This week, Aidi Bian shares her perspective on what’s been happening in China since the announcement by the Chinese government of major changes in the education system there. Bian is a bilingual math teacher and form tutor at HD Ningbo School, which belongs to a private educational group with 5 campuses in Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo, Qingdao and Nanjing. She has previously reported on “New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges” and contributed to “AI and education in China“
Surprise and controversy came with the announcement of a new “Double Reduction Policy” for China’s education system in late August. The policy, Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Homework and Off-Campus Training for Compulsory Education Students, was released by the highest office of the central government. The document requires a reduction in the burdens for students created by homework and off-campus tutoring programs. This contributed to what some have described as the downfall of the tutoring industry in China, estimated to be worth more than 400 billion RMB. The central government determined that the academic stress and pressure in education is having an irreversible, harmful influence on the next generation of the country and concluded that it must take harsh action to change the situation by administrative force.
The central government determined that the academic stress and pressure in education is having an irreversible, harmful influence on the next generation of the country and concluded that it must take harsh action to change the situation by administrative force.
China has long been known for high academic pressure in elementary and secondary education. Parents put great emphasis on academic achievement of their children from the first day of school (even from kindergarten) to win the fierce competition of entering good colleges. Recent years have witnessed a rapid expansion of the private tutoring industry with the help of the internet (especially online tutoring after COVID). This in turn has created further anxiety for parents who are constantly bombarded with advertisements for tutoring. The explosive growth of the tutoring sector has created a vast market, forcing many families to invest in tutoring training either willingly or under peer pressure. In some way, the educational cost of raising children has become so high that young couples refuse to have more than one child, creating big problems for a government that wants parents to have more children to relieve the challenges of a rapidly aging population. Along with an ongoing emphasis on test scores, the demands of heavy schoolwork and tutoring raise concerns about students’ physical and mental health. The Double Reduction policy is aimed at addressing these issues, freeing families from the economic burden of educating a child and protecting the physical and mental health of the next generation.
The Double Reduction policy includes the following key points:
Reduce the amount and time of school homework (specific time limits for written homework were listed for different grades).
Provide after school care for students by requiring schools to offer after-school services (such as extracurricular activities and evening self-study) to keep students in school until parents get off from work.
Strictly regulate private tutoring, including banning tutoring during weekends and winter/summer breaks, forbidding tutoring companies from going public, and preventing school teachers from providing any tutoring service.
Outlaw frequent formal exams and rankings in schools.
Some families welcomed the policy in relief while others seemed to get even more anxious as they feel compelled to pay more money to find private tutors or to take on the burden of tutoring their children themselves. Some parents also worried that if they have no way to keep their children occupied with studying, their children will spend more time on the internet, watching videos and playing games. To ensure the enforcement of the policy, local governments have been encouraged to report violations and infractions, which has caused some conflicts among students, parents and teachers. The policy was effectively enforced over the past months. Yet, the strong demand for tutoring remains constant, with parents afraid to risk their children’s future given the fierce competition for the best scores, the best schools, and the best educational supports and resources.
The policy was effectively enforced over the past months. Yet, the strong demand for tutoring remains constant, with parents afraid to risk their children’s future given the fierce competition for the best scores, the best schools, and the best educational supports and resources.
Although not part of the “Double Reduction”, related policies were also implemented around the same time to address the broader goal of educational equality. One new policy sought to address the problem that in some big cities parents will buy expensive houses just to get into an area where their children can enroll in the best schools. To that end, local governments are now pursuing a “random draw” to decide which schools children go to. To further promote equality, some cities also began to implement a teacher rotation program. The best teachers and principals are required to move to other local schools so that students in different areas of the city have equal access to high quality education from experienced educators. With all the efforts, the government is aiming for a high-quality in-school education and restrict the wild growth of after-school competition.
In the second part of this conversation between Yinuo Li, founder of the ETU School, and Thomas Hatch, Li reflects on the challenges and opportunities she encountered in launching a new school in China. Li, a biologist by training and formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established the first ETU school in Beijing in 2016. In part one of this conversation she talks about what it took to create ETU initially.
Thomas Hatch: Was there one thing that was part of your initial vision that you really wanted to see in the ETU school that you couldn’t make work for some reason?
Yinuo Li: That’s a difficult question. I think what the school has done has already gone far beyond where I thought we could do. Although there have been lots of difficulties, if you talk to anybody who is paying attention to education today in China, a lot of them have heard about ETU. They would see us as a pioneer and trailblazer, so I’m actually very thankful for that. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I realized that a lot of the problems you have to run a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies. Every parent who sends their kids here has this huge vision of where the kids could be. That’s why even though we’re doing, quote unquote, a “private school,” you have to recognize your work takes place in the context of the larger public system. As a result, you have to be an advocate; you have to talk about what you are doing and why, without expecting any revenue from it. If anything, those activities take a toll on your resources, but you have to have your teachers talk about your school to people who are not your parents. I think that’s absolutely necessary.
A lot of the problems you have running a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies.
My deepest envy is of Finland. In 2018 I went to Finland three times — three times – it was like I was just intoxicated. But if you go there, you realize there isn’t magic there. You think, “Okay, this is how things should be.” Their teacher’s colleges have an 8% admission rate, so you get the best students to be a teacher to begin with. And teachers make a good living because the entire state is a welfare state so you don’t have to be an investment banker to be successful. You can be a teacher and have a higher level of respect. Then there’s so much equity in the system that the best school is the school next door, so you don’t have to spend that much money.
