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Gaokao Cowboy: How National Examinations Impact
Student Development


stuart grauerStuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching,“a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

The exams we use to evaluate our school children have the power to shape not only a nation’s future, but the character and development of the children who take them. Who sets this agenda? This narrative essay, set in Southern China, deliberates on the changing landscapes of national testing in the United States (such as the College Board’s Advanced Placement) and China (in particular, the Gaokao), and the conflicts inherent when student learning, patterns of engagement, evaluation and placement are focused fundamentally on high stakes, standardized exams. Of the world’s seven billion people, nearly a billion are secondary school students. Is it conceivable that nearly one billion of the world’s students are educationally headed down and unintended track?

The exams we use to evaluate our school children have the power to shape not only a nation’s future, but the dreams and development of the children who take them. Who sets this agenda?

Part I
Awakening Dragon
stuart grauerNanjing is a city known for top Chinese education. We have finished visiting the famous Purple Mountain, surrounded by some 30 universities, and the Confucius Temple, and now we were heading to Nanjing No. 1 Middle School (what the U.S. would call a secondary school). It is the occasion of their 105th anniversary. Our group consists of independent, American educators, hand selected by a Chinese educational foundation for our potential for partnership with prominent Chinese high schools. Partnerships like these signify a new era in Chinese education. We are scholars, though we know nothing of the thirteen classics.

We are ushered in through the venerable, old gateway lined with bowing students in uniform, past the fountain with floating lotus flowers, past the classic pagoda, and are seated in the courtyard arena before the grandest of stages. We are dignitaries.

The day before we had met the principal of this 10,000-student school, Mr. Lee. This is a “key school,” meaning students test their way into it and parents pay a small fee.

Sometimes politics are involved. Chinese education is becoming dynamic for one of the first times in its history, exploring new pathways. There is little tradition of independent education, but there is a budding interest laden with potential for cognitive dissonance. “Would you ever be interested in introducing a small schools concept in China,” I had asked principal Lee, “for instance, schools of around 200 students each, or a school within a school?”

            “Yes,” came back through the translator, Jeff. “He is interested.”
            “He means ‘No’, right?” I said to Jeff.
            “No, he means, Yes.” I wondered if Jeff really meant, “Yes, he means No.”

By that time, after a week on the road meeting officials, I had determined that “Yes” means either “Yes,” “Perhaps,” or “No,” and that “No” was not used.

 “Got it,” I signaled Jeff. As such, we were oriented as well as could be for bureaucracy the scale of which we could only pretend to grasp. But Elvis was already in the arena: Across China, across Asia, Western-style schools and colleges had been popping up. In Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam and China, British and American schools were teaming with local counterparts and forming independent schools. Enlightened Chinese educators were seeking windows of escape from the Asian focus on rote learning and high stakes testing. For instance, the centuries-old Harrow School of England established a branch in Hong Kong. One of their school parents said it all: “Harrow takes a much more holistic view than many other schools in Hong Kong, not just focusing on academic results but also putting a great deal of emphasis on developing each individual into a citizen of the world (Ang & Kwok, December 23, 2012).”

So we are seated in the giant courtyard for the ceremony. Before us lay a colossal, colorful, stage installation with thousands of feet of red drapery. There are thousands of red plants. I look closer. They are poinsettias, like old friends to me. “Those came from my home town in California,” I point out to a few of the students, who look puzzled and smile at me. These are global plants now. I always thought they were locally bred, patented, and licensed for international distribution all from my home town of Encinitas, but it turns out the Chinese were breeding them years ago … some pirated cuttings. They called them xīngxingmù. Is this what would become of the educational technologies we were introducing here?

stuart grauerThis is a $100,000 celebration. More. It is far beyond anything we could imagine at any American high school and a whack in the side of the head: China is on the move. The dragon is awakening! The ceremony starts with sexy, bare-midriff, teen dancers in red skirts and white bobbysox.  Next up, bad, hip hopping boyz in black, and the music is loud, the confetti plentiful.

