Shanghai's education system (not to mention his previously proclaimed affection for China's "reasonably enlightened" autocrats) is out of sync with the Chinese public's own skepticism of its test-focused educational system.
It was particularly ironic that Friedman's Sino-utopian column was published the same day that a national discussion emerged in China about implementing reforms that could begin to move schools away from a focus on test success. The discussion, which occurred primarily in some of the most important government-owned newspapers, was ignited by an announcement that the city of Beijing was proposing to reduce the importance of English in its version of the national college entrance examination, known as the gaokao. (Each city and province has its own edition of the test.) The changes, if they're eventually implemented, would occur in 2016.
The proposal suggests reducing the value of the English portion of the multisubject test and increasing the value of the Chinese and social or natural sciences (students can choose) parts. Perhaps even more significant, the English section would also put a stronger emphasis on practical listening skills, rather than grammar and reading. Though the proposal is local, the fact that it's happening in China's capital is a signal that other schools can and probably should consider similar reforms. (Jiangsu province was apparently already thinking about diminishing the English requirement before Beijing's announcement.)
For outsiders, this might sound like a relatively innocuous change, but in China, where the gaokao is a national obsession that determines the fates of millions of young people every year, such a modification would alter curriculums and potentially lives. China's entire educational system is structured to prepare students for the multiday examination. Cram schools are a popular means of supplementing government- provided education with private coaching.
This type of education has many benefits, as anyone who visits a Chinese school can attest. But, as Chinese educators have long known, such a system doesn't necessarily produce students capable of excelling in settings beyond the testing room precisely, and perhaps ironically, what PISA is supposed to be measuring.
The emphasis on rote learning may ultimately even impede the development of real skills and creativity. "What is the real purpose of learning English?" Cai Jigang, a professor at Shanghai's elite Fudan University, asked in a 2012 interview with the Global Times. Cai, who is director of a program to reform English-language instruction at the city's colleges, answered his own question with force. "Frankly, up till now our students have just been studying English to pass exams."
Indeed, in China, it's not unusual to meet high school and college students who have, say, mastered the intricacy of the English past participle but can't order in English at McDonald's. This phenomenon, widely known as "dumb English," was described and assailed in a 2002 paper by Lin Lin, then an associate professor at the Foreign Language College of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing: "It's high time we remedied the phenomenon of 'deaf English' and 'dumb English' (when students can read, but cannot speak English fluently, or understand what people say). Some students said their vocabulary was probably larger than that of some native speakers, but they could not express themselves in English. After ten years' English learning, they were still 'deaf and dumb.'"
More than a decade after Lin's declarations, the situation hasn't improved much. It's arguably grown worse as the competition for admission to Chinese colleges has increased, the benefits of a secondary education have become more obvious, and the desire to find a test-taking edge has grown more powerful. The irony that China's pursuit of educational excellence may actually be damaging its educational institutions has not been lost on senior government officials.
"We do not want students to devote too much time to the repetitive learning of English grammar," a spokesman for Beijing's Municipal Education Commission told China's official Xinhua News Agency. "This kind of learning process makes students weaker in their spoken and listening ability. That means the English education method and the entire structure of assessment programs needs systematic reforms."
Beijing's call for reform has been warmly embraced, at least in principle, by some of China's most important newspapers and editorialists. (Some remained wary of de-emphasizing English at a time when China is emerging on the international stage.) Feng Shouyan, writing for Shanghai's Liberation Daily, went so far as to heretically suggest that language for language's sake doesn't require a decade of grammar drills and cram sessions: "As long as there are specific situations where people need to communicate with each other, people with an average IQ or even the foolish can and will master language with diligent practice. But when the aim of learning English is earning high exam scores, it becomes like talking about military strategy in an armchair."
China's educational system isn't likely to undergo drastic reforms in the near term. The country simply has too many students seeking too few places in its institutions of higher education. But there is little question that top educators know they need to begin a shift away from the current exam-oriented approach. It's impossible to say what a new system will look like, but it will certainly affect the master test-takers who so enchant Friedman.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry that will be published in November.