When I went to Finland, the image I had is that we’re gardeners, that teachers are responsible for growing these little plants. But then I realized that the most important thing for a plant to grow is the sunshine; it’s the water; it’s the soil; it’s not my gardening skill. Of course, my gardening skills have to be okay — you can’t go around messing things up – but that’s not the essential part of it. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And, oftentimes, when the sunshine, soil and air isn’t there, you have to find different ways of growing. If you’re in the desert, and all you see all around you are cactus, you think “Oh I’ve got to grow cactus too, otherwise I can’t win.” It becomes this vicious cycle. But if you don’t want your kids to be a cactus, what do you do? Instead of saying, “Okay, this is a desert. I’m just going to grow a cactus,” the only thing you can do is try to create this oasis in the desert. Then you’ll realize making this oasis is a huge task. You have to get water from thousands of miles away. You have to deal with sand storms, all that. But once you have this tiny little oasis, things will just grow. You don’t have to spend time picking the seeds and then massaging the seeds. The seed will just grow. I think that’s the problem right now. Most people are trying to at least pretend there’s been a lot of effort massaging the seed. But I realized that’s just completely wrong. That’s how I came to the point I mentioned in the beginning about fear. We’re growing cactus because everybody is fearful. It seems like the best way is to grow another cactus, but that doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make the world better. It just seems to be the easiest and best way to deal with it.
In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy. Of course, as a school, you will have a lot of operational issues. For example, if you move, parents will complain. “I just signed my lease. You have to pay me back for the lease.” But what I said when that happened is “I feel bad; but you have to realize this is not my fault. It’s the collective cost we are paying because this is a desert.” One year we had to move, and we’d spent 5 million RMB renovating it, and we were only able to use it for a year because all these other issues and we had to give it up. I was like, “where do I go to ask for the money back?” You collectively have to shoulder a lot of the social costs. You have to have an ecosystem view. You have to understand that although this is a hard path you take, this is the only path. Otherwise, the only winning strategy is to become a spiky cactus. I think that’s the path that most people have taken which makes the environment so much worse. So you have to have a view of putting yourself in the public domain although you’re not in a public role, and you have to understand that can be hard and painful, but I think it’s the right way to do things.
In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy.
TH: With the growth in new schools and the private and international school sector in China how do you both stand out from those other schools and make sure that there are middle schools and high schools that your students can go to? And relatedly, given this attention to the wider environment and conditions, how do you deal with things like the Gaokao (the high stakes National College Entrance Examination exam system in China) that may help to contribute to the fears that you’ve been talking about? (For more on the Gaokao and recent efforts to reform it see IEN’s “New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges”)
YL: On a practical level, we have a middle school now as well that we started this year. We have grade six and seven, and we’ll probably have grade eight soon. High school, it’s on the horizon, but we’ll decide later if we want to do it or not. In terms of test prep, I think it is important. You have to prepare; you have to do drills; it’s a part of education that is about hard work. That’s why even in China, I don’t call ETU an innovative school. It’s not an innovation. It’s a normal school going back to what kids need at a certain age. But for college prep, I think the interesting example is from the Affiliated High School of Peking University. It’s a four-year public high school in China and they’re actually quite liberal. I know the head of school, and he’s been there for more than thirty years. His philosophy is that for the first three years, we do the right thing, and the last year, if we need to go to the Gaokao, we’ll take the last year and do a test prep year, and we’ll prep the hell out of it. And then they do pretty well. His whole point is that just because test prep is important, it doesn’t mean you have to start doing it since grade one. It’s all about how you balance it, and it doesn’t mean you drop it either. I really agree with that. Even in the US, you prepare for the SAT’s. In your professional life, if you want to be a CPA or go to business school or whatever, there’s a test you have to take. The test itself isn’t bad, but that shouldn’t dominate or guide your education. That’s the problem. I’m not against test prep, but I think it should be a confined time when you know where you’re going.
On the other hand, the other narrative in China is “how do you compete with somebody who’s been test prepping for 12 years and you only do one year?” I think this narrative is based on a false understanding of education. I graduated from a top high school, and if I were to test prep, nobody could compete with me. I was the first in my class in high school from the most competitive province. But I became good not because I did twelve years of test prep, but because at the end of the day, I don’t hate learning. I like learning. As I look back I realize maybe the biggest gift got from my family is a growth or development mindset, but, of course, back then, there was no theory to describe that. If you look at people who are successful in history, there are some common traits, and it’s not because they have done twelve years of test prep. I think this is the biggest misunderstanding. It’s reducing education to something very superficial and tactical. The reason there is a huge market for it is because when you are talking about something tactical you can sell things. I can sell you things to help you prep for math or whatever. The more granular you become, the easier it is to make products. Then you have to prep for fifth grade math and for seventh grade English, and you end up buying 10 products. There is a market logic behind it. But you have to understand how learning happens. Learning doesn’t happen through this granular collection of credits. Learning happens because you’re intrinsically motivated, and you have the ability to learn; you have cognitive ability; you have been protected; you have the psychological security, and all those very basic things. But those things don’t make money. I can’t say “Hey, you buy this course, you’ll have psychological security and health.” No, it’s much easier to pay for fifth-grade math. There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that? Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.
There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that? Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.
TH:What’s one piece of advice you have for other people who might like to start a school?
YL: This is probably true for starting anything, but I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano. ETU became sort of an icon and oftentimes people would come and say, “Hey, I want to have an ETU in our city. What do you need? Do you need money? Do you need a license? Do you need people? I said, “I don’t need any of that. I just need somebody who’s committed to do it.” If you have somebody who’s committed to it, you should not underestimate the level of resources they can come up with from nothing. That’s how I feel because I really started with nothing. People would say you have to work with an investor or you have to have a real-estate company behind you. But sometimes when you have all those things it actually becomes a barrier, a burden, rather than a resource. Again, if you explore the underlying psychology, it’s because of fear. You’re thinking, “Okay, this is something so difficult I need to hold on to something that’s certain, like if you give me money, I can start.” But that could just vanish. The money can be taken away. The investor could walk away. But if you’re committed to something, different things will show up to help you, from nowhere. Money can show up from places you don’t expect. But belief and vision are hard to come by because the toughest negotiation you have is not with your partners, it’s with yourself.
