RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For some years now, students around the world have been taking standardized school tests. Those tests provide an interesting, if imperfect, picture of which country's students are doing best in reading, writing and math. For the first time, this year, schools from China took part in the tests that are known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA for short.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And guess what? The Chinese students came out on top first try. Some U.S. educators are calling it a Sputnik moment, like the launch of the first Soviet satellite in 1957 that shocked America into a new emphasis on teaching math and science.
NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Shanghai the Chinese are not gloating about their success.
ROB GIFFORD: Chinese academic Zhang Minxuan is a happy man. The jovial administrator has just heard that the Shanghai school system he oversees has come top of the global PISA tests. He says it's down to tradition and reform.
Mr. ZHANG MINXUAN (Academic): All the Chinese people, no matter they are poor or rich, they have very high expectations in education. Their kind of culture push all people study and study and study. I think that this is very important.
GIFFORD: The traditional part is obvious everywhere in China, but the reform part less so.
Ms. ZHANG: Good morning class.
STUDENTS: Good morning Miss Zhang.
Ms. ZHANG: Sit down, please.
GIFFORD: At the Zhabei Number 8 Middle School in the northern part of Shanghai, it looks like business as usual.
Ms. ZHANG: Read after me the words first sound.
STUDENTS: Sound. Sound.
Ms. ZHANG: Sound.
STUDENTS: Sound. Sound.
Ms. ZHANG: Forward.
STUDENTS: Forward. Forward.
Ms. ZHANG: Forward.
GIFFORD: The teacher teaches, the students repeat and even the principal admits the feared final high school exam that gets you into college - known as the GaoKao - is all simply about memorization and rote learning.
That principal, Liu Jinghai, though he is proud of his students for testing well, says the West shouldn't worry about the PISA results.
Mr. LIU JINGHAI (Principal, Zhabei No. 8 Middle School): (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn't be too surprised by these results. Theyre just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghais and Chinas education system. But the results cant cover up our problems.
GIFFORD: Liu is very frank about those problems - the continuing reliance on rote learning. The lack of analysis or critical thinking - and he says the system is in dire need of reform.
Mr. JINGHAI: (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) Why dont Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. Were not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves.
GIFFORD: As well as the limitations of the Chinese education system, Liu says, it was only students in Shanghai that took the PISA tests, and Shanghai has some of the best schools in China.
Seventeen-year-old Zhang Chi was one of those students, and she noticed the difference in the way the PISA questions were framed.
Ms. ZHANG CHI: I can't go straight to answer the questions. I must think a while for the question, and it give me some time to think.
GIFFORD: Having some time to think is not the norm in Chinese high schools. Zhang Chi thinks Chinese students would like a little more of it.
Ms. CHI: I think we can mix it together. You see the Chinese ways of answer the question and the foreign ways. Now combine this together, I think it will be better.
GIFFORD: The trouble is that, despite all the talk of educational reform, that combining of East and West, Chinese and foreign, is in the end, simply not possible. However well she did in the PISA test, or however much she liked the questions, next summer, Zhang Chi has to sit down and do the high school university entrance test, the GaoKao, where writing different, creative answers gets you nowhere, and writing the standard answer that youve memorized gets you into a good university.
Lucia Pierce is an educational consultant in Shanghai. She says the GaoKao is the problem.
Ms. LUCIA PIERCE (Partner, Shanghai Educational Consulting Associates): As long as the GaoKao scores are what will get you into college and those are the scores that also rank the high schools, parents and principals and teachers can't afford to really experiment with a kind of learning that encourages independent thinking and perhaps, learning from mistakes.
GIFFORD: Pierce and others say thats why the recent PISA results are not the Sputnik moment that some have talked of. It will take major reform of Chinas educational system before that happens, she says. And that's not happening any time soon.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, Shanghai.
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