The China Syndrome

When China’s first standardized test scores debuted on the international scene, nobody expected Shanghai to top the leagues in science, reading and math. The top 5 in science were Shanghai, Finland, Hongkong, Singapore and Japan.  In reading it was Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. In math it was Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan. The New York Times reports Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reacted by saying, “we have to see this as a wake up call.”


For comparison Germany was 13 in Science, while the US was at 23. In reading the US was at 17 and Britain came in at 25. In math, Germany was at 16 and the US at 31. The article in the NYT argued that the Chinese results may have been skewed by the fact that it represented the best China had to offer. But even subtracting China from the equation leaves the other North Asian countries at the top of the league.

The test results reveal a gap of a kind different from the ones progressive educational policy seeks to close. That has often been focused on achieving equality of outcomes. The holy grail has been to close the gap between the ethnic groups within a society. The distribution, not the mean, was the object of interest. “Many progressive education curriculum reform policies, such as reform mathematics and inquiry-based science, were designed to be more inclusive of minority students and cultures and learning styles.”

As in the larger majority community, there remains a split between conservatives who believe that individuals should concentrate on a race-blind programs to master the same content as the most educated ethnic groups, and liberals who believe that the long historical legacy of discrimination and exclusion remains the largest impediment to equality in education. They emphasize race-conscious policies and the continued application of affirmative action and desegregation principles.


The trouble is, time and tide wait for no man. That only worked for as long as the Western mean could be taken to be yardstick of excellence. What happens when you fix the distribution and find that equality of outcome has been rendered meaningless by a falling in the mean?  The Chinese are “going for it” in a sense that may different from the goals of Western educators. President Obama called the sudden realization of the excellence of other educational systems a “Sputnik moment”. “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.” The President promised to spend more money in education and research and development. He christened his effort to spend government’s money more wisely the Race to the Top.

We call it Race to the Top where you get more funding if you show more results — because part of the argument here is, is that if we’re going to have a government that’s smart and helping people compete in this new global economy, then we’ve got to spend our money wisely. And that means we want to invest in things that are working, not in things that aren’t working just because that’s how things have always been done …

If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment, we need a commitment to innovation that we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon. And we’re directing a lot of that research into one of the most promising areas for economic growth and job creation — and that’s clean energy technology. I don’t want to see new solar panels or electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or in Asia. I want to see them made right here in America, by American businesses and American workers.”


Whether or not it is going to work remains to be seen. “A 2007 study that correlated the results of that test with the results of an international math exam, Massachusetts students scored behind Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Shanghai did not participate in the test.” For the first time in perhaps centuries the standards of excellence threatens to be no longer the breeding grounds of the Western elites but those of their rivals.

Not long ago the West was driven to go ever farther, faster and higher because it saw itself and its values as worthy of dissemination. Now many a well-meaning Western man can see no higher purpose than effacing himself and the culture that once brought science and technology to the world from the annals of intellectual life. Once Tennyson could write about the future. Today we talk about erasing the past.

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.


Today those ideas are probably regarded as politically incorrect, except perhaps, in Cathay.

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