I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano.
Sometimes I’m jealous of this generation. You have a lot of dreams that might seem crazy but you hold on to them. Don’t give up easily. Many of them will fail, but you will learn from them. Our school has gone through so many crises. We had to move, there were parents who wanted to boycott because we had to move again, and I remember we had this debate one time when we were looking for a different venue for the school. We felt that the new venue could be much better, but there was a risk in communicating this to parents. The debate was about what was more important the venue or the parents? We came to a point where we realized, if the parents still want to follow what we do, it really doesn’t matter where we are. But if we give up our beliefs for the venue, the venue might look nice today, but it might look like nothing tomorrow. You have to continue to negotiate with yourself or you will forget. You will get captured by different things, and you are faced with those things on a daily basis. So you have to keep negotiating, and you can’t give up.
Dr. Yinuo Li, co-founder of the ETU School, talks with Thomas Hatch about her experiences starting new schools in both China and the US. A biologist by training and a formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Li established the ETU school in Beijing in 2016. Since that time,ETU has opened campuses in Guangzhou and in Palo Alto, CA. The first part of this two-part conversation focuses on what it took to get ETU started; in the second part Li reflects on the opportunities and challenges for launching new schools and offers advice for other new school founders.
Thomas Hatch: When I talk with the founders of new schools, I often begin the conversation by asking about the initial problem or issue that motivated their work, but you’ve already written about that in Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World for WISE. In that article, you highlighted concerns about unprepared students, anxious parents, stressed-out teachers and isolated schools and then you described your vision for addressing those issues. How did you develop that vision and what were the first steps you took to put it in place?
Yinuo Li: I think there was definitely a sense of naiveté when I started ETU. If you’re not ignorant or naïve enough, I don’t think you would embark on something like this, as you’ll find out later. But I think the major trigger started when I was at McKinsey. I had been there for over ten years and when we were recruiting top notch graduates I found that most of them, like many graduates, were not in a place of clarity. In fact, most graduates are in a place of complete lack of clarity, even if they’ve graduate from the most privileged programs and schools. There seems to be a big gap where people have a lot of fantasies, and they think “well, I graduated from Harvard or Columbia or Tsinghua University in China, I’m done I’m set for life.” No, you’re not.
I think that was the initial trigger, and then later on, my experience also evolved. When I started the school, the direct reason was my own children because I was moving our family from California back to Beijing. My eldest was six, and he was starting first grade in China. I was the Founder of the school, and I could see all the problems, but I was primarily focused on how we could build a curriculum to “fix it.” Particularly at that time there was a big divide in China between international education and public education. It seemed like everybody had to be on one track or the other from very early on, and if you fall in between the tracks, you’re in no man’s land. I think that’s very toxic so I wanted to find a middle track. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, if you focus on the right thing, it should be good enough. So creating that “middle track” was the first vision. But then the vision evolved as I started to realize that a school is much more complicated than that. It’s much more than curriculum. It’s really about how you support everybody in the system – the teachers, the staff, all your stakeholders outside the school.
Before March 2016, I would never have thought of myself as having any connection to the word ‘education’ in a professional sense…(but) Something happened that spring. On the surface, it was triggered by my eldest son’s time to start primary school, and our family’s move from California to Beijing. However, these two pivotal moments awakened something in me, helping me to see the links between many of my random and seemingly irrelevant experiences with education and making them suddenly relevant. This random list of experiences includes my own memories as a student, ten years working at McKinsey, recruiting and training college graduates, supporting career development for youth, three years as a minor social influencer (my husband and I have a WeChat blog with 700K followers), receiving multiple inquiries from young people confused about the future and, of course, my experience as a mother.
Developing all those systems was the second stage. Now we have a lot of systems: we have a curricular system for the kids; we have the teacher professional development system; we have systems for parents and community support. The third stage, which is where I think I am now, is that I’m realizing that there are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty. Of course, the future is all about uncertainty, and school is almost the collective reflector of all the fears in a society about the future. It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening. If you have that, many things can follow. You can have a system that’s more oriented towards children rather than one focused on addressing those adult fears. If you look at most elite schools, the hidden message is “as long as you pay this much money, as long as you join my club, your kids will be fine.” I just think that’s the wrong way of approaching it. If anything, it’s creating more problems than solving them.
Instead, we have to confront those fears because they reflect the very basic nature of human beings. And schools are manifestation of those fears which is really sad. It’s all hidden though so you can talk about project-based learning or whatever, and those are innocent concepts on their own, but they are being packaged into a fear-based system, as if your kids don’t have project-based learning, they’re doomed. I think that’s the problem. if you don’t address that fundamental issue, then all the good concepts and practices will end up being another tool to exaggerate those fears.
There are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty… It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.
I think that’s where we are now. At the end of the day, as you start to understand the work of all those educational pioneers and how they were thinking about education, you realize many of them actually go directly at that fear, to the root. Because if you don’t address it, all this fancy stuff on the surface is only exacerbating the problem. That’s where I am on a heart level. Of course, the school is still the school, but these are the different phases of how I’ve been thinking about the school.
TH: That gives a wonderful sense of the evolution of your thinking, but can you take us back to the beginning, and some of the basics? How did you get started, find other parents, and make sure that the vision wasn’t just your vision, but that it was a vision that was shared with that initial group?
YL: It really started with a WeChat blog that my husband and I started in 2014. I think by the time we want to do a school, we had about half a million followers. When we started writing, it had nothing to do with education. At that time, I was a partner at McKinsey and there were a lot of questions about typical women’s leadership problems like how do you balance everything and all that. I built up a followership, and although I didn’t really know it at the time, many of them were parents. That became an advantage as we had a big pool of potential parents when we started doing the school.
