Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Zhao, Chapters 5-7

In Chapters 5-7 of Zhao's book, I feel like the worst parts of China's education system are what America's would be if every bad part were turned up to 11.  Chapter 5 talks about the hitting of arbitrary targets:  Whatever the Emperor wants, the Emperor gets.  If it is decreed that a big wall will be built, then damn the expenses, the wall will be built.  If Chairman Mao wants to increase steel production, then steel production will be increased, even if it is to the detriment of every other activity in society.  If professionals (academic and otherwise) need to publish in order to get promoted, and the only thing that matters is the number of publications (because bureaucracies need numerical metrics) then fake journals will be utilized.  If k-12 schools are going to be rewarded for the number of patents filed by students (Zhao is apparently not joking) then k-12 students will file patents of zero quality, and if the system is going to reward this then the  patent office will be obliged to accept and approve those patents.

I feel much the same way about the paperwork demands of the modern American higher ed bureaucracy.  It has been decreed that reports on outcomes assessment are to be written, so those reports are written.  However, thoughtful, meaningful data collection and analysis are non-trivial activities, and the System has no ability to fund the massive efforts that would be required to produce thoughtful evaluation of anything other than the most mass-produced course delivery.  Mass production sounds good to some technocrats, but "Innovation! And! Transformation!" also sound good to them, so the system continues to tolerate the intellectual diversity that is anathema to standardized, mass-produced assessment.  As a result, the system accepts meaningless reports to show that the requisite numbers of reports were filed.*  Moreover, the only thing that The System values even more than the production of reports is ensuring that no boats are rocked, and a truly meaningful look under the hood might tell us...well, it might tell us that the phrase "Gentleman's C" refers to a problem that is timeless and universal rather than old, musty, and covered in ivy.

In chapter 7, Zhao notes that China's rulers are not and have not been oblivious to the problems of exclusive reliance on standardized testing.  The Imperial Exams were abolished a bit more than a century ago, but the competitive test prep habits inspired by those exams have not easily faded.  When the universities give weight to measures of creativity (an oxymoron if ever there was one) parents push this children to excel at those measures and bribe the evaluators.  When the universities give weight to patents (!) the children produce the requisite numbers of junk patents.  If they reward performance in artistic or athletic talent competitions, the parents prepare their children accordingly.

Some  of this is surely a consequence of 1300 years of test prep habits not fading easily.  Cultures do not change overnight, as evidenced by Marxism's utter failure to change Chinese culture. (I hasten to note that the Chinese people's refusal to replace their traditional social structures with Marxism is a very, very good thing!)  However, Chapter 6 offers another point for why these hyper-competitive academic habits have not faded easily:  In both the past and the present, the highest-status jobs in China have been and are government jobs with academic requirements, not private sector jobs.  When there are few paths to advancement, people will do anything and everything that it takes to get on one of those paths.

In the US, we most definitely do NOT have a problem of assigning low status to private sector jobs.  However, we may be seeing a narrowing and bifurcation of career paths.  In the alleged "service economy" there will be the people paid well for jobs at desks and the people paid poorly for everything else.  There are problems with the economic sustainability of this model (e.g. what, exactly, will we produce for sale to the rest of the world?) but if we leave that aside for now, and just focus on the social and educational elements, a bifurcation of opportunity will raise the stakes of elite education, and with those rising stakes we will see more intense competition, and more cutting of corners.

I want the reader to consider the hypothesis that the health of an education system relies on the economy more than the health of an economy relies on the education system.  I do not simply mean that higher GDP means more money to inject into the education system; you can inject cash into good or bad schools and get good or bad results.   Rather, I mean that a robust and sustainable economy with a breadth of desirable paths and opportunities will be conducive to a more robust and sustainable educational  system, with more intellectual breadth and a wider variety of approaches and paths for a wider variety of students.  On the other hand, an economy with bifurcated opportunities will see intense competition for the handful of pathways to the better opportunities.  Competition can be a very good thing, but intense competition for the wrong sorts of things does not lead to better learning or better innovation.

*Let me reassure you that I am, needless to say, merely reporting unfortunate tales related to me by colleagues at other, less conscientious, institutions.  My own institution is, of course, an exception, producing exemplary assessment reports of the highest caliber and most thoughtful analysis.

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