Leading students to success in contemporary careers and workplaces will require educators to utilize evidence-based practices from high-performing schools in the United States and around the globe

Brenda Werner, PhD | Director of Graduate Education, University of Mary

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Last summer, I visited schools in China as the culmination of the National Education Association Foundation’s 2014 Global Fellowship Program. There were 29 other Fellows, all teachers at the K-12 or university level in public and private schools nationwide. Prior to the 6,000-mile trip across the Pacific Ocean, we began learning online about China’s culture and education system, and we met with other Global Fellows in Washington, DC, to study more about global competencies and the educational curricular structure that places China’s high school graduates among the top performers on standardized tests in the world.

There is much American educators can learn from their Chinese counterparts that would improve our schools and make our students more competitive in their careers. As Angel Gurría, Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) remarked: “More and more countries are looking beyond their own borders for evidence of the most successful and efficient [educational] policies and practices. Indeed, in a global economy, success is no longer measured against national standards alone, but against the best-performing and most rapidly improving education systems.”

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15 year-olds in the 34 OECD countries, 38 non-OECD countries and three non-OECD cities in or under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On the most recent assessment in 2012, the U.S. ranked 27th in mathematics, 17th in reading and 20th in science among OECD nations. This was even worse than in 2009 when the U.S. ranked 25th in mathematics, 14th in reading and 17th in science. Among all participants, American students placed in the middle, significantly below peers in impoverished countries such as Vietnam. The top nations included Taiwan, South Korea and Finland, which scored highest among OECD countries. The three PRC urban districts placed at or near the top, with Shanghai scoring significantly above all other competitors.

Most disturbing for Americans is the declining proportion of top performers. “In the United States, only 12 percent of students reached the highest levels in at least one subject while 4.7 percent did so in all three subjects” stated a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, based on PISA data. “Compare those results to Shanghai-China, where 56 percent of students were top performers in at least one subject and 19.6 percent were in all three, and Canada, where the percentages were 21.9 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.”

On national assessments, North Dakota’s students rank at the national average in reading and among the top 10 states in mathematics, which is still significantly below the international peers they will compete with in the global marketplace.

Looking at the PISA results more broadly, improvements in student outcomes would have huge impacts on future economic growth, according to an OECD report. If the U.S. raised its performance to that of Finland within 20 years, which is necessary to remain competitive, the report calculated that U.S. GDP would increase by $103 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010. If all OECD nations did the same, GDP would grow by $260 trillion, which is six times the current aggregate total.

The need to address this growing gap between the future human capital of the US and international competitors has become urgent. Fortunately, the most efficacious way to improve learning, through focusing on learning skills and rigorous standards, is starting to be pursued across North Dakota and in most states nationwide.

Global Marketplace

Increasingly, our children will have to compete in the global marketplace as individuals, citizens and business people. Preparation for future careers has shifted away from primarily imparting content and toward learning skills in order to adapt nimbly to changing job requirements in a rapidly changing economy. In 2014, North Dakota led the nation in job growth and, over the past 11 years, the state’s economy doubled in size. Now more than ever, educational leaders, teachers and higher education professors have significant roles to play to ensure that all students have both the knowledge and skills to meet new challenges. The need for strong core academic skills, problem-solving skills, technological literacy and an understanding of our interdependence with other countries are critical to preparing students to succeed in a dynamic global society.

The rapid decline in “routine” work has been well documented by job analysts. Routine skills and lower-order thinking, although easy to teach and assess, are readily outsourced or replaced by technology. At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in jobs involving non-routine, analytic and interactive communication skills. Today’s job market requires the ability to analyze and think on one’s feet—while utilizing an electronic device. More employees work virtually on laptops and smartphones. Whether working remotely as an IT consultant or in the center of the Bakken, workers must be skilled at using resources and technology to problem solve and interact with people from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The battle cry for graduates with 21st-century skills has caused educators to reevaluate textbook-driven curricula that teach each subject in isolation.

As educational leaders try to keep pace with employers’ expectations, it’s crucial that they implement a skills-driven, standards-based approach. Content knowledge will be taught, of course. Students cannot apply what they do not know, nor can they think critically without content knowledge. But educators prioritize content and teach essential standards in more depth through connection to related fields. Science standards, for instance, have broad importance across multiple disciplines, such as technology and engineering. Methods such as project-based learning, internships, integrated curriculum, experiential learning, technological integration and primary research are some of the core strategies being implemented in many American K-12 schools to spark a passion for learning and to engage students in authentic (real-life) tasks and assessments.

Effective learning is active and rooted in essential standards, which encourage students to create projects and demonstrations with purpose for real-world audiences. For example, students might study a real problem in their community and work to answer the driving question of how best to find solutions. Then rather than present their work only to their teacher and classmates, their target audience could be city council members or representatives from relevant government agencies.