Of course, the biggest headache in China, much more than US, is the licensing, but again we we’re very lucky because there was a public school that had been asked to take over another poorly performing public school that didn’t have a lot of students. The school that was taking over was interested in renting some empty classrooms. It was almost like a godsend that they didn’t have enough students. They had three classrooms to rent and they already had the proper license. So that’s how we got started the first year. However, because it’s s public school, in Year 2 the school said that they needed the classrooms because they were expanding and we had to move. In fact, we’ve moved five times since then. At that moment, you think “Wow, this is a huge headache. Where do I find the space?” You have to communicate with the parents and tell them we’re moving again which is really hard because there are many families who moved so they could be near the school. And Beijing is a huge city so it’s not like you can just drive five minutes to another location. But that’s how we got things off the ground; that’s the initial phase of the story.
I still remember it was April 1, April Fools Day 2016, we put out this article. Basically, the title was “Are you also troubled by education?” I wrote down all the things I was seeing, and I said, “Hey, by the way, I wanted to start a school.” I said, “we want to start with 30 students and five teachers. If you’re interested, here is how you apply, this is the email address.” That article, in one day, probably got 200,000 views, and it was pretty widely circulated. I still remember we got about 800 emails. I was blown away. I didn’t realize how common these concerns were and how much it would resonate with people who are reading it. We got over 100 applications for teachers and about 200 families said they were interested. So that’s how we started. We got teaches from there, and we got the first round of families from there.
TH: What aspects of your curriculum were you able to put in place in that first year? Was it primarily the Chinese curriculum mixed with a little bit of project-based learning? How much could you really get going?
YL: In that first year, we actually got a lot going on. As I look back, the first two or three years were excellent because we were able to integrate almost everything. I’ll give you one example, in the spring we did a garden project – planting tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and stuff. That project went through the entire semester because you can do so many things with it. Upfront, you can test the seeds; you can observe the weather; you can see the rainfall; and then there are so many things you can design. Kids were putting in different seeds in different solutions with different levels of acidity, and then they had this entire observation project, both in Chinese and English, where they could write down notes and draw. Towards the end of the semester, after the harvest, we designed a project with a student-run restaurant. Since there were not as many people looking over us, the teachers could just take the students to the supermarket or to visit restaurants to figure out why some have better business than others. The kids would come up with solutions like, ”Oh, because they have music,” or “they have uniforms,” and all that. And then, of course, they had to run the restaurant. They needed to figure out the menu. They had to figure out how much to charge, and they ended up asking for tips and then they had to figure out how to politely ask for tips. A lot of fun things! So in the first year it was almost a fully integrated curriculum. But now, because we were licensed two years ago, there are more inspections and compliance and all that. That includes some control at the micro level, like how much time you have to spend on math and Chinese. Still, we’re trying to do as much as we can, but compared to the first year there is much less flexibility.
TH: That gives us a good sense of how you started with the curriculum, but where did the funding come from?
YL: Well, the funding, that’s another story! There were two things. One is that original WeChat article reached some of the people who were concerned about education. One of them was an investor of herself, and she found me through the grapevine and a series of connections. And she donated 4 million RMB (about $600,000 USD). I was very thankful for that, but it’s not enough for hiring and everything else. The second thing is that for WeChat accounts like ours, typically people would put up advertisements to make some money. We never did that, but we have a pretty solid set of followers, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to create an online community,” and I charged a fee of 2000 RMB a year (about $305 USD), and said it would max out at 1000 people. I had no idea how it would go, but then it actually sold out in one day, and I said “Wow! That’s 2 million RMB right there.” We did it two more times, so I got 6 million RMB, and I remember it just felt surreal. But it meant that there were a lot of people who wanted to join, so that 6 million RMB became our startup funds.
But, to be honest, even today, we’re not making money. We’re not breaking even. Fortunately, there are many investors who are interested in us and investing. However, I still slowly realized that the best model for us would have been something like a charter school, because right now in China, most of your spending goes to facilities. That’s why there are a lot of real estate companies who are interested in investing. For many, it’s a way for them to raise the price of their property around the school. Frankly, that might not be bad. As long as they leave me alone. But they don’t leave you alone either, because they want to package your school to attract a certain buyer. They have an agenda. So financially, things have been a struggle. We’re still afloat, but from the beginning, I turned down a lot of those so-called investors with easy money. In hindsight, that was a good choice. So, even today, although there are more restrictions, none of them are enforced by the investors. Those come from the external public environment, and we can still get lot done. So that’s the real story. But, frankly, if you can pay for my real estate, if you can pay for the salary for the teachers and all that, I don’t have to charge anything. I would rather make the school free. But you can’t. You don’t have such a model in China.
This week, IEN’s Thomas Hatch summarizes some of the reports and stories that describe the many different ways schools are starting the new semester and new school year following the coronavirus closures earlier this year. In many cases, the differences in reopening plans differ as much within countries as across them.
In Spain, with the fastest growing infection rate in Europe, requirements for public schools are more stringent: class sizes are being reduced; students are assigned to “bubbles” with a small number of classmates; desks must be positioned at least 1 ½ meters apart; all schools must improve open-air ventilation, and students must wear masks. Yet some private schools have been able to take advantage of their own resources to create open-air enclosures, increase staff and take other steps to adjust.