The program introduction concludes. It is time to bring on the featured speaker and main event. An American cowboy themed score comes on, loud and triumphant, as photos of Chinese breakthroughs flash on a gigantic screen towering over the stage. Military marchers in the street, Mao riding on a train looking kindly out upon the masses, people waving at the camera driving through the countryside, town parades. And orchestrating it all, could this be … the theme from “Blazing Saddles?” Yes! We’ve barely had breakfast and this sounds like triumph, like the winning of the West. This is the Asian century! The East is the new West! Our delegation, wowed and humbled, was in for an eye-opening week visiting top tier, coveted high schools in Southern China and meeting their leaders.

Nanjing Number 1 is ready for our arrival. We file into a ninth grade class, which is studying Advanced Placement (A.P.) chemistry in English language. (We have already learned that there are more people studying English in China than the total U.S. population.) The lesson observation is to be followed by our main event, a U.S./Chinese forum in the lavish boardroom.

This is an event for local press, and a newspaper reporter has somehow identified me before class. She pulls out her steno pad. “I don’t understand why all the Chinese here want to take American A.P. classes,” she prompts. “What is so good about this test?”

In China, schools traditionally have not empowered students to be active participants in learning. I get the sense that, just because the A.P. examination is a western tool, the Chinese presume it to be something that automatically breeds western-type qualities like independent thinking and initiative taking. So, I do not fully comprehend why Chinese want to take A.P. classes, either. Not yet, anyway. I say, “An Advanced Placement course has a lot of content. It is something like a race. You can’t really study much in depth. You must keep charging forward all semester long to cover all the required topics that will appear on the standardized test at the end.” I wonder, What is so Western about this test? We settle down for the chemistry lesson.

“Lǎoshī hǎo” (“Good morning, teacher”), the students all say in unison, then bowing to the teacher. Perhaps millions of students are doing this across the land at the moment. “Tóngxuémen hǎo,” is the reply. “Students hello.”  The lesson methodology is lecture with power point and teacher demonstration.

The class is running well. The teacher sets up a demo at the front of the room. Since the students have no supplies, she calls it a “Mini-lab,” no doubt an American publisher’s euphemism for not really a lab. Two students are called to the front of the class to help the teacher. She is—they are—demonstrating how the making of sodium compounds can produce fire. This is a tried and true old chemistry teacher standby. I’ve seen my own chemistry teachers pull this one out on tour days. I assume she has planned it as a failsafe on a day she knows the back of her room will be lined with western educational dignitaries and reporters. The only trouble is, the first three times she attempts to make fire happen, it fails to ignite. This, for the observer, is a bit of a moment of truth. For rather than ask “Why?”—Why has the fire failed to ignite?—and then treat the situation as a scientist would, as though something might be worthy of actual investigation, she just presses on. She must produce the expected chemical fire. The experiment requires it.

“Why was there no fire when the book claims there will be?” a scientist surely would have asked. But, of course, the wrong answer would not be found on an American A.P. exam or Chinese Gaokao. At last, on the fourth try, a beautiful, chemical combustion jumps into life and, as if on cue. “Ahh,” some of the kids say. “Ohh.”  


After class, the reporter attaches herself to me once again. “What is so good with this A.P.?” she persists. I think: Is this okay? Should I be speaking to the press in China? Don't they arrest you as a dissident if you say the wrong thing? And, indeed, I dissent. “A.P. courses,” I risk, “can stifle deep investigation of any topic and replace the processes of discovery and personal investigation with pursuit of a test score,” I dictate as the reporter scribbles on the pad. If a Chinese school is looking for that, well, they already have the Gaokao. Why not stick with that, I wonder. On the other hand, at least U.S. colleges accept A.P. credits. Ahah! Not so easy figuring how to get credits for U.S. colleges when you go to school in China. Perhaps the A.P. is an ingenious workaround. No accreditation necessary for the school. No citizenship or residency requirement. Nothing. Take a few A.P. exams and go to college in the U.S. Forgo the Gaokao morass altogether!

Written examinations as determinants of educational attainment add efficiency and reliability in sorting our students, but they have rather enormous side effects, which are often ignored. In the United States, nationwide, students believing AP classes are “required” to get an edge on college admissions are caught in a cycle of work and sleep depravation. Misguided high school ranking services equate percentage of students taking A.P. courses with high school quality, putting heat on schoolboards, and the students naturally bear this heat. Tight district income is diverted from more student-centered programs to fund A. P. classes, materials and exams. However, compared to Gaokao, perhaps this all sounds like freedom.

