A reaction to Australia's latest education proposals from a Chinese perspective
The author below is an Australian with post-graduate qualifications from two Australian universities and who has been living, studying, working and teaching in China since 1978
For the past 7 years I have been teaching at a HK/Malaysian/local tertiary institution joint venture in Suzhou, China which was seen and resourced by the HK side
As part of the government curriculum students are required to study a compulsory higher mathematics course (which is far in advance of anything I've studied at high school in Maths I and Maths II). This course was rigorously taught and examined albeit not to a national standard exam. Of course there was also a compulsory politics and society course, which is mostly taken by the students as a chance to tune out and nap. The examinations are well projected and students provided with model answers. Clearly no one takes it seriously. By contrast the politically correct curriculum of Australian schools appears seen as the raison d'etre and teachers treat it accordingly.
And so it was that I listened with interest to the press conference announcing the long delayed Gonski Report on Education in Australia. First of all was the promise that 'no school would lose a dollar of funding per student'. That seems an entirely political statement you wouldn't expect from a politically neutral report.
In China there is no universal education system. There never was. Instead there was a separate fee-based system in which the state owned businesses and government departments paid for the fees of the children of their employees. If you did not work for the government you paid your own fees. The better the school the higher the fees. The higher the government department or state owned enterprise, the better the school their employee’s children attended.
The standards at these schools vary. In the major urban centres schools are set up in a hierarchical manner with major state, provincial, and metropolitan schools leading the pack. Then for those who can’t make it, the private schools take up the slack. Many of the private schools are run by the state schools and universities trading on their name and raking in extra cash.
In poor rural villages where students could not afford to pay fees, the local collective or village pays for the school. Poorly paid, educated and under resourced teachers struggle to make a difference with students who are often pulled out of school to attend to farm work. Today the government is beginning to see the importance of proper educational funding for the countryside to reduce the potential for dissatisfaction and to ensure the best students are identified and streamed into better schools. In the cities parents struggle, as they do in the west, to get their children into the best schools and pay the fees any way they can. Often the whole family will contribute hoping to get a member of the family into the government elite who profit from economic rent and are obliged to spread it around the family. In my development here in Suzhou there are a number of families one might identify as from the village, or at least to be parents and relatives of rich officials.
When I was at school in Beijing in the 70’s the education system had just been restored and while I was sharing a room with a student selected on his social class and political credentials, a new group of students arrived who had passed exams. The tension was informative. The gongnongbing students, or those selected from amongst working class, peasants and soldiers, were looked down on by the xinzhishifenzi, or new intellectuals. Like everything in China however the names do not always match the reality. My roommate, ostensibly selected from among the peasant class, was actually the son of a senior PLA general who lived in the same complex as Deng Xiaoping. He had been ‘adopted’ by a family of farmers, perhaps relatives, in order to qualify. It was clear many other students came from similar backgrounds.
An interesting note was struck by some of these New Intellectuals who praised the exam system saying it would result in a decrease in the number of women attending university as the old system had insisted on a 50:50 split of male and female. Within ten years of the exam system being implemented the government was pondering the problem of how to get more male students into university because women were performing better and out numbering men by a significant majority. At this rate it would be very hard to find enough men for government positions the government sources complained!
At our school, the Beijing Language Institute (now the Beijing University of Language & Culture), our teachers had responsibilities outside the classroom as well as in. Indeed the teachers specifically in charge of our Australian cohort were called our Responsible Persons (fuzeren). Should any of us miss a class, or perform poorly in class, we would be visited by the classroom teacher, in addition to our responsible teacher. The reason for our transgression would be investigated and the teachers would offer to help us. They made it clear that our satisfactory performance was their responsibility. Should we continue to miss classes or perform poorly the visits would continue but we would have to take more responsibility and write a confession, or self-criticism (ziwopiping), which demonstrated our contrition and an understanding that we had to attend classes regularly and abide by the teacher’s direction. In other words it was a form of social contract between the school and the student both sides bore responsibility. There were no authoritarian head masters, but major infractions such as attacking local students resulted in immediate repatriation.
