Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on China Tour II- When the Stakes are High

Here in the US we often talk about High Stakes tests and their impact for example the work by Berliner and colleagues. In China the conversation about High Stakes was very different.

We had lunch on our last day in Shandong province hosted by one of the lead directors of the school district. After the exchange of gifts and pleasentries we had an inetersting discussion which started with his concern for student well being. He relayed that families are putting too much pressure on students to excel within the system, pressure that may harm some students maybe all. At the same both of us acknowledge the immense impact educational success measured by tests can have on individual lives.

We saw the importance of high stakes testing in almost every conversation with teachers and parents. Our research in China (With Stephanie Wessles and Guo Ji) is looking at the interaction between school and family. We had a chance to see the interaction in our first meeting with parents. Teachers took charge and directed parents who, in turn, complied without question. The parents were professionals from a middle class background but they followed teacher's demands. In the US middle class parents would have responded very differently probably actively resisting what they did not like and asking for a voice in the discussion. Here in China it was different and we were intrigued by it. In conversation some have speculated that this was part of the culture and Confusian ideals. Culture may have had something to do with it, though in private conversations and interviews parents were often critical of teacher's actions and did not think that teachers "knew better". The question that emerged was why parents did not resist what they thought was bad practice?

The answer seems to be linked to High Stakes. In China high stakes are meaningful most often to the individual. Starting very early students take tests that are critical for their advancement into the next level. There is a middle school test, high school etc. Each one of these has potentially dire implications for the student and his/her future path. The High Stakes for students and their family (pressure is intensified by the one child policy) create a need to comply. Parents relayed to us: "I do not always agree with the teacher  but I will not say anything because I fear there will be negative outcomes for my child." In the large classrooms (we saw elementary schools with 40-50 students) teachers cannot attend to all student needs. Each parent is keenly aware of the high stakes and the positive role the teacher can play, thus they do not want to rock the boat fearing that their students will be ignored or underserved.

In this case the impact of high stakes testing is a lost voice for students and parents who should be part of the conversation about education. This is not all one sided. This very same situation helped our efforts to integrate iPads into classroom instruction. Not all parents were in favor and a few worried about it but none resisted it This gave them an opportunity to see the impact on their students. After parents saw the impact they were decidedly positive. This is similar to the model Guskey suggested for teachers.
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