Pronounced “gow-cow,” the revered and feared Gaokao, properly called the Chinese National Higher Education Entrance Examination, is the world’s most grueling national high school test. Rooted in the keju, China’s imperial exam system, it determines nothing less than whether and where you go to college and what your major will be. Considering that this is the only determinant and that there are only enough college seats for between 60 to 70% of applicants, the stakes for doing well on the Gaokao are high, to put it mildly (Wong, June 30, 2012). Taking place over three grueling days, it is more than twice as long as the College Board’s SAT exams. Stories of adaptations are legendary, ranging from desperate parents hooking their test prepping children up to amino acid drips to mass suicides. As the China Daily describes it, the entire nation chips in: nearby construction sites are closed, roadblocks are set up to control traffic, and no car honking is allowed in the area as students sweep through metal detectors into rooms scanned by cameras to detect cheating. “You have a lot of stress, especially if you come from a nobody family with no powerful connections or background. Because if that’s the case, your whole life pretty much depends on those three days” (Yang, June 26, 2012). If you are like the 30 percent of Chinese who live on less than $2 a day, Gaokao is a true lottery ticket. Thousands of families move to regions where Gaokao scores are low so as to place better regionally (College [xclusive].com). “I think Gaokao is probably responsible for killing 90 percent of the creativity of China,” says a popular Chinese blogger (Yang, June 26, 2012).

As such, A.P. exams were starting to make great sense for the Chinese, who are long accustomed to proving their academic worth solely though the results they get on big exams. A rapidly growing number of Chinese were moving heaven and earth, and bank accounts, to get a U.S. college education, and the A.P. was an emerging pathway. Could there be something intrinsically American about the A.P. and the national race for standards, something real to force the notion that the wild West was gone and the race for standardization was on? 

Alternatively, Chinese state schools were finding that they could collaborate with a U.S. independent school, dedicating a wing in their own school building where all courses are taught in English. In this way, they could aim their graduates towards a U.S. education. Again, rewards to the cooperating independent school were considerable. I personally had rejected offers in the area of $15,000 per student kicked back to my school for lending our school name, course list, and accreditation to such efforts. Not bad.

And yet, in my heart, which I have been told has a benign skepticism about it, I had begun to wonder if the Chinese, in their current period of prosperity, might quickly scoop the best of whatever they found in all of our schools. Would they bring American educational technology and methods home to master them independently, and drop us like a colony depleted of its gold? Were they already doing this? Should we be protectionist? I fully understood this question could cause me to be reviled in both nations, but I honestly was wondering: Were we pawns or dignitaries?

Amidst this change, we hear Mao’s China referred to now as “the disgrace.” Not so to any kids I talked to, none of whom identifies with the Party. Mao is a tee shirt. “We’ve heard of him,” a couple students told me. Mao is the Beatles. Party leaders in the schools try to bundle student Party allegiance into admissions formulas, and who knows the impact? “Are you communist?” I asked a few students who met this question with blank looks and would rather talk about Cold Play and pop idols. Justin Bieber.  Communist China is not communist, though no one is able to say what it is. Educationally, it is searching, looking west. As such, China is a perfect candidate for mistaking America’s emerging model, a model that emphasizes the funding of corporations and technology rather than real teachers, for “westernization.” For our part, the U.S., originally a network of fascinating local and regional roots for authentic regional and place-based education, is a terrible candidate for all this mass-produced education, yet pursues it unbridled. Call it, “easternization.” The two great nations appear to be caught up in a mutual, competitive educational zeal.

Back to the reporter: I think, “We study in the U.S. not so we can have more liberties in college, but so we can have more liberties in life.” But that’s not what I say. And I don't know if its true or just idealism. I say this: “The A.P. is not a complete departure for Chinese students, who complain widely about the Gaokao preparation. They are used to taking tests to establish their value to colleges. Do the Chinese really think they can get a liberating U.S. education by passing a series of tests? What’s so western about that?” I ask. The reporter scribbles and looks at me nervously. I notice for the first time that she is very young. She looks like a college student.