Although teachers in China are legendary for their care for their students, and vice versa, there are examples of poor teachers who just put on a video and leave the students to watch it. The moral standards for teachers are high as well. In my school a married teacher, who was very high in the school party apparatus and also widely loved, was dismissed due to reports he was seen out together with another teacher! School leaders insisted teachers set a moral example. Interestingly many of the local teachers insisted that what teachers did in their private time was no business of the school! In Australia you have to sleep with one of the students to be sacked!
So the central question is how can Chinese teachers teach better on much less money and resources? Dedication? Tradition? Student discipline these days is not what it was. The 'Little Emperors' of China have no automatic respect for teachers. Indeed they have the arrogance of the nouveau riche in demanding their certificate since they paid their fees regardless of the effort put in! School officials spend a lot of their time defending their teachers against rich and or powerful bullies demanding to know why their child was failed (he didn't submit assignments or attend enough classes usually). The rich threaten to sue the school. The powerful say they will have it closed down. The traditional respect for education in China is much threatened.
A possible suggestion for the superior performance of Chinese schools (at least the elite schools in the major cities) is the competitive nature of the Chinese school system in which the best fight for a place in the elite schools. As we all know from the 50's on in Australia we sought to destroy a merit based education system in order to attain equality of educational outcomes. The same number of poor students should finish Y12 as rich students. In China, paradoxically, there is no obsession with a social class based education system as is still displayed in the Gonski Report. It is a merit-based system. As a result China has leaders of extraordinary ability and intelligence who are unfailingly guiding China back to its normal position as the pre-eminent power in the world. Meanwhile, since the Wyndham Report in NSW, Australia has unerringly declined from top of the OEDC countries to the bottom. Is there a lesson there?
Generally I can say that the Gonski Report could have been the same one submitted to Whitlam, or that submitted by Harold Wyndham to the NSW government in 1957 i.e. an extension of class war politics. Even now the comment by nearly all educationalists is the urgent need to address the lack of equality or fairness in the measured outcomes analyzed on a social class basis. There should be a cognizance that we have been addressing this problem by various means since 1950 without closing the gap. A more realistic approach would be to place extra resources where they are needed, both at the level of disadvantage and also at ensuring the top group of students received the most challenging education available globally.
The resulting emphasis on equality of outcomes resulted in a ridiculous system of pre-HSC exams designed to rate the school, so that when applied to the HSC results, each school had an equal share of A's, B's, C' etc. This was a nice bureaucratic solution, which had nothing go do with educational outcomes. Universities insisted on raw scores for admission purposes thus exposing the corrupt nature of the 'trick'.
Finally one must say that the Australian obsession with equality of outcomes in education is odd in a capitalist country in which income disparity is generally wide. It seems to be a denial of the capitalist nature of country by our educationalists. It seems a denial of human nature to expect equality of outcome in education when it is not manifest in any other form of human life.
One aspect common in Chinese schools, which is totally lacking in Australia as far as I know, is that each semester the students are surveyed on their satisfaction with each teacher for each subject. This survey covers such things as punctuality, helpfulness, good communicator, covered topic, allowed participation, as well as general topics about school facilities. The results of the survey weigh heavily on the teacher’s evaluation and at the end of the year the teacher’s bonus is based on this as well a peer evaluation. I was a member of the teacher’s union at the school and of course the union supported such surveys. I can’t see any Australian teachers union allowing such evaluations as they are opposed to any merit based system of teacher evaluation and appear to oppose any moves toward continuous education for teachers. They certainly motivated teachers to maintain professional standards as well as satisfying the student desire to enhance the learning environment.
If there is anything to learn from China it is that the thirty years of human disaster resulted from the same idealism and desire for equality. Stalinist socialism didn’t work there, it did work anywhere in the world. In China in the 1980’s it was systematically undone and an exam based system implemented. The search for the best and brightest does not stop at the school system. Twice every year the government will hold open exams in major centres for those who aspire to work in the government. Of course the system does have ‘Chinese characteristics’ a good score alone is not enough to gain admission to government employment, there is a personal interview, and of course ‘good references’ or background also will be considered.
No one suggests we imitate China. Their excellent performance is due to a highly selective system, national standards and rigorously supervised exams, dedicated and responsible teachers, highly motivated students, and an educational philosophy aimed at teaching to the highest world standards with only the slightest nod to political correctness. But we might learn from that.
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