Use Exchanges to Deepen School Partnerships

Eleise Jones holds up a sign at the Shanghai airport welcoming school leaders.

by Jeff Wang

In November 2010, Asia Society will lead a group of U.S. school leaders to China for a weeklong summit with their Chinese counterparts. While exchange activities that encourage dialogue and mutual understanding between educators are more and more common, we’ve designed this summit with a uniquely sharp focus: to build substantive partnerships through exchange activities.

The summit’s program is designed to meet two goals: The first goal is for participants to gain a deeper understanding of one another’s education system in order to internalize the opportunities and challenges the partnership will present. The second, and related, goal is for each school to conduct a investigation into a topic of their choosing. The outcome we hope to see is the partner schools will understand each others’ expectations and realities, and synthesize the newly acquired perspectives and knowledge to create a smoother and
more engaging partnership.

We are fortunate to have a group of school leader representatives that collectively resemble the American K−12 landscape. From a dozen states across the country and D.C., from public and charter to independent schools, from elementary to middle and high schools, from urban to suburban and rural schools, and across a broad spectrum of socio-economic status, every one of these school leaders is committed to creating a school environment that advances student global competence, a key aspect of which is an innovative and robust school-to-school partnership. These schools are in different stages of their partnership development process – some nascent, with only initial interactions among liaisons, and some mature, with many years’ experience with frequent student and teacher exchange activities.

Expectations and Realities

Our first goal is to encourage a deeper understanding of the education realities and expectations in China and the U.S. These realities can hinder or support the various activities that schools may create for their students and teachers. One example is the status of English language education vis-à-vis Chinese in U.S. education. For U.S. educators to appreciate just how important it is for Chinese students to excel in English, or for Chinese counterparts to realize the reasons why American students choose (and the fact that they can choose) to learn Chinese, may prompt both sides to craft exchange activities that take into account these important factors.

These realities, coupled with a four- to five-fold disparity in population, contribute to the story told in a recent documentary 2 Million Minutes. By examining the everyday lives, pressures, and ambitions of six exceptional high school students in three countries (U.S., India, and China), the filmmakers are keen on generating thinking and discussions around U.S. education reform. The final scenes of the film, where each students’ college admission results are compared with their personal goals since the 9th grade, strikingly demonstrate that the Chinese and Indian teenagers are not granted their dreams and wishes despite of their diligence, particularly in contrast with their American peers.

In addition to discussions on how the two systems may complement one another, we will ask this group of school leaders to examine how realities and expectations in the U.S. and China provide motivations and pose limitations on partnership development between any two schools. For example, based on what one knows about American education, and what one observes in Chinese education, a series of questions may be asked: Why would parents support (i.e. pay for) an exchange visit of their children to their peers’ school? And what kind of growth in their children do parents expect as a result of these exchanges? Our intention is for these questions to inform our school leaders on how to conceptualize and implement projects and activities for students that truly fit the needs and expectations of both sides. Besides being able to provide more engaging exchange programs, school leaders may also find answers or explanations to the puzzles that often accompany cross-cultural communications.

Observation and Synthesis

Our second goal is to instill deeper understanding and inspire observation and thinking about China – its diversity and complexity in many respects, particularly the people, the language, history, and culture.

In many ways, China and the U.S. share similar characteristics; China faces many issues that the U.S. is also facing or has faced in the not-too-distant-past, for example, designing new environmental, trade, and industrial policies.

At this summit, we will incorporate a range of activities, including readings, observations, seminars, discussions, reflections, and presentations. These activities will take place in various parts of China after a collective program in Shanghai. The American school leaders will be able to see how diverse China is--and compare and contrast its diversity with diversity in the United States. This will allow schools to present a complex and nuanced picture of China to their students.

We’ve asked each school leader to choose a mini-research question before their departure for China, which they will investigate during their activities at the summit. These questions may range from how students in China are learning English and how the learning of English and other world languages is integrated into Chinese students’ education, to the secret to excellence in math and science education, to what is considered to be global competence necessary for this 21st-century world.

Synthesizing and sharing these observations will be the next step for educators once they return to their communities in the U.S. We hope that these educators incorporate key findings into designing win-win exchange activities that advance school-to-school partnerships in a substantive and sustainable way.

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