Education failings that a test can't correct
Jenny Wang graduated from university with a major in English literature and never thought her daughter, four, would be able to baffle her with a question about the language.
But the unthinkable happened when, one sunny afternoon, the little girl showed off her English vocabulary, built up by tireless kindergarten teachers, and asked her mother, a Shanghai newspaper editor, the meaning of 'overcast'.
'I was running short of a sensible explanation because she had never come across the word yintian, the Chinese equivalent of overcast,' Wang, in her early 30s, said. 'So I decided to be specific and told her the word 'overcast' refers to a rainless condition without sunshine. But I soon realised that I had put my foot in my mouth. As evening descended, she threw in a new question, 'Mum, is it overcast now?''
Wang was put in a bind, not by a near-prodigy, but by a dazzling, yet probably misoriented, elementary education system that is churning out a generation of world-class test-takers and knowledge absorbers.
Last month, secondary school students from Shanghai topped a two-hour test designed to gauge school performance across 65 countries and regions, most in the developed world. The triennial Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA), courtesy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, found Shanghai's teens well ahead of overseas peers in reading, maths and science abilities.
People outside China may have been surprised and conclude that its quality of education, or at least in the prosperous coastal areas, has matched, if not overtaken, that in the West.
Within China, however, reservations seem to rule. Mainland critics put the programme's credibility and significance under the microscope and question the link between a one-off test result and the future strength of the mainland's human resources. They cite deeply rooted flaws in the education system that can easily undo whatever advantages the youngsters gain at an early age.
The domestic argument holds weight.
Mainland parents and teachers believe in starting education early. Wang says she wouldn't dare to free her child from cram courses because 'everybody else is doing that and nobody wants to be left behind'.
Shanghai was the first mainland city to be included in the PISA, but its students would also have excelled if tested earlier. The outcome has more to do with Chinese tradition and reality than any improvement in the quality of education.
The profiles of the participants might also have tipped the PISA balance in China's favour. Though the programme covered every education level in the city, from elite schools to below-average suburban ones, most of the 5,100 15-year-olds who took part were consistently good academic performers with a strong motivation to do well.
'Educational authorities hold this kind of international assessment programme in high regard,' one high-school headmaster said. 'We made sure students understood the significance of the test and tried our best to field good students.'
But the good PISA performance can't mask the potentially fatal flaws in the compulsory education system. While Shanghai students scored well above average in overall reading capabilities, they were poor at capturing information from charts, tables and lists. They also ranked well below average in independent reading strategies, which means they rely on teachers' instructions on what to read.
Those two categories hold the key to practical problem solving and research capabilities, which don't feature prominently in early studies but are crucial to success in higher education. Imagine the damage a university system notorious for plagiarism and result faking can wreak on straight-A students.
Across the mainland, the education system is still vulnerable because of a lack of investment, variations in teaching quality and school access, and integrity issues.
In the same month that the PISA results emerged, media reports said more than half the pupils in Guangxi primary schools weren't able to use dictionaries. Many could not afford one. This shows the yawning gap that has to be overcome before a genuinely well-educated generation can be nurtured.
And even if all the teens score in maths and know the periodic table like the back of their hand, more fundamental changes are needed, such as improving character building and physical fitness, to truly upgrade mainland education.