I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bill Gates's Ridiculous TED Talk, Part III: Shanghai Surprise

Let's get back to Bill Gates's astonishing talk at the latest TED conference about teacher evaluation. In Part I and Part II of this series, I challenged one of Gates's primary assertions: that "over 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: 'Satisfactory.'"

There's simply no reason to believe this patently absurd statement is true; I find it amazing that Gates would make this claim without the slightest bit of hesitation. I can only hope he is challenged one day to provide a source - but I'm not holding my breath waiting.

Let's go on to another part of the speech. Thanks to Diane Ravitch, we now have a transcript of this video, which appears to be an abridged version of the live speech. I mention that because we can't be entirely sure, based on this excerpt, of the full context of Gates's words. Still, I found this next statement remarkable:
Let’s look at the best academic performer: the province of Shanghai, China. Now, they rank number one across the board, in reading, math and science, and one of the keys to Shanghai’s incredible success is the way they help teachers keep improving. They made sure that younger teachers get a chance to watch master teachers at work. They have weekly study groups, where teachers get together and talk about what’s working. They even require each teacher to observe and give feedback to their colleagues. 
The clear implication here is that Shanghai's success in international testing is due to their teacher evaluation policies. I'm not about to say that there isn't anything we can learn from Shanghai, but it seems to me that what Gates is talking about here already happens in the United States.

Take younger teachers watching masters: isn't that the exact definition of student teaching? Aren't "study groups" another name for "department meetings"? Aren't peer observations already used in many districts, sometimes in the form of collegial visits?

Since Gates's theory seems awfully facile, I did a little digging into Shanghai's education system. The OECD - the folks who sponsor the best-known international test, the PISA - recently published an analysis of Shanghai's educational reforms:
China has a long tradition of valuing education highly. This began with the civil examination system, established in 603 AD, which was also exported to Japan and Korea later in the 7th century. It was a very competitive yet efficient system for selecting officials, and was known for its rigor and fairness. These examinations evolved over many dynasties before their abolition in 1905.

The system had three tiers of examinations, at county, provincial and national levels. There were variations, but the general mode was basically an essay test, where the candidates were confined for days in an examination cell, fed with good food, and required to write essays of political relevance. To do this, they had to be familiar with the classics, basically the Four Books and Five Classics, and refer all arguments to these works – hence the requirement for “rote- learning”. Good calligraphy and writing styles were also part of the basic requirements. The final level of selection was usually held in the examinations department, which was often part of the imperial organisation. Whoever gained the appreciation of the emperor, who was virtually the chief examiner, would be the champion, followed by a few runners-up. These winners were appointed to various official posts according to their examination results. [emphasis mine]
So there's a cultural predilection toward an education based on standardized tests - and rote learning - in China. Read the entire chapter if you're interested; it's fascinating. But this analysis is still missing the most necessary concept for understanding Shanghai's testing success:

The hukou system:
FOR MORE THAN half a century, the hukou (household registration) system in China has segregated the rural and urban populations, initially in geographical terms, but more fundamentally in social, economic, and political terms. It is the foundation of China’s divisive dualistic socioeconomic structure and the country’s two classes of citizenship. Under this system, some 700–800 million people are in effect treated as second-class citizens, deprived of the opportunity to settle legally in cities and of access to most of the basic welfare and state-provided services enjoyed by regular urban residents. To an individual, hukou status is an important ascribed attribute in determining one’s social and economic circumstances. The existence of such an overt discriminatory state institution is starkly incompatible with a rapidly modernizing China, aspiring to great power status. [emphasis mine]
That's Kam Wing Chan from the University of Washington. When Shanghai's "miracle" test scores were published back in 2009, Kam was one of the few scholars to understand how to interpret those scores within the context of Shanghai's extreme economic segregation:
Even more important, but far less-known, is that in Shanghai, as in most other Chinese cities, the rural migrant workers that are the true urban working poor (totaling about 150 million in the country), are not allowed to send their kids to public high schools in the city. This is engineered by the discriminatory hukou or household registration system, which classifies them as "outsiders." Those teenagers will have to go back home to continue education, or drop out of school altogether.
In other words, the city has 3 to 4 million working poor, but its high-school system conveniently does not need to provide for the kids of that segment. In essence, the poor kids are purged from Shanghai's sample of 5,100 students taking the tests. The Shanghai sample is the extract of China's extract. A fairer play would be to ask kids at Seattle's private Lakeside School to race against Shanghai's kids. [emphasis mine]
Guess where Bill Gates's sends his own kids? To his alma mater: the Lakeside School.


