A Global Perspective for Policymakers

By Jeff Wang

In May, before school went into summer recess, students in China welcomed a group of U.S. state commissioners and superintendents of education. Asia Society led this delegation of high-level education policymakers to exchange ideas with Chinese counterparts, to meet with Chinese students, and to experience China’s rapidly changing education landscape, all at a time of intense public discourse around education reform in the United States. This forum was organized in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Chinese Ministry of Education, and Hanban (Chinese Language Council International). The delegation’s week-long itinerary included conversations with Vice Minister of Education Hao Ping, the education commissioners of Zhejiang Province and Shanghai, university presidents and professors, and — most memorably — conversations and interactions with students from elementary to graduate levels.

We heard repeatedly from our Chinese colleagues that their number one priority is to provide quality education to all citizens. Not only does China have the largest and most rapidly growing education system in the world, its lately adopted “2020 Education Outline” sketches a roadmap toward a world-class learning society. Recent PISA results show that some of its policies and efforts have started to demonstrate positive impact. Vice Minister Hao outlined China’s strategic plan for the next decade, which calls for 50% of the increase in tax receipts to be devoted to education. In the meantime, Chinese policymakers are fully aware that, just as the future will be shared by children from all over the world, so will the competition, and they are tasked with preparing China’s next generation to be ready for the challenge and the opportunity. The Ministry unveiled to us plans to encourage thousands of K–12 school principals and teachers to seek internship positions abroad in order to develop their capacity to bring a world-class education to Chinese classrooms, and many such provincial and local initiatives are already underway.

We visited schools representing the cutting edge of progressive education, facilities, and achievements, where students enjoy state-of-the-art science laboratories. We also visited schools that have demonstrated substantial improvement over the past few years by reforming both the curriculum that emphasizes the student’s learning experience, and evaluation systems to go beyond test scores. Delegates also learned from education officials their strategy of sharing management resources between high- and low-performing schools through a rotation of principals and teachers, dispatching advisory teams, and sharing of resources and activities.

In Shanghai, we met two groups of university students from the U.S., several of them from states represented by the delegates. One was a group of American undergrads spending their year abroad in China, and another group enrolled in a graduate program that prepares them to become future Chinese language instructors. These young Americans shared their vision and advice around U.S. education: 1) We must begin language learning at a younger age, as in China; and 2) We should enhance language learning by taking it to the target language country, where students learn the fastest by immersing themselves in the linguistic and cultural environment.

Through exchanges with Chinese counterparts, the delegates noted a unique frankness, as well as pride in their profession, acknowledgement of inadequacies, and responsibility for the younger generation. We were equally inspired by conversations with students, whose ease and comfort with the English language left us awestruck. One classroom activity featured student journalists reporting on various aspects of protecting our eco-system; when asked about their dream career, their ambitions ran the gamut from mathematics professor to science writer, from entrepreneur to simply “I am not sure!”

As we continue to explore and advance education reform in this country, these kinds of encounters broaden our policymakers' perspective on how peers in other countries tackle challenges to create a world-class education for their children, and strengthen our conviction to do the same for America’s children.