“Think Different:” Independent Education in China
]There is a saying that when you’re one in a million in China, there are 1300 others identical to you. Uniformity and predictability tend to be acculturated priorities with numbers like this, or many social situations could be chaotic. Chinese high schools can have up to 10,000 students and class sizes ranging from 35 to 50, so expressions of individuality can be disruptive. There is little room for dissent. Independent thinking is, of course, a more western, more American practice. Think: entrepreneurship, Teddy Roosevelt, rock music. Apple Computers.

In America–and this is not widely known–the oldest, continuing form of education is independent education, not public education. Independent schooling has been ongoing since well before the American Revolution and still today serves one out of every fifty students nationwide. In addition to independent education there are various other alternatives to public education and one in nine students nationwide gets schooling in these alternative ways, including home schools, religious schools, and charter schools. Comparatively, China has close to none of these alternatives for mainstream or college preparatory students. But they will. Traditionally in China, there have been a few independent schools for students needing special services, but little else. It’s public schools or nothing for the vast majority.

American class and school sizes have steadily grown through the generations. However, American schools have a history of innovation and a legal structure allowing for entrepreneurship. America is seeing a significant movement in small schools (less than 230 students) that function like tribes, where everyone naturally knows and feels connected to one another. They are organizationally agile, and they promote individualism. They are safe. A very high percentage of these small school students can readily distinguish themselves as individuals.

China has virtually no viable concept for small schools. One consequence is the historical reliance on standardized exams to measure outcomes. The great Mongol Kublai Khan first made his mark on educational history by breaking with the traditional Chinese reliance on rigorous civil service examinations, as Confucians urged, in order to appoint his own best officials (Bergreen, 2007). Ironically, China may have started out more this way. Traditional Chinese education featured “sishu,” small private schools serving local needs. Confucius himself taught in this kind of schoolhouse. For many Ming and Qing families, a sishu education was a form of stature and prestige. Pre-revolution Chinese government and education were more decentralized, allowing for such stature and prestige. For some, the sishu offered preparation for the famed civil service exams, precursors to the Gaokao. By the 1950s, this form of private education had been discontinued in China instead of being reformed and improved (Deng, 1997). However, through the changes, the intensive examination practice continued on with heightened focus. Eventually, the Gaokao became not only revered, but a such feared and dominating force across China that there was bound to be some backlash, and we found signs of this backlash in our travels.

Change is underway in Chinese education as the Chinese investigate western concepts like “school culture” and trending educational technologies. In the current mainstream, Chinese teachers are often found with laptops. So far, they are used primarily to make the teacher, not the students, more efficient, although there is often a computer lab on campus. Teachers in China are not yet accustomed to using technology to make teaching and student learning more productive and personalized. On the other hand, even less well off students normally have a computer at home if they are to have a real chance at college.

According to Apple Corporation, “In 2010, the Chinese government released a national plan for education reform, acknowledging that Chinese education is ‘lagging behind’ the needs of the nation, and that the country’s teaching philosophy and methodology are outdated.”

The government challenged local schools to conduct experiments in reform, which, in general, amount to inviting in more technology and allowing local principals more autonomy to try western things (like community service programs and A.P. exams). They declared, “The destiny of our nation rests on education (Apple in Education, 2013).” But there is no disputing that, today, for much of the world, imagineering a new destiny means buying iconically Western technology. Such as Apple digital devices.

In Beijing, Apple was allowed to adopt a high school, and students were furnished iBooks and iPads so that they could produce work using applications like iMovie for producing newscasts and practicing English. Students and teachers began to blog. According to Beijing Normal University Professor Yu Shengquan, as a result of the program students surveyed began showing “better independent thinking skills, improved autonomous learning abilities, and greater confidence than students not participating in the program (Apple in Education, 2013).” However, such programs were and will continue to be met with deep scrutiny by a government used to controlling public messaging. For instance, Chinese law prohibits providing Internet providers pseudonyms, so blogging or social networking are traceable. Facebook is blocked nationally (Bradsher, December 28, 2012). That would put many American secondary schoolers out of business—U.S. kids typically use that extra Facebook account to stay under the radar of parents and authorities. At any rate, the savvy teachers we met had found “under the radar” workarounds, and they were Facebooking routinely.