In Norway, as schools reopened in cities like Oslo, cases rose to a “yellow,” caution level, and if they continue to rise to a “red” level, schools will have to close again. The Norwegian authorities have not mandated the use of face masks in schools, but many schools have dropped the tradition of allowing parents of first graders to shake hands with the principal and follow their children into their classrooms as part of a formal welcome for their very first day of school. (“Corona clouds the first day of school” Newsinenglish.no)
In Estonia, some schools are almost “back to normal” but others are making their own adaptions to slow the spread of the virus. One school is alternating between one week learning in school and the next two weeks learning online from home, while another has reduced class sizes, shortened classes, decreased the length of the school day and included “movement” days where students spend the whole day outside. (“New academic year: Alternating distance and contact learning” ERR.ee).
Hong Kong schools plan to resume face-to-face classes in stages, on a half-day basis with students from some years, such as those starting primary or secondary schools among the first back
In Germany, testing for students and educators has been “fast and free,” with quick contact tracing making it possible to isolate cases and contain spread. As the New York Times reported, after schools were open in Berlin for a few weeks: 49 teachers and students had been infected, but with testing and targeted quarantines, only about 600 students out of some 366,000 have had to stay home on any given day. (“Schools Can Reopen, Germany Finds, but Expect a ‘Roller Coaster’”, New York Times).
In the US, opening plans differ drastically depending on location as 65% of rural districts plan to start fully in-person, but only 24% of suburban districts and 9% of urban districts plan to do so; overall, estimates suggest 26% of districts plan to open fully remote, but over 40% of the highest-poverty districts will do so (Getting Back to School: An Update on Plans from Across the Country, Center on Reinventing Public Education). In Los Angeles, although almost all students are still learning from home, the district is trying to put in place a massive testing program to test and screen all 700,000 students and 75,000 employees in order to reopen the schools. (L.A. Schools Begin Testing 775,000 Students and Workers, New York Times). In New York City, the teachers union continues to express concerns about the plans to open with in-person learning, and at the same time, over 40% of students (approximately 422,000 students) have enrolled in all-remote learning. (55 NYC School Staff Test Positive; Nearly Half of Students Opt for All-Remote, NBCNewYork).
This week’s post features an e-mail interview that Aidi Bian conducted for IEN with Emma Hua. Hua and Bian are teachers at the HD school, a school with campuses in Shanghai, Ningbo, Beijing and Qingdao. These four schools have close to 3000 enrolled students in total. A fifth campus, in Nanjing, will open in 2021. The school describes itself as a “private experimental school” and each homeroom has one “national teacher” and one “international teacher.” HD school is one of a growing number of bilingual schools in China that have been gaining popularity. Bilingual and international schools in China have been particularly hard hit by the virus because of visa restrictions that have made it hard to find teachers from outside China.
Across China, schools were closed for some time, but most cities reopened schools in April, with schools in heavily affected areas like Beijing and Wuhan opening later. After a small outbreak in Beijing in late June, Beijing’s schools were closed throughout the spring semester. Nationwide, the annual “Gaokao” exam was postponed until July 7, one month later than a normal year. Current regulations in Shanghai require every school to track the temperatures and health status of their students every day and report to the district government.
IEN: What’s happening with you and your family/friends?
Emma Hua: I was originally from Wuhan, Hubei, where Covid19 firstly broke out. I went back to Wuhan for Spring Festival during the winter break and stayed at home since Wuhan was locked down in late January. Things were not too bad after we got used to the situation. Our community in general was in good order: volunteers helped with information collection, people ordered food and things online and got delivery in time. I worked at home from early February to middle April, and then successfully returned back to Shanghai, after I was tested negative for the coronavirus in Wuhan.
IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?
EH: Our school started remote classes since February. For primary school, most of the courses were recorded as 10 or 15-minute videos and uploaded to an online platform where students can download and watch every day at their convenience. This is a deliberate design since it would be hard for young kids to stay focused for a long time in an online live class, and many parents have concerns with their children in front of screens for too long. All the materials and resources were uploaded online, and students took picture of their homework and sent them to teachers. We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents. At the end of each day around 4 or 5 pm, each class would have a Q&A live session where teachers talked about common mistakes in the homework and got updates from students.
We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents.
The online class lasted until April when the situation in Shanghai was basically in control. An interesting discovery was that after students got back to school, some students made better progress than expected as they studied more online at home than at school. We hypothesized this happened because some of them could better individualize the pace of their learning as they watched the videos at home.
IEN: What do you/your community need help with?
EH: At first, many teachers were not familiar with teaching online or making slides and videos, so the school organized some trainings to help teachers with making powerpoints and video editing. Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group. Some traditional teachers especially needed help with technology support from younger teachers. There were also struggles and pains when the internet of some teachers or students was not stable. In particular, when kids were young, they did not know how to deal with the technical problems. Teachers were tired, too, because the working time could be extended when communication with parents wasn’t smooth.
Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group.
IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?
EH: We used DingTalk as the main online platform for our second grade. After students selected their school and class, they could do a lot of things such as check in, download lessons and materials, submit homework, get feedback from teachers, etc. A good thing about this platform is that it did evolve and developed many good features that fit educational uses. For example, at first, students could see one another’s homework without any restriction, which could lead to copying. Later the new version changed the rule so that only students who had submitted their homework could access others’ work. Also, the platform allowed teachers to rate and exhibite the best work to the whole class.
IEN: What have you found most inspiring?
EH: I am appreciative that our school principals were very helpful and supportive to teachers. We have both foreign and Chinese principals, and they were responsible for the international teacher and Chinese teacher team respectively. I belong to the Chinese team, and the principal would participate in curriculum design and preparation and gave us support and suggestions. The school also has small gifts for teachers on national holidays. Another inspiration in the latter stage of remote learning was that we were trying to add more elements and activities to the online routine, such as weekly guided reading, which gave students a more diverse and similar-to-school experience even when studying online.