Apparently, to its credit, the Chinese central government has tried to break down the barriers to education that hukou has erected for urban poor children. Local interference and bureaucracy, however, have conspired to keep Shanghai's schools economically segregated:
Under normal circumstances, children inherit their hukou classifications from their parents at their time of birth, and migrant parents are often living in cities without the proper urban hukou necessary for access to state services such as health care and education.44 Once born with rural hukou classification, these migrant children will similarly face problems accessing state services in urban areas. To frame the scale of this issue, it is estimated that approximately 19 million migrant children are currently living in China’s cities.45 A journalist reporting on migrant children noted:
Chinese children are entitled to a state education, but not all of them get one. And the tens of millions born to migrant workers . . . are among the most vulnerable, owing to a registration system that divides the country’s citizens into rural and urban dwellers, and dictates their rights accordingly.46
Migrant children face difficulties accessing state education for several reasons. Urban public schools often receive no additional funding from the central government for these children, so many of them are turned away even if their parents can afford to pay the exorbitant “donations” some schools charge to admit migrant children who meet the designated criteria.47

Many migrant families turn to private schools to educate their children, but local governments consistently demolish these institutions in the name of urban development.48
There's some preliminary research that suggests that these Chinese urban private schools perform far worse than the public schools. Again, the de-centralization of the Chinese government seems to have created a system where migrant children living in cities are denied access to Shanghai's "high-performing" public high schools. And hukou is only part of the problem:
Educational success or stagnation in China can hinge on one issue, tuition. High school tuition costs about $450 per year, a big chunk of a paycheck for a minimum-wage worker in Shanghai, who earns $164 a month.8
To be fair: according to the authors here, Shanghai actually does better in attempting to address inequality than many other Chinese cities. Still, that only means they are the best of the worst.

Shanghai is a city where the working poor cannot send their children to local high schools. And the international comparisons that put Shanghai at the top of the world - the ones Bill Gates frets about - are based on high school scores.

Has any one of the many people paid to tell Bill Gates these things ever thought to bring this matter up? Or have they figured out he would rather not be bothered with these pesky details?

Better do a search for "hukou" on Bing...

ADDING: The best-known comparison of international test scores for elementary students is probably the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Download the 2011 report and look at the list of participants on page 2. Notice who's missing?

Shanghai. I would very much like to see the results of an administration of the TIMSS for 4th and 8th Grades for Shanghai, including all of the immigrant children denied adequate education under the hukou system. I doubt the province would look nearly as "miraculous" then. 


marcmancinelli said...

I like the analysis of differences in class systems-- I think that there are a lot of problems with international comparisons, and it does a good job of demonstrating how they can be misleading.

But there's a huge difference between department meetings and lesson studies. Student teaching is done in 12 weeks and for most teachers there's no chance to engage in observations again once you're started. The American teaching system could learn a lot from Asian and Finnish systems of career-long, systematic collaboration, lesson study, and reflection, revision, and re-teaching.

And Gates's comment about teachers receiving only "satisfactory" is way off. There's a lot of room for improvement in teacher feedback, for sure, but his comments don't tell the whole story. Teachers get all kinds of qualitative feedback... The real problem is its quality, not quantity.

Mrs. King's music students said...

Surely you loved Gate's comment "the only area the US ranks #1 is in failing to give our teachers what they need...". That is so funny because it's true. As for providing adequate mentoring for new teachers, and implementing teachers evaluations and a process that works - it's ridiculous to pretend we've got that. Perhaps it's true in upscale districts (where I've never taught) but it is not true of any NJ district where I've been employed. Nor is any of this a secret to the NJDOE that's published scads of research on the giant gaps bet student teaching (a reflective/portfolio type experience) and employment in real schools (sink or swim-you've got till Oct to figure this out). Why not take your marguerita out by the pool and let Bill Gates pick up this flag for awhile? God knows we've tried, but right now we've got our hands full teaching children, doing admins' jobs for them, and trying to make the mortgage on 1/3 the income of comparable professionals. Gates has limitless resources, and the ear of his next generation wanna be's. Can't we give him this one?