Notwithstanding national goals, even in top schools across Southern China, our delegation was seeing little of the new technology we read about. Technology education or computer literacy is a challenge in most parts of China, especially in underdeveloped areas. Relatively well to do, Nanjing is in the first years of reform. Due to new concepts regarding local control, we heard of schools that exempt up to 30% of their students from the Gaokao to focus on innovation (Apple in Education, 2013).

Back in chemistry class at Nanjing Number 1 School, there are no signs of student computers, no SmartBoards, documents cameras, or white boards. There is just the teacher computer and the overhead projection she creates from it. But these Chinese students are clearly used to working hard and learning without all these advantages. Class ends, and the students stand and say in unison, in Mandarin, “Thank you, teacher.” We file out, and the reporter is on me like glue.

Part II.
An American Cowboy Hat
Kublai asks Marco, “When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?”
 “I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting.” –Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Cultural perspectives are not easy to import, as Marco Polo found 700 years ago in China. Outside in the hallway, we—the American and Nanjing educators–drift towards the elegant forum room, I escorted by the Chinese newspaper reporter who seems to be on to something. Entering, we find the School Principal and the Communist Party leader presiding at the head of the 30-seat, gleaming conference table, smiling. The Party leader is seated just slightly off to the side so that the Principal has a nuanced advantage. “Surely the A.P. is more liberating that the Gaokao,” I am explaining to the reporter as we take our places. “The Gaokao judges student’s entire schooling on one exam. At least, with A.P., you get to have exams on various subjects. (1).
But it is hardly representative of a holistic education. Its just more standardization, more centralized control, and more high stakes exams—a growing trend across the U.S. People often treat the College board [purveyor of the AP] as a government agency,” I try to explain, “What’s American about the College Board is far more political than educational: it is an extremely well funded special interest group exerting enormous influence on the national funding priorities.”

But this is all too much and the forum is beginning. These facts are rarely even understood by the American independent school parents I deal with in Southern California, much less Chinese who surely presume that the A.P. is as American as cowboys and Indians, or hip hop music. The role of the College Board is to promote its testing programs, and this hardly advances the concept of a balanced, democratic, or enriched education. In a “real” education, I only wish I could explain–in a “Western” education–the whole school and every course in it are evaluated by a wide range of qualitative and quantitative factors. Things like innovation, teamwork and interactivity, multiple step project development, etc., all can become valued parts of your academic record and your college application.

But it is with some sense of confusion, or could it be desperation, that I confront all this six thousand miles from home. Because, back home, innovation, teamwork and the rest were not really thriving all that well. What was really happening was a 100-year trend of larger classes, larger schools, less personalization, and more third-party, centralized, quantitative testing for our nation’s kids. We were racing to what China was like, while China was racing to what we were presumably like. And we were both getting it so wrong!

I bid goodbye to the reporter, who says the article will publish the next day. I have not even taken the time to find out where it will publish, or the stature of the press it will be in. What have I done?

Presently, the Principal begins the welcoming and the forum is underway. Around the long, gleaming conference table, such as I found in each of the seven schools I have visited around China, we are seated across from Nanjing teachers and parents. And there, projected large and vibrant on the screen at the front of the room are the words: “Forum on A.P.”

Now I am a little stunned. No wonder the reporter had been prompting me. The forum includes school officials, Nanjing teachers, school parents, some students and our American delegation, all there, as it happens, to celebrate the new adoption of an A.P. program at Nanjing No. 1. Our delegation has not been told. Or, perhaps I have missed the memo. We are gathering her to celebrate the adoption of the program I have just bashed in the press.

The Principal is opening the forum, detailing with the greatest pride how A.P. studies represented the school’s aspirations towards the creation of a new culture of innovation and freedom—no doubt what our group represents to them. I am sweating a little, wanting to disappear, and my eyes start to dart around the room. These proud administrators. These caring parents. These aspirations! What could I say if called upon. Shall I create a cover and patch things up? This is Red China! I have spoken against the party line. Is this okay? Should I have the phone number of the U.S. Consulate on my smartphone?