Innovations in China

Billed as one of China’s experimental schools, Xi’an Foreign Language School is proving to be an experiment worth analyzing. Xi’an is a boarding school of over 4,300 students located in Xi’an, China’s ancient imperial capital with a history rooted in the 3,000-year-old Zhou Dynasty. Inside the gates of the spacious campus courtyard is a brightly colored sign that reads, “Language is Power.”

As the delegation of American teachers walked onto the campus, students were transiting between classes. Both boys and girls wore the school uniform of black dress pants and white collared cotton shirts. Their stride was relaxed and they smiled as they waved enthusiastically at us. Yun Ya Feng, the school’s Director of International and Exchange Students, greeted us warmly in the school’s boardroom and immediately shared that she taught in New York City for a year.

Feng led us on a campus tour, proudly showing off the outdoor soccer field and track nestled between the six-story apartment buildings housing the school’s dormitories and some classrooms. Eagerly she highlighted the large variety of experiential learning opportunities the school offers in grades 1 through 12. These hands-on, project-based learning experiences are designed to enable students to acquire both content knowledge and applied skills by participating in activities, such as performance reading, speech competitions, plays, foreign language speeches and debates, arts festivals, and field trips to experience the world outside the school’s walls.

The school’s motto is, “Two plus one is greater than three.” The “two” refers to the required foreign languages and the “one” refers to each student’s chosen specialty. At all grade levels, students are encouraged to choose a specialty beyond core academic and language courses that nurtures individual talents and interests in a student-centered learning environment. Consequently, performance-based assessments, which are designed to let students show what they can do, are unique for each student. This differentiated model provides opportunities to immerse students in applying creative and critical skills, which are essential for leaders in today’s rapidly changing economy. This approach contrasts greatly with the rigid, test-focused programs that characterize the vast majority of Chinese schools preparing students for the extreme high-stakes National College Entrance Exam.

Xi’an is renowned for winning first prize in the high school entrance examination in Lian Hu District for seven consecutive years. Xi’an also posted the top scores on the national high school English proficiency exams. To remain one of the top-performing schools in Western China, Xi’an recruits master teachers from around the world, including from the U.S. Also, Xi’an has developed cooperative relationships with more than 30 schools abroad and currently partners with two American sister high schools: Gould Academy, an elite private institute in Maine, and Stevenson High School, one of the top public secondary schools in Chicago. Xi’an regularly participates in international teacher and student exchanges that heighten the school’s experiential and multicultural atmosphere.

The Global Fellowship delegation visited another innovative school, Beijing’s renowned Jinsong Vocational High School. In a bold move away from excessive emphasis on regimented test preparation, Jinsong’s president He Shirong successfully leads the school in teaching core academic standards while also developing creativity and higher functioning problem-solving skills. Jinsong’s facilities and equipment are state-of-the-art, and China’s top companies compete for the school’s highly skilled interns in fields, such as cosmetology and the hotel and restaurant industries. Admission to Jinsong, one of the oldest vocational schools in Beijing, is highly competitive and attracts some of China’s best students from many districts nationwide and internationally from countries such as the U.S., Germany, Russia, France and Israel. In 2012, Jinsong accepted 1,200 students from 11,000 applicants, which at 10.9 percent is slightly lower than the acceptance rate at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution. This contrasts starkly with the tepid enthusiasm for vocational secondary education in the U.S. Even though there are high-quality vocational schools, such as Career Academy in Bismarck’s public system, Americans typically view vocational education as a fallback choice for their children.

Not so in China. The hallway walls leading into Jinsong’s ultra-modern classrooms are lined with framed photos of dignitaries visiting the award-winning school beside alumni photos of famous chefs and eminent business CEOs. Administrators and teachers work closely with major companies to develop professional course curricula and purchase cutting-edge equipment and technology.

Although Jinsong is state-operated, professional partners share in teaching in and funding school programs. This level of collaboration and purposeful planning is possible because teachers are responsible for teaching only about 12 hours per week, compared to a typical teaching load of 30 hours in the U.S. Jinsong students may go on to attend university upon graduation, but most accept paid internships and then establish careers with the companies recruiting them.

When Mr. Wang, a vice principal and mathematics teacher at Jinsong, was asked by a Global Fellow about the most rewarding part of his job, he responded: “There is nothing more fulfilling as when students begin to see that math is everywhere in the world. We know we have come full circle when we see our students working and leading in major companies, and when we see our students grow into respectful and ethical human beings.”

Innovations in North Dakota

Increasingly education and business leaders across America are seeing the value of school-industry partnerships and project-based learning, which motivate students by giving them an opportunity to apply core academic skills. “We want universities to teach students the fundamental skills needed in business, accounting, communications and other areas, and we will teach them energy,” said Ron Ness, President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, in an interview. Referring to internships, he added that it’s “also good to expose students to opportunities in energy to enable them to see their career opportunities.”

