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Deglobalizing Chinese Kids

Recent enforcement of international curricula controls bode poorly for China's young learners

(originally published in Financial Times Chinese Edition, 8 November 2016)

All last week, education industry alarmists bombarded my Wechat account with news that Shanghai was cracking down on international schools that accept local students – no more foreign investment, no more complete international curricula, and a required set of government dictated courses from primary through middle school. No discussion. No exceptions. Predictably, the first questions were, “(from schools…and some parents) How do we work around this?” “What does this mean to kids who will go overseas for high school and even college?” And, “Whoa, who’s next? Foreign invested learning centers? Kindergarten?”. I read the semi-official statements and the waves of Wechat group commentaries. I can sympathize with education industry peers’ fears. But my bigger fear is that this small splash creates some large ripples and the ones to get swamped – the real losers are likely to be the kids and the educators that teach them.

Small Impact…..

When I peel away the speculation, I see that the real impact of this reinforcement of rules is limited and, at face value, somewhat reasonable Multiple media reports indicate that the regulations that Shanghai is enforcing (or reinforcing) focus on international schools or international divisions that either have not been properly approved and/or are teaching unapproved international curricula to Grade 1-9 students in place of the standard, government-approved curricula. Practically, these tightened regulations effect no more than 400 schools and 200,000 students --- or 0.25% of Chinese students in that age band. And, the portion of the unapproved imported curricula that might overwrite humanity and social science (read: political and history) topics that are not congruent with standard China curricula guidelines probably represent less than 20% of all classroom time and coursework. So, if we try to quantify the actual impact and influence, we see that it hits a very small share of China’s “top 1%”.

…..But a Big Message

But this very small impact on the top 1% of China’s social-economic pyramid makes the message even clearer and more significant. I understand and accept the first part of the message – “follow the rules”. I doubt that international schools are the most “out of control” segment of China’s education industry. But as the famous “broken windows” theory suggests, small infractions foster bigger violations. And, unchecked behavior and educational practices are already widespread across the entire education sector, ranging from school bus hazards in rural communities, to unscrupulous education agents, to test abuses. So, Shanghai’s insistence on enforcing its education regulations and policy could be seen as a way to keep maintaining Shanghai’s already high public school performance.

Unfortunately, the second part of the message – “there is no market for primary through middle school education” – is very troubling. By excluding foreign investment and sharply limiting all but standard, government sanction curricula, Shanghai is reiterating the position that it is the state, not the “market” that decides most, if not all, that children will learn during their most formative years. That “market” for skills and knowledge already stretches far beyond Shanghai – in fact, far beyond China. The “buyers” in the “market” for what my son learns at school in Shanghai aren’t just my wife and I and our fellow primary school parents. Those “buyers” of the skills he learns in first grade have already become the universities that he’ll want to study in overseas and the employers that he’ll want to join after that.

If that’s the “market” for education, then who loses here? Certainly, aspiring international schools and international divisions lose. This adds operational challenges and heavy compliance requirements to the already difficult task of recruiting foreign teachers (for which requirements have also been tightened) and attracting students to new, often unproven programs. But these are completely new regulations, and many international schools are already adept at the game of regulatory “whack-a-mole” – ducking out of sensitive areas, finding clever workarounds, and popping up again with an (at least temporarily) tolerated alternative. Other foreign-backed schools may pull back into lucrative kindergarten segments at the lower end of the prohibited education range or use separate supplementary education businesses to feed high schools at the higher end. In either case, they’ll face setbacks, but many are clever enough to steer around them.

No, the real losers are likely to be Chinese families and the educators on the front lines of China’s education sector, itself.

Chinese Kids Lose

Removing international curricula from accessible primary and secondary schools closes off an important educational option that had begun to open for a growing pool of Chinese families. Yes, overseas curricula like PYP may include knowledge that is outside of the standard, authorized Chinese curriculum. But the real difference and value is in the learning skills that they teach. Acquiring learning, critical thinking, and problem solving skills during these formative years or 6 through 14 is what becomes most important for success when a child goes to study abroad or ultimately, enters the workplace.

The clear, pointed elimination of international curricula from budding (albeit perhaps not always completed approved) international divisions and international schools will also discourage other schools from testing or exploring international extensions. Fewer “experiments” with international classes and divisions will probably create an even bigger gap between China’s educational “haves” and “have nots”. The “have” families will continue to immigrate, secure second passports, and send their kids to pure international schools – or simply leave their families in Canada, Australia, or the US so the kids can enter directly into international education systems.