When principals and teachers are evaluated based on student achievement, what do they do to promote student learning? I recently spoke with Min Sun, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, who explained that a principal’s leadership in promoting instruction might make a difference in improving student achievement. In 2012, Sun published a study titled “Association of District Principal Evaluation with learning-centered leadership practice: Evidence from Michigan and Beijing,” with Peter Youngs, Haiyan Yang & Hongqi Chu & Qian Zhao, which showed that one key difference between principals in China (where students earn top scores on the PISA exam) and in Michigan is the extent to which they can be instructional leaders.
China’s top-ranked performance on the international PISA exam has piqued the interest of many Western countries that hope to learn from its success. As Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for Education and Skills, has explained, “Obviously, one can’t copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed a surprising number of features that the world’s most successful school systems share and from which others can learn.” In their study, Sun et al. (2012) found that a comparison revealed a few key differences in leadership approaches.
For example, in Beijing principals more frequently report, “supervising and evaluating instruction, coordinating curriculum, protecting instructional time, maintaining high visibility, and providing incentives for student learning.” In both Beijing and Michigan, district principal evaluation informed personnel decisions, professional development, and was used to hold principals accountable for student achievement; however, in Beijing principals were more likely to feel that their evaluation was used to determine merit salary increases or sanctions. While the content of each evaluation was similar,
“a significantly higher percentage of Beijing principals felt that district leadership evaluation emphasized teacher evaluation, provision of professional development programs for teachers, curriculum design, and supervision of student learning during school time than their counterparts in Michigan did….Moreover, when district principal evaluation focused on leaders’ instructional and management knowledge and skills, leadership behaviors, and organizational impacts, principals were more likely to engage in various learning-centered leadership activities.”
Sun et al. (2012) found that principals in Beijing have more teaching experience than their Michigan counterparts. Therefore, they are able to engage with teachers and students on the classroom level. As Sun explained, when a teacher is absent in Beijing it is the principal who covers their class. Since principals typically have extensive experience with instruction, they can step in to help a teacher who is struggling in the classroom. As stated in the article, “In China, almost all K-12 public school principals are former senior teachers who have demonstrated pedagogical expertise in classrooms, and principals in China are respected as head teachers.”
The authors also found that Chinese principals were more likely to perceive that their evaluation held them accountable for student achievement, which, they say, is not surprising given the long tradition in China of accountability based on test scores. As a result, “Chinese principals perceived a stronger impact of specific aspects of district evaluation.” The emphasis on the purpose, content, and evidence, of specific leadership activities meant that the principal was more likely to focus on “learning-centered leadership activities.”
All of this raises questions about the current high stakes accountability measures we see in the U.S. While policymakers would like to see better outcomes on standardized tests, might we also need to consider whether or not the people responsible for improving such outcomes know how to do so? And, when those in charge don’t have the capacity to focus on learning-centered activities that might promote achievement on standardized tests, might we see instead a corruption of the system, such as in the recent cheating incident in Atlanta that resulted in x teachers and school leaders being sent to jail? Will we begin to view school leaders as untrustworthy when it comes to evaluating classroom instruction?
In the U. S., this topic is also highly relevant at the moment as high-stakes accountability has led to a growing number of parents across the country “opting out,” or allowing their children to refuse to take high stakes exams. Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained that if the number of students refusing State exams continues to grow, the Federal Government may need to step in to address the problem.
While the U.S. looks to the East for accountability policies that can promote student achievement, in contrast, China looks to the West for policies that can promote whole-child development and creativity. However, in the efforts of policymakers in the East and the West we can see what happens when “borrowed” policies confront cultural differences.
For example, in striking contrast to the U.S. parents engaged in the growing opt-out movement, parents in China are focused on doing whatever it takes to help their children perform well on standardized tests. While Chinese policymakers are now starting to think about whole-child development, creativity, and student happiness—other things that children need, such as physical and emotional health—the primary focus remains on test scores. Chinese parents view the college admission exam as crucial for their child’s future success, and therefore they are willing to devote considerable time and money to preparing their children for it from a very young age. As a result, Chinese parents pushback when schools attempt to promote non-academic activities.
In addition to cultural factors that might influence student achievement, a new book raises questions about the connections we have made between test scores and education policies. In Real Finnish Lessons: The True Story of an Education Superpower, Gabriel Heller Sahlgre presents the (somewhat controversial) idea that Finland’s high ranking on international assessments has more to do with economic factors than it does with educational factors.
In the midst of all of these questions and concerns about student achievement, we might need to begin a deeper conversation about how we can a) promote policies that cohere with real-world practice, and b) develop universal assessments that allow us to address global questions of educational equity, while also considering the needs of unique cultures and communities—and even individual stakeholders, such as parents, students, teachers, and principals.
Teacher autonomy – which refers to teachers’ ability to develop their own curriculum and instruction – has sometimes been seen as a way to support teachers’ professionalism. However, in a recent conversation, Won-Pyo Hong, an Associate Professor at Yonsei University, described how teachers may not always see “autonomy” as a positive development. He talked with me about a study he conducted with with Peter Youngs, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, titled “Why are teachers afraid of curricular autonomy? Contradictory effects of the new national curriculum in South Korea.” That study focused on teachers’ experiences with the new national curriculum (designed in 2009), which was supposed to allow for teacher autonomy. As Hong explained, the reality was more complicated:
“Policymakers insisted that granting curricular autonomy would provide more freedom to schools from the central controls and encourage them to develop varied curricula according to their local conditions and student interests. However, it needs to be noted that the curriculum revision in 2009 was made under a conservative government who pursued a market-based approach to education reforms. So, the curricular autonomy embedded in the 2009 national curriculum had conveyed dual meanings; on the surface, it seemed to empower teachers by giving more curricular discretion to individual schools. On the other hand, it reduced government interventions over curricular issues which could cause competition among schools and widen the gap between schools of poor and better conditions in terms of the quality of school curriculum.”