In North Dakota’s growing economy, business leaders faced with hiring shortages can benefit from partnerships with secondary and post-secondary institutions. Through internships, lab schools and other school-professional partnerships, professionals offer students the opportunity to benefit from modeling by, and feedback from, industry mentors.

Since 2012, all new public schools in Bismarck are designated as projectbased learning schools. Teachers teach academic skills in the context of comprehensive and often interdisciplinary projects, which are curriculum-based and designed to engage students in an investigation of real-world problems. This focus motivates students in dynamic ways since they see their work having a connection to actual problems needing solutions, which seldom occurs in traditional classrooms.

In March 2014, Robin Nein, a social studies teacher at Bismarck High School, taught about the legislative process with traditional lectures and textbook readings. She also engaged students in applying procedural knowledge to questions such as, “What concerns do you have about your community and how can you use the legislative process to address them?”

In response, students researched existing legislation and worked on crafting alternative bills aimed at addressing problems more comprehensively. By scrutinizing primary documents, such as the Constitution of North Dakota and state statutes, students worked collaboratively to prepare a sophisticated presentation for state legislators who visited to consider proposals and challenge students on their research, analysis and ideas. The legislators asked pointed questions and challenged the students to defend their propositions. This interchange precipitated a deep learning process for the students whose perspectives were broadened as they considered whether the problems they addressed called for legislative action or simply for increased personal responsibility.

Bailey White, a senior in Nein’s class, proposed mandatory vaccinations in North Dakota to Rep. Karen Karls (R-Bismarck) in order to resolve health concerns about non-immunized students in the public school system. Rep. Karls challenged Bailey to address her belief that there is no link between autism and vaccinations. Bailey responded by citing several credible studies with data disproving a connection.

“Knowing that legislators were coming to the presentations made it exciting,” said Bailey in an interview, “and I wanted to do well by preparing to share with them in a convincing way. I spent a lot of time researching my proposal and studying the laws being debated in the legislature to understand current and proposed legislation more deeply.”

Bailey and her classmates learned firsthand about each step in the legislative process and the role that citizens and citizen groups play in lawmaking. The key to motivating high school students to think critically and put in the needed work to prepare high-level proposals, Nein observed, is tapping into their sincere desire to make a difference in their communities, which project-based learning facilitates. Connecting the classroom to the real world through business and public service collaborations, locally and across the globe, helps students acquire the broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits and character traits that are important for success in contemporary careers.

Compare and Contrast

While China and the United States are committed to getting students ready for college and career, it’s also clear that America is committed to the ideal of preparing all students and China, in contrast, is far more exclusive. Of the 9.39 million Chinese students who take the National Higher Education Entrance Exam every year, only the very top performers go onto university. There is no attempt beyond the compulsory first nine years of schooling to streamline education or assessment for the vast majority of Chinese students.

Only select college preparatory high schools in China take the PISA. This partly accounts for the top rating, which the three urban areas under PRC jurisdiction achieved. Undeniably, however, China graduates students with formidable academic prowess, and we can glean valuable insights from their preparation. China’s strength lies in core academic performance, which is undoubtedly influenced by the strong value Chinese families place on high test scores.

This focus is sharpened greatly by the limited opportunities for social mobility without a college education. Academic performance is also aided by the longstanding practice of training teachers well and giving them respect throughout Chinese society. Even though school days and the school year are longer, the teaching load is significantly lighter than for American peers, which gives Chinese teachers the time needed to design effective lesson plans, collaborate on initiatives and tutor individual students. Also, Chinese teachers are responsible for fewer standards. This enables educators to teach at greater skill and content depth, thereby increasing student proficiency.

Teachers share high expectations with parents, resulting in high academic achievement among students who view schooling as a privilege. Xian Foreign Language School and Beijing Jinsong Vocational High School, as well as schools such as Qibao High School in Shanghai, represent isolated pockets of educational reform within a larger Chinese system that still operates primarily with teacher-led repetition and rigid test-preparation drills. This has proven efficacious, but at what cost?

Cautionary Tales

In Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon, Yong Zhao, PhD, describes the urgent need for widespread educational reform in China. Zhao is currently the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. He writes that China’s top test scores in a narrow set of subjects indicate how successfully the country has homogenized its students. The Chinese system, he argues, is the perfect incarnation of authoritarian education. It produces the world’s best exam results at the cost of the diverse, creative and innovative talents essential for strong leadership.

