Silverman: Chinese lessons for American schools

January 19, 2014

The Metro West Daily News

Eric SilvermanWhat could China, the global schoolyard bully, possibly teach us about education? Did not China, after all, end the year by cheating the international education rankings and flexing its sabers above the South China Sea? The country even sold us noxious dog food in 2013! Clearly, we have little to learn from this totalitarian state, third world at best, ignobly enshrined in our collective memory through repression in Tibet and slaughter in Tiananmen Square. Or so it seems.

I recently traveled to China as a member of the Framingham School Committee, accompanying our superintendent, Dr. Stacy L. Scott, and chief academic officer, Dr. Sonia Diaz. We joined educational leaders from across New England, including Boston, Worcester, and Waltham. Our sponsors were the College Board, best known for the SAT and AP exams that annually torment college-bound students, and Hanban, the branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education promoting Mandarin instruction worldwide. The program aimed to facilitate international collaboration and to encourage American educators like ourselves to include China in the curriculum as diligently as Chinese schools now teach about our own language and culture. As it was my first trip to China, I returned with typical touristic gifts, including genuine fake Rolex watches and, in an ironic nod to capitalism in this still-communist state, a Mao refrigerator magnet. I also brought home three unlikely suggestions for improving our schools in MetroWest and elsewhere.

Lesson one: Think audaciously. "The wise are free from perplexities," said Confucius, "and the bold from fear." China is aggressively pursuing educational achievement as a key national imperative. America is not. Chinese classrooms radiate pride in accomplishment, resolve to do better, and an urgency to move the country forward. As a current school official and former Town Meeting member, I know well the bureaucratic knots and budgetary dread that ensnare daring educational reform. Meanwhile, China is leaping onward. We must do likewise. How? By committing to a bold, grand vision for education that extends far beyond the next iteration of the standardized test, teachers' contract, or Common Core - and far beyond such minutiae as bus routes and the number of winter vacation days. And we need also commit appropriate resources, fiscal and otherwise (but especially fiscal), to translate vision into reality - in all districts, for all students.

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