Zhao: Don’t follow the dragon

The U.S. shouldn’t try to “catch up” with China, argues Yong Zhao in  Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

 China’s test-obsessed, authoritarian schools aren’t a model, says Zhao, who was raised in China and is now a University of Oregon education professor.

Shanghai students ranked at the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, test twice in a row.

But the Chinese system “ignores children’s uniqueness, interests and passion, which results in homogenization,” Zhao tells the New York Times. “It forces them to spend almost all the time preparing for tests, leaving little time for social and physical activities.”

U.S. schools are following China’s example by becoming “more centralized, standardized and test-driven,” says Zhao.

Finnish schools “let down” two-thirds of students, according to Maarit Korhonen, a primary teacher. Those who aren’t academically minded and don’t do well on exams are “thrown away,” writes Korhonen in Herää, Koulu! (Wake Up, School!) There’s little to challenge the talented, she adds.

Finland’s top PISA scores have led to complacency, charges Korhonen.

Black bean burgers or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

Students are refusing to eat the new healthier lunches at Los Angeles schools, reports the LA Times. The black bean burgers, tostada salad and pears on the menu at Van Nuys High is “nasty, rotty stuff,” says Mayra Gutierrez, who lunches on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and soda instead.

Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

. . . Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they’re suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

With fewer students buying lunch, the district’s meal planners have decided to bring back hamburgers and pizza (whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese, low-sodium sauce) and eliminate unpopular dishes. No more lentil and brown rice cutlets or quinoa and black-eyed pea salads.The new meals were tested and approved by students in the summer, notes Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

Andre Jahchan, a 16-year-old sophomore at Esteban Torres High School, said the food was “super good” at the summer tasting at L.A. Unified’s central kitchen. But on campus, he said, the chicken pozole was watery, the vegetable tamale was burned and hard, and noodles were soggy.

“It’s nasty, nasty,” said Andre, a member of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. nonprofit working to improve school lunch access and quality. “No matter how healthy it is, if it’s not appetizing, people won’t eat it.”

It’s a lesson from the universe, writes McArdle: Promising pilot programs don’t always scale up.

In the testing phase, when the program was small, they were probably working with a small group of schools which had been specially chosen to participate. They did not have a sprawling supply chain to manage. The kids and the workers knew they were being studied. And they were asking the kids which food they liked–a question which, social science researchers will tell you, is highly likely to elicit the answer that they liked something.

Furthermore, it’s easier to cook a palatable meal for a dozen testers than to cook mass amounts on a modest budget.

. . . the things that make us fat are, by and large, also the things that are palatable when mass-produced. Bleached grains and processed fats have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce, and can take a hell of a lot more handling. Salt and sugar are delicious, but they are also preservatives that, among other things, disguise the flavor of stale food.

In response to complaints that salads with an Oct. 7 “best served by” date were served on Oct. 17, a manager said lettuce wasn’t actually rotten. Then the district removed the dates because they were “confusing.”

Nobody eats 10-day old lettuce voluntarily, writes McArdle.  The old mentality — “don’t poison anybody” — may still dominate the cafeteria staff, she speculates. “There isn’t much difference between Chicken nuggets that won’t poison you, and Chicken nuggets at their absolute peak of freshness.  And the employees just sort of assumed that the same set of rules would work for lettuce.”

Less money, more flexibility

California’s very belated budget gives less money to schools but more flexibility in how to spend the money, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Summer school. Art and music. Classes for gifted children.

Buying textbooks. Training math and English teachers. Tutoring students for the high school exit exam.

. . . In the budget deal crafted last week, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger combined many of the pots of money known as “categoricals.” The result is that for the next five years, principals and district administrators will have more spending flexibility than they’ve had in recent history.

One third of state education funding has been restricted by the Legislature, which feared school boards would sacrifice special programs to boost teacher salaries.

Money for buying new technology couldn’t be used to buy books for a library. Money for checking kids’ teeth couldn’t be spent on counseling. Money for training principals couldn’t be used to train a teacher.

Reformers have called for combining the categoricals for 20 years now. It took a crisis to make it happen. And, due to heavy pressure by the teachers’ union, class-size reduction wasn’t included.  A principal can’t choose to save the reading intervention program by increasing second-grade and third-grade classes to 25 students.

‘Place for learning’ days

British schools are dropping the s-word — “school” — in favor of “place for  learning” or “advanced learning centre,” reports the Times of London. Some secondary schools are renaming themselves “colleges” to sound “upmarket.”

Watercliffe Meadow in Sheffield, formed by merging three schools, is “a place for learning,” says head teacher Linda Kingdon.

. . . many of the parents of the children here had very negative connotations of school. Instead, we want this to a be a place for family learning, where anyone can come. . . . There are no whistles or bells or locked doors. We wanted to deinstitutionalise the place and bring the school closer to real life,” she said.

Under a government plan, all schools have till 2010 to provide year-round, full-day child care on site or nearby.  Schools also are supposed to offer evening and holiday classes for adults.

Here in the U.S., “academy” is the hot word, usually referring to a school for low-income students. I’d like to see more honesty in labeling: Let students choose between a school, a social center and penitentiary prep. I really think most would pick “school” if the choice was clear.

Tennessee tries single-sex classes

A Memphis high school credits separate classes for male and female students for a jump in test scores.

MEMPHIS — In “Romeo and Juliet,” the plot thickens along slightly different lines for male and female students at Booker T. Washington High.

For boys, the story advances in the fights between the Montagues and the Capulets; for girls, it’s the timeless love story.

. . . “Boys like nonfiction. They like gory, bloody stories. They like protagonists who look like them, sound like them and act like them,” (Principal Alisha Kiner) said. “We know from research that girls are more comfortable with other girls. That’s why we all go to the bathroom together.

“We’re not afraid to compete and share our opinions as we are when we are in rooms with boys.”

An all-girls’ charter school is opening in a low-income Chattanooga neighborhood for middle and high school students: Applicants must test below proficiency in math or reading or attend a low-performing school that’s failed to make progress.