As an educator, my nexus question is this: Since when has the taking of A.P. exams even remotely equated to the development of educational innovation? A.P. courses are among the most rigid in all of U.S. curricula. Their credits, being dropped by some colleges, are often cited as causes of student burnout. A.P.: Innovation? A.P. classes are rigorous and they produce reliable results since they are fundamentally test based—you either pass the exam and get the college units, or you do not. But reliability is not the same as social worth or value. A.P. curricula incubate compliance and standardization far more than creative expression or liberty. A.P., a model of the West? I hadn’t seen American culture so distorted (parodied? transmogrified?) since attending an international education forum in Japan in the 80s, going into a bathroom stall, and seeing graffiti labeling the paper toilet seat cover dispenser: “American cowboy hats.”

Now a parent at the table is saying how American Universities are the best in the world, some of them. “American educators have more liberties.” We know they want their kids in American schools. We also know that a Chinese school could not easily get accredited by any American accreditation agency, hence its students could not have easy access to our universities. In this sense, A.P. tests, providing preapproved units at many U.S. universities, is a fast track—no school accreditation necessary. It dawns on me: The Chinese have found a loophole into U.S. colleges. What’s more, this could mean billions for the College Board (producer of the A.P. examinations). The College Board stands tall among interest groups in control of the U.S. national agenda. It’s the NRA of education. How strange that large scale Chinese support of the A.P. exam could enrich and fortify the College Board, pushing even bigger stakes, more standardized, more centralized control of educational outcomes in the United States.

The Great Learning recounts how Confucius once said, “Yes, yellow birds know where they should perch. How can a person not be of the same wisdom as a bird (Confucius, 1996).” Sitting across from the Nanjing Principal and Party leader, I am feeling exposed for my lack of such wisdom.  Those poinsettias out front, I want to call out, those poinsettias from my hometown … you can bet they are second-tier hybrids sold to China to prevent their bootlegging America’s best stock for their own profits. You can’t have everything American, you can’t be American, I think, but I understand that I am an insignificant fool.

China is, of course, a highly competitive country. As China aims for the west, it seems natural that the western-style program parents can grasp easily is the one that most resembles the one they already have: a vast, test-score based program which wholly lacks any element of local, regional or community education.

Wherever in the world there are high stakes and big risks, corruption can be found. Chinese agencies are paid substantially to place students in “name” U.S. schools and colleges, and transcript falsification is rampant. Chinese parents make regular payoffs to Party officials who can influence school placement, often in the thousands of dollars. “Corruption is pervasive in every part of Chinese society, and education is no exception,” said Li Mao, an educational consultant in Beijing. Admission to the kindergarten attached to Beijing University was rumored to bring in bribes in the area of $24,000. For the high school, the amounts being whispered about were $80,000 - $130,000. Extra points on school admissions tests were reputed to be going for around $4,800 each (Levin, November 21, 2012). One impact of all this, from the perspective of a Chinese parent, has been to raise the relative value of an American education.

Meanwhile, back home, increasing school district expenditures were being shifted to nationwide corporations and agencies that create and sell student curricula, testing materials and scoring for big stakes standardized testing. Testing and assessment corporations were experiencing record income years. Simultaneously, in California, New York and elsewhere across the country, record numbers of school districts were facing bankruptcy (Watanabe, May 21, 2012). High stakes testing involves more than just philosophy—there were fortunes shifting.

Here in the conference room, the Chinese parents seem to attach a symbolic importance upon having Americans present. New thought is at the gates. Their kids use archetypical American technology such as blogs and smartphones. They are looking to find community service roles like western kids. They want something even newer, more western than even those: they want choices! Their parents are questioning the meaning of their children being the successors of the communist state. We want our kids to do well on tests, several parents express, but, even more, we want them to have successful relationships with teachers, and to express what is real and meaningful to them beyond the test. This represents the American-type adventure, a way of breaking out of the masses. Preparing for A.P. exams strikes them as a way in to this adventureland. It also represents a growing threat to our kids back home. Many Chinese kids are of a very different ethic than U.S. counterparts. These are kids who would have given up their entire senior year, every day, focusing 100% on the Gaokao exam were it not for A.P. and the prospect of a place in a prestigious American university. What will be the impact of all this new competition on U.S. universities, and on U.S. kids attempting entry into U.S. universities? All this, and now here we are, a full delegation poised at the conference table and ready to advise all these parents, all these students (ultimately millions of them), and all these school officials on the best way to get a purchase on U.S. college admissions—so they might nose out our own kids. This year a record nearly 100,000 kids applied for UCLA for around 4000 seats. What will happen when we add 20,000 more Chinese applicants into this pool? 50,000 more?