In an article on CNN’s website titled “The Costs of Shanghai’s Education Success Story,” Jiang Xueqin, the Deputy Principal of Tsinghua University High School, points out that China’s emphasis on exams and algorithmic solutions has produced an abundance of computer programmers and accountants. Chinese graduates do well in a system where there isn’t much space to make mistakes, Jiang writes, but when they enter society or must work on open-ended projects in multicultural environments, they often do not perform as well. China’s system discourages the formation of creative thinkers with the skills attractive to international employers, as evidenced by China’s shortage of highly competent managers and successful entrepreneurs. As a veteran educator, Jiang argues that long school days, crammed schools and excessive hours of homework are less about helping students learn than about pleasing anxious, hyper-competitive parents who have one child and see no other option for success but a university education.

In China, the school calendar averages 25 to 30 percent longer than in the U.S. and classes are far more intense. In Maotanchang Secondary School in Anhui Province, for example, students begin school at 6:30 a.m. and finish around 10:30 p.m., when they return home with homework to complete for the next day.

Sadly, suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth and stress from school is cited as a major contributing factor. Not surprisingly, studies show that from 80 to over 90 percent of students in China, Japan and South Korea suffer from nearsightedness (double the American rate) by the time they leave school because of the long hours of studying indoors. Up to 20 percent of these youngsters run a high risk of myopia, which can lead to vision loss and blindness. Ironically, the word “myopia” also describes narrow-mindedness.

Also, in other Asian countries, such as South Korea, extreme pressure is put on students to succeed on high-stakes tests. The costs are high in terms of physical and psychic wellbeing. South Korea’s suicide rate is by far the highest among OECD countries at 33.3 per 100,000—and four times higher than in the U.S.—according to a 2014 report, which did not include China. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Koreans aged 10 to 30 years. In America, accidents more than double the suicide rate in the same age group.

In response in China, Jiang cites a rising tide of parents concerned about their child’s well-being who are choosing schools abroad or opting for new private Western-style schools that have sprung up in major Chinese cities. A growing number of parents and educators are seeking alternatives to excessive cramming of information that robs students of their childhood, empathy and enthusiasm. American private schools have seen an almost 6,000-percent growth in the number of Chinese secondary school students since 2005. Now almost 50 percent of international students coming to the U.S. for secondary school come from China. American private prep schools offer both a rigorous curriculum, with small class sizes and opportunities for students to explore and develop their innate curiosity, creativity and love of learning.

American Paradox

Assessing American education in light of international comparisons clarifies the basic paradox. On the one hand, not only do American students fare poorly on international tests, such as PISA, but a recent report shows how poorly American millennials (15 to 35 years of age) perform: “[D]espite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers.

These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.” On the next page is an illustrative graph regarding numeracy. American millennials did not perform much better on literacy and problem-solving comparisons. This report, titled “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future,” was produced by the Educational Testing Service using PIAAC data. Not only are millennials the most recent graduates from our educational system, they have more years of schooling than any previous American cohort. Something is badly amiss.

The paradox’s other prong, however, is well articulated by Fareed Zakaria, CNN commentator and author of In Defense of Liberal Education, in his Washington Post column:

“The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross-fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that ‘it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.’”

Zakaria goes on to point out that American students have never scored well on PISA since the international exam was first given in 1964. “And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.” The same pattern holds true for Sweden and Israel, both innovative countries that don’t educate the best test takers. There is no guarantee, of course, that the US will maintain this position indefinitely, especially in an increasingly technological society.

“Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” warned a task force sponsored by the Council of Foreign Relations in a 2012 report. The task force was chaired by Condoleezza Rice, a professor at Stanford University and former U.S. Secretary of State, and Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City’s public schools. Conversely, will China produce enough innovative leaders with highly tuned soft skills to lead the country forward economically, politically and culturally in the coming decades?


While there are obvious shortcomings to China’s education system, there is much for American educators to gain from both China’s mainstream approach and innovative schools, such as Xi’an Foreign Language School and Beijing Jinsong Vocational High School. China’s commitment to creating time for teacher collaboration, classroom planning and professional development positively impacts student achievement and teacher retention. We can also learn from China’s rigorous standards and deliberate teaching of core academic skills by integrating them into authentic learning and collaboration activities within American schools. This would balance direct instruction, rich in content, with intervention strategies to get all students ready for hands-on application.

In many ways, the Chinese and American education systems are moving into closer alignment. Both countries understand they are preparing students for a different world than today—one that is more interconnected, less predictable and changing rapidly. Also, business leaders and educators in both countries mostly agree on the broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits and character traits important for success in contemporary careers and workplaces. As a result, there is a greater emphasis on academic standards, communication skills, and on collaborative and higher-order thinking skills.

Innovative educational approaches integrate these with inquisitiveness, creativity and problem-solving proficiency, while avoiding an excessive emphasis on tests. In the long run, innovative educators will play a more important role in improving education than funding, teacher evaluations, standards or high-stakes assessments. Working together locally, nationally and internationally, these teachers and administrators will help students find their passions, and give them the foundational skills and both theoretical and applied knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century.