Should NAEP test lung capacity?
April 04, 2008
In an article from the March 31 issue of the New Yorker (the piece doesn't seem to be available online at the moment), Peter Hessler reports on one family's rise to (relative) affluence in the small Chinese village of Sancha:
Sancha was just beyond the Great Wall, and occasionally a weekend motorist from the city found his way to the makeshift sign. Cao Chunmei, Wei Ziqi's wife, cooked pork and local vegetables. They charged three and a half dollars for a meal; guests could see the Great Wall from the table.
The Weis' income increases sixfold in seven years. Their son, Wei Jia, attends boarding school. Here's how Hessler describes Wei Jia's education:
...his father travelled to Shayu for parent-teacher conferences. These were group affairs: all adults met the teacher at once. If a child was doing poorly, everybody heard, and the shame provided additional motivation.
That was the second rule listed on Wei Jia's semester report cards: "Cherish the honor of the group." (The first rule involved loving the nation.) These reports were more than thirty pages long, and they evaluated the boy from every possible perspective. There were physical measurements: height, weight, eyesight, hearing, chest circumference, and lung capacity (for Wei Jia, fourteen hundred millilitres in the first semester of fourth grade). Each of these statistics was compared with the national average. (According to the report, the lung capacity of a fourth-grade male should be 2,123 millilitres.) The teacher gave most grades, but parents also offered assessments. So did peers: every term, a classmate identified some prominent weakness of Wei Jia's. (In fourth grade, a boy named Zhao told him to improve his handwriting.) Another section featured blank faces where Wei Jia drew mouths???smiley, straight, or frowning???depending on how he judged his own performance. On one report card, he gave himself straight smileys for "takes care of himself" and "capable use of common tools." He drew a tensely straight mouth for "participates in labor for the collective welfare." And for "cherishes the fruits of physical labor," he drew a big fat frown...
I was amazed at the stuff Wei Jia learned???the most incredible assortment of de-systematized knowledge that had ever been crammed into a child with a lung capacity of fourteen hundred millilitres. In English, he memorized odd vocabulary lists: "spaceship," "pizza," "astronaut." A textbook called "Environmental and Sustainable Development" must have been spawned from some collaboration with a foreign N.G.O. It taught "the five 'R's"???Reduce, Re??valuate, Reuse, Recycle, Rescue wildlife-which made no sense when translated into a language that has no alphabet. Fifth graders memorized pages of instructions for Microsoft FrontPage XP. One Friday, Wei Jia told me they had just learned about Google. "A brother and sister in America started it," he explained. (In the village, it all came down to family values.)
Obviously, this story alone doesn't dispel the popular notion that China and India are hot on our heels. But it's a pretty interesting depiction of what school is like for a kid in today's rural China. (Memorizing the instructions for Microsoft FrontPage XP? Sheesh.)