Postcard from China: How the Chinese recognize excellence

Amber Winkler, Fordham's VP for Research, is currently traveling China as a Senior Fellow with the Global Education Policy Fellowship Program (GEPFP). She'll be passing along her observations on education in the People's Republic with periodic ?Postcards from China.?

Another city (hospitable Xi'an) and another tour guide. These young people are proving to be a valuable source of information. I chat with Florence, our twenty-something guide, after lunch at the Terracotta Warriors Museum (wow!). Florence is planning to become a teacher and appeared to appreciate my interest in her desired profession. I'd read in the course of my research on Chinese education that high school teachers were ranked according to how many of their students were accepted into prestigious universities. True? Absolutely she said. Further, a teacher's standing could be improved if his/her students placed in one of several academic national competitions held in China annually. These accolades can accumulate over time such that some "basic school" teachers can have similar standing as university professors if they choose later to go into higher education. It was unclear if these accolades took the form of numerical published rankings or simply special recognition; I'll surely ask in our school visits tomorrow.

Florence also told me that all Chinese teachers must take a comprehensive teaching test every few years--after they are already in the classroom, mind you--that assesses content knowledge and technological skills. Those teachers who score high on the exam are awarded special end-of-year bonuses--as well as distinguished titles. She said that these teachers rotate from school to school, including private schools, to share their expertise with colleagues. "Everyone knows who these teachers are by name," Florence explained. It's as if they take on celebrity status in their local communities. Florence told me that her grandfather was a middle school teacher for over 20 years and received many accolades. He later went into higher education with the same professorial rank as some of the veteran professors.

She tells me that today there are many more applications from teachers than there are openings. All would-be teachers must take a teaching test (similar to the U.S) but only the top-scorers are employed. That said, teachers have a better chance of getting hired in the city if they first do a stint in the countryside. She spoke as if rural teaching was "paying your dues."

In the end, the Chinese readily accept that some students and some teachers will perform at higher standards than others. They don't condemn or begrudge those individuals. They don't think that recognizing a handful of exceptional teachers kills collaboration for the entire group. They aren't overly enamored with equity at the expense of common sense. Rather, they admire and respect the standouts. Are there drawbacks to a competitive culture? You bet. But there are advantages too. We'd do well to inspire more healthy competition in our own schools.

-Amber Winkler

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