Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shift Happens, Even to US

In the stunning Shift Happens presentation (click here for the music-enhanced YouTube version or here for the award-winning PowerPoint version) the premise that size and focus matter comes through loud and clear. Basic facts like China has more honor students than we have students, more people with bachelors degrees than we have people, and that they soon will be the largest English-speaking country in the world, make you take pause. I'm still trying to verify these data; however, if they are even close to accurate it is worth exploring the possible impact. Couple these trends with the larger changes we are seeing in the flat world, creative economies, and newer technologies, and shifting seems far too tame a verb for what’s coming our way.

In Kristof’s NY Times column this Monday, The Educated Giant, he dives deeper into how serious China is about shifting—and doing so through education. He argues that there are four reasons for their progress: (1) they are hungry for education and economic progress, and as a result they work harder; (2) they have enormous cultural respect for education, revere teachers, and pay them well; (3) they believe in their bones that hard work means much more than talent—in their mind, grades come from engagement and work, not being “smart;” and (4) they don’t believe they are anywhere near good enough. They want to drive more creativity and innovation—which, by the way, will be quite hard in a country that suppresses the liberal arts of critical thinking, dissent, and personal decision making. However, this challenge notwithstanding, after spending time in China and exploring their drive, Kristof echoes a now common refrain from politicians, educators, and economic development specialists: The US needs to respond to this challenge like we did to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, with a massive mobilization of effort, focus, and funding. And it’s not about winning a cold war this time; it’s about whether or not the US will be swimming in the hot springs of education and economic progress that are bubbling up all over the world.

So what’s happening here? Yes, we are spending an inordinate amount of time on testing and testing-related issues because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, given the challenges at hand, it’s not surprising we want to help institutions develop the power to know they’re making a difference through education. Leaving NCLB aside, we are waking up to the fact that our system is large, democratic, diverse, with many opportunities to stop in and stop out. These characteristics are clearly a positive. However, our system also is far too porous. Retention, persistence, and academic achievement seem to take a backseat to access. We need to blend the positive access agenda with the now imperative success agenda to drive change. Initiatives like the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream are doing just this by challenging institutions to work together to meet collectively agreed upon student access and success goals. It’s definitely worth a look. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is trying to build business and education dialogues to better set standards. And the American Council on Education has launched its and initiatives to make the case for education preparation and investment. There are many more initiatives to list, but, you get the idea. We are trying. But will it be enough? Would we be better served by a much larger local, state, and national political dialogue surrounding education that goes well beyond arguments about outcomes testing?

Yes, shift is happening—particularly with China driving their education agenda. However, the US has some innate and powerfully positive aspects to its education system—growing commitments to access, success, and flexibility—that might just position us to leverage these changes like no other. We just need to get our shift together!


Anonymous said...

I would not get sooo excited about China. There is a lot of Pollyanna drivel about China you hear in education these days. How great their science and math education is! (the Nazis had great engineers too!) People seem to like to compare US education to education in a country that does not value freedom or individuals. Yes great that they have an alleged "market" economy (except the state owns everything of consequence- banks, oil companies etc....)- but sorry you are not free to talk openly about your religion, and you may happen to live in company apartments and not be free to leave on your own time. Golly lets emulate them. It is fine to be skilled technically but there is more to education than that. I would rather help people become productive and skilled while valuing freedom, human rights, justice and so on. I think in the West we would rather not end up with a lot of uncreative techno-bots that spit out the state approved answers but are "honors" students.

Mark David Milliron said...

Good comment! I agree that we have to be very careful about emulating China. While I love their family and growing state focus on education, I don’t advocate adopting their models of education at all. In fact, I’m deeply concerned that we’ll further erode our focus on the whole student, creativity, beauty, art, and music in an effort to keep up with their sheer size. However, in a globally connected world, we need to take them seriously as an economic partner/competitor, and really think through their impact on how we learn and live.