While the prior curriculum presented a sequence of study in each content area and grade level, the new curriculum set a total number of instructional hours for a given subject over three years. Additionally, the number of subjects that a school could offer was reduced to eight or less in a semester (down from ten), and schools were encouraged to offer intensive courses. As Hong explained,
“if a school previously offered both music and visual arts for an hour per week throughout the year, now it had to make a semester-long course to offer only one subject per semester. This change was made to reduce students’ workload and thus make learning more engaging and comprehensive. Schools were also allowed to reduce or increase the number of instructional hours for each subject up to 20% in general schools, 35% in self-managing schools designated by provincial authorities. This was quite a substantial change, as it was the first time that trade-offs became possible across the subject areas. For instance, schools were allowed to teach more hours for a certain subject area as long as it maintained the total number of instructional hours by reducing hours assigned to other subjects. Therefore, teachers in a school were required to work together to determine how to adjust instructional hours across the subject areas, considering the local context and student needs.”
Hong and Young found that when autonomy was built into the curriculum the teachers questioned its authenticity, as they felt that the autonomy had been provided as an expectation, rather than obtained through their own efforts. Hong explained that another notable finding was that “teachers worried that schools would abuse the given autonomy to teach major subject areas more often, further marginalizing other subject areas. This is because student performances in Korean, English, and math carry the most weight for the college admission process, thus becoming primary concerns for parents and students.”
As a result, Korean teachers did not feel more empowered as the autonomy felt artificial. The authors noted that “curriculum scholars need to examine more closely when and how teachers’ curricular autonomy promotes positive results in practice.” They also noted that teachers who participated in the study felt that autonomy was impossible when subject area content standards remained unchanged.
While the current government in South Korea is pursuing a new revision of the national curriculum, one that focuses on cross-disciplinary thinking, attention to teacher autonomy is quickly waning. As Hong explains, the Korean cases illustrates some of the complexities of government-initiated curricular autonomy and raises questions about what it might take to support teachers’ autonomy in productive ways.
Teacher autonomy around the world
The conversation about teacher autonomy in South Korea was particularly interesting given recent interest in issues of teacher autonomy in a number of different parts of the world. In the US, in particular, the word “autonomy” is used frequently to describe what some educators believe is lacking in the teaching profession today. For example, recent Global Teacher prizewinner Nancy Atwell, noted for her innovative and playful pedagogy, has called for a more “autonomous, creative and thoughtful” approach to teaching, which she fears is now impossible in U.S. public schools. Atwell caused a bit of a stir online when she said, “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”
In addition, this past month NPR in the US presented a series in which they focused on the teacher pipeline, noting in one segment that enrollment in teacher training programs is down as much as 50% in some states. The reporters followed up in another segment with Richard Ingersoll, a Professor of Education and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the topic of teacher retention for decades. As Ingersoll explained, his research has shown that the problem of teacher retention is related to teacher autonomy, and few opportunities for teachers to have “input into the key decisions in the building that affect a teacher’s job.” Ingersoll says, “One thing we’ve found is that the shrinking classroom autonomy is now the biggest dissatisfaction of math teachers nationally.”
Similar concerns about teacher autonomy have been echoed in news reports from around the world as well. For example, one report from Canada decries the country’s lack of support for teacher professionalism, and provides a comparison with Holland, Finland, Switzerland and Japan; teachers in British Columbia call for greater control over their own professional development; leaders of the Labour Party in the UK have criticized what they see as an ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling, and call for more teacher autonomy; and, a new national curriculum in Wales has been designed to allow for teacher autonomy. However, is everyone talking about the same thing?
Does “autonomy” = more responsibility?
One report from Hong Kong presents an example that shows that when “autonomy” is linked with “professionalism,” it can mean that teachers are expected to become stakeholders in their schools. The South China Morning Post writes that since Hong Kong introduced a school-based management policy, teachers must “participate in groups such as student academic affairs and pastoral care committees to help keep the school functioning effectively.” The article goes on to commend these changes, but it also notes that in other countries teachers might expect to be compensated for these additional responsibilities – rather than have them incorporated into a newly defined “professionalism.”
Does “autonomy” = innovation?
In another article from the UK, Labour Party leader Tristram Hunt criticized what he called the “exam factory” approach to schooling, and called for changes from the “bottom up, ‘through giving teachers and school leaders the freedom and autonomy to deliver an exciting education.’” However, as with much of the discussion on teacher autonomy, there is little attention to how teachers and schools interpret what the term “autonomy” means, and/or what it is that teachers and schools want to do, or will be expected to do, with this autonomy. Will teacher autonomy lead to the excitement and innovation that many hope for? Or, will it leave teachers alone to address the needs of the students and the community? For example, in Shanghai, teachers are expected by parents to prepare students for high stakes exams. As one article explains, student performance on such exams is so important that parents are willing to attend school with their children so that they can learn the material and reinforce it at home. Lacking support, teachers might feel pressured to do more of what they feel they need to do, which might be more test prep.
A scan of online news reports published in countries around the world over the past month found that current reports on the topic of early childhood education show a range of economic concerns. While the news in some countries focuses on early childhood education as it relates to childcare, others focus on the connection between education in the early years and economic development. For example, reports from China focus on education as one aspect of whole child development, and similarly, reports from Thailand, India, and Australia, emphasized that early childhood education can be a crucial factor in lifting individuals out of poverty. Other reports focus on the ways in which early childhood education can be an overall investment in a country’s future.