“How can we better prepare our children for an American school?” some Chinese parents want to know. They are genuinely caring. How can I begrudge them supporting any path they could towards their children’s happiness? And it is striking me, when this newspaper interview hits the stands, I could find myself in a hot pot.

The Chinese parents express genuine worry about the impact of all the pressure their kids are under—they have sought to get them off the Gaokao track where it is nearly impossible for them to be well rounded. Instead?: Imagine studying for 5 A.P. exams in a foreign language!–this is what some of them are already gladly doing in order to circumvent the Gaokao, and to get a shot at a U.S. university. And it warrants saying that many of the Chinese students are handicapped, since teachers of these American courses make, to put it politely, labored and limited use of the English language. (English translation on sign seen at a nearby Buddhist temple: “Potential danger is worse than naked fire.”)

Hedging my bets, I join in the conversation, saying: “We are envisioning educational exchange with China to be a collaboration, not a competition,” while thinking … Would their kids slaughter ours on big tests? Is this the moral equivalent of war? The A.P. fosters the very same subjection and competitive model you already have, and so what makes you think you are aiming at a traditional vision of Western education? But I dare not ask this. I say: “We appreciate the great work ethic of many of your children, but research shows that the students who do best in U. S. colleges and are happy are the ones who have mentors and teacher relationships, not the greatest test takers. In high school, we want kids to engage in clubs and activities. We want them challenging ideas, and trying out opinions, not just giving the right answers.” And then, worrying that this was all too complicated, I add, “We just want them to raise their hands in class—to risk getting the wrong answer now and then.” I suppose the patriotic educator in me wants the Chinese kids to get some things wrong. But my inner global educator is moved by the parents in the room, how caring and intelligent they are and how selfless they seem.

Earlier that morning, the New York Times had been blocked throughout China after breaking an article that the Premier had embezzled billions of dollars. Upon returning home to the states I was to learn that, on that very same day, the Times had run an article on Asian test taking, citing fraud and plagiary as an evident consequence of the extreme pressure and one-dimensionality of test taking as a method of assessing educational success (Spencer, October 26, 2012). When you replace broad and legitimate educational objectives with a series of tests, what else might you expect?

Wise men through the ages, college admissions officers, and employers alike will rarely tell you that the secret to a successful and happy life or civilization is to promote test taking, memorization or even problem solving. What they may tell you is that the secret lies in balance. Balance is peace. Balance is happiness and success. Balance is health. That’s just yin/yang. The Chinese invented it! What kind of a civilization will we get from advancing national test taking as a fundamental measure of our educational attainment? Wouldn’t that be the tail wagging the dragon?

The Waterline
 “Kites fly in the sky and fish jump in the deep water,” says the Book of Songs from long-ago China (Waley, 1996). Schools are expected to serve and advance cultures fundamentally to pass along an agreed upon story and set of values. Some teachers and states may prefer students to recite the belief systems and stories handed to them. Confucius called these “the northern will:” the inherent virtues we must pass along. They are like fish in water, and their world is a finite one they can never leave no matter how high they jump.

Other cultures and other times have placed greater rewards on the more aesthetic and esoteric. After all, kites fly in the infinite sky and can achieve nothing on solid ground. This is “the southern will,” the will to educate people in the spirit of discovery, tolerance and patience. How can we emulate the fish and the kite at once? “I am afraid the doctrine of the mean can never be practiced,” Confucius said. And therein lies the beautiful irony in our field. As educators, we spend our lives seeking the unattainable, walking the balance that we know we can never hold more than momentarily. Can we pass along the knowable world and still be fully devoted to the world of questioning the infinite? A waterline separates these two worlds. Can we walk on a line that embraces both educational philosophies? Can we get our students through the great rigor of college preparation and also keep them genuinely engaged in the process of discovery … can’t we have it both ways? Who am I to argue with Confucius?

