Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times he probably wished it never happened. “The Shanghai Secret“, as the op-ed is titled, received a blistering response from Ann Qiu. It’s not like Thomas Friedman said anything outrageous. By contrary, the article is as inoffensive as it can be, similar to many others commenting on China’s extraordinary effort to achieve international reputation in education. Anyone following the PISA rankings knows the Shanghai region is included in this list as a country. The world was surprised to see it topped the PISA score ranking in 2009.
After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, Thomas Friedman declares he found the secret of Shanghai’s schooling performance: “a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers”. One could think he may have stirred the ire of some American or European teachers who work very hard doing exactly that, but surprisingly it was a Chines educator who took offense of the comments made in this article. Ann Qiu decided to write a replay when she read “what Mr Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn’t help feeling upset”. She goes on to say “an American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history. To me, Mr Friedman is not such a person”. That’s harsh. The game is on!
The anger stems from a personal experience shared by many parents in China. There are two frustrations that are brewing in this reply: firstly, the students are homework force-fed, they rote learn and they have to pass standardised tests as an absolute measure of success in education, and secondly, the parents are responsible for the homework, working long hours as if they have a second job, unpaid, mind you.
While Thomas Friedman quotes a Chinese teacher who said with pride that his job also includes “parent training”, Ann Qiu almost explodes at that thought: “Mr Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, Chines parents, in fact feel kidnapped by it. […]. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father’s mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English. […]. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents’ job to make sure that their children complete the homework.”
This reminded me of a documentary I watched in the early nineties about the education system in Japan where students and parents were under relentless pressure to perform and produce good test results. Young students from primary to secondary school levels would go to coaching colleges after school and then continue to study until late night with just a few hours to sleep before going to school next day. Japan invested in education with a clear goal of creating a skilled and disciplined workforce to establish itself as a global economic leader at any cost. It seems China is following the same steps Japan took a few decades ago.