In a recent article, titled “Household income and preschool attendance in China,” Xin Gong, Di Xu, and Wen-Jui Ham, found a positive association between household income and preschool attendance in both rural and urban settings. By showing that household income is influential in determining which children access early childhood education, this article relates with findings presented in a recent report on early childhood development by UNICEF. The UNICEF report points out that “millions of children, especially the most marginalized, are excluded from school,” and finds that international funding for education is on the decline. Yet, according to an article in Want China Times, China has increased spending on early childhood education, budgeting 50 billion yuan ($8 billion) for a three-year project to provide access to quality education.
Singapore presents the example of a country that, according to the World Bank, placed “education at the core of the nation’s development.” Yet, as an article in The Huffington Postexplained, “early-childhood education is one of the few spots where Singapore is not yet a world leader.” However, in response to the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked Singapore’s early childhood education system 29th in the world, the government has “announced funding initiatives for subsidies for parents and childcare centers, new sources of scholarship money for teachers, and the creation of new preschools and kindergartens.”
In Australia, a Productivity Report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, released on February 20th, received a critical reception in the press because it did not recommend an increase in funding. Instead, the report recommended the simplification of a complicated system with the introduction of a single early learning subsidy. Geraldine Neylon, writing for The Conversation, called this a “missed opportunity” to build upon prior reforms that focused on teacher quality. In another commentary, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade emphasized that while the current system is due for an overhaul, an investment in early education would lead to greater economic gains for the entire country. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abbott has suggested policy reforms that would (similar to the report’s recommendations) make childcare more affordable and less regulated, noting in particular that such a move would potentially enable more women to join the workforce. As John Cherry, advocacy manager with the non-profit Goodstart Early Learning, explained in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The number one reform objective is to make childcare more accessible and more affordable for low and middle income families….The number two objective is to continue to raise the quality of care so that children have a better start to their school education. The number three one is to make sure that vulnerable children are getting the support that they need. That costs money.”
At the 27th annual International Conference for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held in Yagyakarta, Indonesia, early this January, Dr. Jane B. Huffman presented a paper, “Professional Learning Community Development in High Schools: Conceptualizing the PLC Process through a Global Perspective,” in which she shared her research on the PLC process within multiple Asian cultural contexts. In a recent conversation with IEN Contributing Editor Paul Chua, Huffman defines professional learning communities (PLCs) as “professional educators working collectively and purposefully to create and sustain a culture of learning for all students and adults.” She described PLCs as a multi-dimensional process, including shared and supportive leadership; shared values and vision; collective learning and application; shared personal practice and supportive conditions. Through her research in the U.S. context over the past two years, she has found that successful implementation of PLCs district-wide depends on a coordinated vision of leadership working together towards a common goal, strong interpersonal relationships, and carefully targeted professional learning.
While the PLC process has been practiced and studied in Anglo-American cultures for twenty years, Huffman’s work with the Global PLC Network extends this work to non-Anglo countries including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Huffman and four research colleagues – one each from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and the U. S. – began the network in 2009 by studying schools in Taiwan and Singapore that were using the PLC model. From those conversations, they began to construct the essential structures of what came to be called the “Global PLC Model.” Their research on the global construct has five facets for development: structures, policy and procedures; leadership; professionalism; learning capacity and a sense of community.
A Dr. Huffman explained, a brief history of the five educational systems show that external and internal differences in educational systems make it impossible to create a ‘boilerplate’ improvement effort that will fit all contexts and meet all teacher and student needs. In Taiwan, the Ministry of Education (MOE) PLC policy began in 2009 and encouraged K-12 teachers to build school-based PLC teams for teacher professional development. Some government programs, such as a high school improvement project (School Actualization Program) and science education (High Scope Program), continue to motivate teachers to establish subject-based or interdisciplinary PLCs for curriculum innovation or professional development. In Singapore, PLCs started in 2000 with the establishment of Teachers Network, and Learning Circles, a teacher collaborative learning model of action research. In China, although the term PLC is seldom used, schools have a long history of enhancing teachers’ professional competency and instructional skills through collaboration and collective inquiry. In Hong Kong, early steps have been initiated to establish policies related to PLCs.
For more on the topic of Professional Learning Communities and how they are being put to use in various countries around the world, readers can look back to Dr. Huffman’s earlier publications and earlier conversation with ICSEI President Dr. Alma Harris, who shared that some of the debates about professional collaboration range from discussions about the best models to follow, about the time and resources available to support these activities, and the issue of impact. In addition, in a recent conversation with IEN, Dr. Philip Hallinger, described the some of the issues related “policy borrowing,” in which countries attempt to utilize policies that have been successful in different contexts.
News reports from this past month have shown that many countries are rethinking the role of vocational training in their education systems.
In Denmark, www.dr.dk reports that the government is considering new academic entrance requirements to vocational programs that some fear would result in thousands of students being barred from such programs.
Denmark is not alone in it’s effort to “raise the bar” on vocational education. The BBC reported that a survey of British employers showed almost 60% believe the government does not do enough to provide students with the vocational training they need. The Guardian has also reported that a new standard will be applied to vocational education, allowing for diplomas endorsed by companies such as Kawasaki, Honda, and Volvo, but also hotels and even the Royal Ballet School, which is backing a qualification in performing arts.
Similarly, Thailand is also pledging to reform education to meet the demands of employers by reforming their system of vocational education. As reported in The Nation, the Education Ministry shared plans to work with the private sector to jointly design curriculum and training programs that give students real-life experiences as well as an academic education. The Thai government will also work with Germany, Australia, Japan and China – countries that have large investments in Thailand. However, in an earlier article, The Nation also reported that some researchers have expressed concerns that the government could still be doing more.
Similar news reports, collected from online sources over the past month, show a widespread call to improve vocational education, to reconsider the academic curriculum, and for educators to work alongside employers. These reports can be found coming from countries such as Malaysia, Nigeria, The United Arab Emirates, Liberia, Sudan, Ghana, Ireland, and India.