Like a freight train, we can see clearly the global trend towards a “northern will,” towards formulaic curricula measured by mass, standardized exams. Of the world’s seven billion people, nearly a billion are secondary school students. Is it conceivable that, globally, nearly one billion youths are on a misguided educational track? Dare we even wonder this? Dare I suggest that we are headed for a world where achievement is based on cut-throat competition for the attainment of standardized goals rather than on collaborative attainment of long range visions for a better society and world? Has a two week junket in China made a communist out of me? And yet, isn’t freedom, the basis for the founding of the United States, supposed to be our guiding passion.

The tests we give our children naturally measure how we balance the old knowledge of a culture and the open mindedness of the free individual. Here are some things Gaukao, College Boards, and Advanced Placement tests do not measure and which are also left widely unmeasured by schools throughout China and the United States:  Meaningful relationships students and mentors form, what students care about, student values such as kindness, student persistence and work ethic, and any longitudinal dimension of student development. This much we must know: when we give standardized tests as the fundamental way of determining educational outcomes, surely we attempt to confine ourselves to a finite, predictable world. That’s no place for a bronco buster or entrepreneur. What if a billion teens globally are headed for a system that discourages creativity, innovation, courage and individualism?

After the A.P. forum, Mr. Lee, the Nanjing principal invites us out to dinner. He takes the head table on one end of the room, the north end if you will. Now he is raising a glass of Bai Jiu liquor, the finest in the region, and he toasts us all: “It is only a good meal if we drink, a lot, and we let our hair down. Tonight we celebrate,” and the waitresses are again filling our liquor cups, not much bigger than thimbles. I imagine Mr. Lee is coaxing us to that place the Chinese have called the waterline, that place between real and dream, that place where the world shifts into balance. “Gan bei.”  I get an almost anguished sense that we can only do this now that away from the school, in this beautiful room, because once the bureaucracies have taken over we can only be ourselves once we are out of them. “Gan bei,” we all say again. Dry the cup, and it reminded me of the heartbreaking, human side of education for the first time all week.

It has taken a long time but, sitting there, toasting, I finally understand that what breaks my heart is not that the U.S. and China are both pouring such precious resources into turning the schools into state monoliths that will surely be wasteful, bureaucratized, and impersonal. What breaks my heart is how lost I know so many teens to be, how much pain one can feel (or bury) during these years, how much promise and how fine the sensitivity at this age, how tragic it is that we treat young lives as instruments of the state, and how very much better they would do if they had giving, listening, warm-hearted schools rather than gigantic, systematized models of standardization where teen sensitivity is treated as a weakness, as something that will go away on its own if ignored as much as possible, and as something that is trivial compared to the predetermined needs of state bureaucrats who never go in classrooms and, in many cases we’ve been hearing about, barely converse with their own kids.

Here comes jasmine tea, then congee soup, steamed dumplings, cuttlefish, lotus seed, spicy sea snail, bamboo shoots, goose web and wing, and dragonfruit, placed slowly but steadily onto the lazy susan by a server called Yoyo and rotating around the table before us.

“Tonight I have a special announcement,” principal Lee is saying. “Today the newspaper came to our school to cover our model A.P. program.” He is standing and his eyes dart about the room. “The A.P. program is one of the keys to our future. It is the best of the East and the West. It can help take our school to the internationally prominent level,” he adds, raising the glass again. “When the newspaper story is printed tomorrow, the whole province will know of our accomplishment.”

            “Gan bei,” we all say again. “Gone by,” it sounds like. “Gone by.”

By early the next morning, our bus is leaving Nanjing behind, bearing east for the legendary waterways and gardens of Souzhou, and another school forum.

1. Students receive only one total score in Gaokao, but there are different subjects covered in the exam, including Chinese, Math, English, Science (for students in Science track), and History, Politics and Geology (for students in Humanities track).

In many Chinese schools, administrators emphasize the importance of holistic education but have no formal assessment of it. It is viewed as optional and extra.

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