A second, much larger tier of “haves” families – parents that have been educated overseas, travel abroad, and master English – will begrudgingly work around these obstacles. They will increase their investment in after-school courses, tutors, overseas summer camps and experiences. As they craft their own “family education” solutions, they many become less supportive of their kids’ public schools. Kids’ (and family) stress levels will rise as they push to master their public school curricula and absorb parallel, more international learning experiences.

The kids from the third and largest tier of families – we’ll call them the “almost haves” – will remain in the compliant, approved public school systems. For these kids, changes in what and how they learn will completely depend on the pace and direction of China’s broader education reform.

And that’s where we may meet the third set of potential losers.

Is China’s Education Sector Missing an Opportunity?

I appreciate Shanghai’s need to enforce its education policy. “Following the rules” is important, particularly when you’re steering a very large, complex pool of families though a stressful period of economic and political change. Certainly, the government has a body of political and historical knowledge that it wants to embed in its education curricula – many governments do. Even as a child in the US, certain American interpretations of history and political values were bound firmly into our textbooks. Every morning, we saluted the flag, said our pledge of allegiance, and, in some communities, added a prayer --- although I doubt that none of that happens today. Including government agendas in education curricula is inevitable. But when it comes at the expense of vital learning skills, I see a few potential problems:

  • Many of the “haves” families will leave. Many of the affluent, internationally-educated families who may have been hoping for a broader set of school choices from emerging international divisions aren’t going to stick around and see what tighter policy enforcement really means. But these also are the same families influence a much broader group of parents. So, as this 1% becomes alienated, it sends a much bigger ripple through the broader parent community.
  • A broader set of parents will ask, “So, what are you going to do for my child now?” Particularly at the local level, education, the economy, and politics form an inter-dependent triangle. When international curricula are squeezed out of public and private school choices, parents soon begin to question, “how exactly is the standard, authorized curricula preparing my child for her future?” Or, more even more pointedly, “how are these skills and knowledge going to prepare him to get into a good college and, most important, find and succeed at a good job?” Even a skim through the numerous education Wechat accounts quickly exposes parents to the MOOCs, apps, blended learning programs, curricula adapted to different learning styles, and experiential curricula that are fundamentally changing the way children are learning in much of the world. Although they may not raise their voices publicly, Chinese parents are also going to ask their schools, “OK, no imported curricula – fine, so what are you doing for my kid now?”  I may not have a clear or complete picture of education reform in China, but I do wonder how its educators on the front lines are prepared to respond.
  • Educators will shy away from innovating and experimenting in the classroom. For China’s educators, the aggressive enforcement of these policies removes incentives and willingness to innovate and experiment in the classroom. Why try something new and take a risk when you can stick to the standard, test-driven approach? For schools, themselves, delivering quality international education is already difficult. Curricula needs to be reviewed and approved. Foreign teachers face greater difficulties in obtaining visas. English, itself, has become a lower priority in the standard curriculum. For many, it will be easier and safer to do less than to do more.
  • Cramming knowledge leaves little time for skills. Curricula that focuses on rigorous, rote memorization of knowledge – specific facts, dates, and truths – crowds out time, attention, and student motivation that could otherwise be spent developing skills. These “learning skills” include all of the components of critical thinking, problem solving, and independent inquiry.

As a father, I’m much less concerned about the knowledge that my son learns than the skills that he masters. I recall marveling at the walls of books in my professor’s office when I was a Berkeley. “How do you remember what’s in all of these books?” I asked. He responded, “I don’t. I know how to ask the right questions and where to look for the right answers.”

As an employer of recent graduates in China, I, too, care about their skills far more than I care about their knowledge. Whether they learned about George Washington or Marx in middle school makes little difference. What matters is that they can (and do) ask the right questions, solve problems independently, challenge assumptions, piece together disparate information, and innovate.

Deglobalizing Our Kids

These messages are troubling hints that “deglobalization” is creeping into the lives of Chinese kids. This comes at a time when China has a unique chance to not only keep its kids in the global education game, but move them to the very forefront. The timing is particularly good. The US is weeks away from an election that could thrust it (and its children) further down the worrisome path of deglobalization. The Brexit crisis has brought haunting clouds of deglobalization over Europe. Shanghai already has one of the most competitive primary education systems in STEM-related subjects. By embracing (albeit it with inevitable government oversight) international curricula, encouraging and leading school-based innovation, Shanghai has the ability to capture this opportunity and engage (not alienate) schools, parents, and front-line educators.

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