Facing the Gaokao

By Dana C. Lamb

Magazines haven’t changed much in the twenty years I’ve been buying magazines to read on flights (which, by the way, is the only time I buy magazines). The covers are still variations on the same themes – improve my cooking, beautify and organize my home, tighten and tone, inform myself on the woes of the world, or take a peek into the lives of the rich and ridiculous. As I stood in Hartsfield Jackson in Atlanta on Friday night, I almost fell over when Newsweek’s cover stated “Lessons From the World’s Best Public School.” I immediately picked it up and put it on the counter. $8.00 later (can you believe $8.00???) I was at my gate and couldn’t wait to read the article. Researching for this blog, I happily found the article for free online and have shared the link with you below. You’re welcome.

Honestly, I was not stunned by the premises within the article. First, on a global scale, what is considered the epitome of public schools was not in the United States. How could it be? We’re currently ranked 27th and falling. The school system Burningham highlighted in his article was in Shanghai. Furthermore, as the general Western stereotype upholds, Asian education is far more rigorous and demanding than American education. Burningham also points out that educational solvency is inextricably linked to economic solvency, coincidentally a platform that Muzart has been speaking out rather loudly about for well over a year. But the at the core of what makes Shanghai public schools better than American public schools is the ranking on the OECD exam that ranks leaders in education on a global scale. Shanghai did exceptionally well which, I would surmise, is why Burningham wrote the article. If you are not aware, the purpose of the OECD is to promote policies that support economic and social well-being around the world, and one of the most meaningful ways that they quantify our global existence is through educational testing.

What makes Shanghai the brass ring of public education? In a nutshell, it’s a matter of priority within the culture. In the east, it is celebrated to seek intelligence and thrive in an academic environment, to be considered “nerds.” Consequently, this “nerd” designation in western culture is fodder for mocking and pretty much guarantees one’s unpopularity. Students in Shanghai believe that if they work hard and get educated, they will be able to be productive citizens and have good jobs when they graduate. Fortunately for them, China is in a much stronger position economically to guarantee those opportunities to her rising graduates compared to her American equivalents. Shanghai is not perfect, but obviously they’re doing a little more right. Feel free to follow the hyperlink to read more about public schools in Shanghai: http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/09/shanghai-high-confidential-249224.html.

As I sat all scrunched in 14B, I started to consider the social capital known as “nerdism” as it exists both in the east and the west. Then, a light bulb went off in my mind about how, last week, I just highlighted the tenet that “success is not an accident.” So, isn’t the conclusion rather obvious? The reason why Shanghai students are excelling compared to their American competitors is because they know that academic success, or any other success, is not an accident. Students in Shanghai plan to succeed and then work an unholy amount of hours to attain their goals. Not only are major tests looming on their horizons, but the meaning of those tests have far different significance in their educational system and in their culture compared to our standardized tests in the United States. In Shanghai, getting a high score on a massive exam is the opening of a doorway to future potential and opportunity. In the United States, getting a high score on a massive exam is a lot less like launching off the starting block and a lot more like the ribbon breaking across one’s chest.

This is the part of my blog where I would normally be delicate but intentional, and most certainly inspirational about the words I choose. The purpose of my blog is never to incite debate at any heated level, but rather to inform and encourage change. However, sometimes change is effected when someone gets uncomfortable enough to reprioritize and give attention to the corrected priorities, or in essence, to start strategically planning for success. Obviously, there are exceptions to what I am about to say as I, too, was an exception as I pursued classical piano competitions. Gentle reader, please know that for the purposes of the next paragraph, I am writing in broadbrush generalities.

Here are my thoughts: Why do we moan that our educational system is so broken and our students are not achieving as high as students around the world, yet the average parent thinks an hour of homework is ridiculous for their middle schooler because it interferes with their extracurricular activities and/or their social life? Why do we put more emphasis on our children’s non-school competitions/events outside of school, driving hours to these competitions/events for months and weeks on end and paying exorbitant amounts of money (and then complaining about the cost), but panic the week before standardized tests and start rolling back bedtimes and increasing study time until the storm known as the standardized testing window passes? Why do we allow our kids to grow up faster than their own natural maturity, exposing them to far too much that contributes absolutely nothing toward nourishing their future in any way, shape, or form? What does it say to you that more high school kids could teach you how to twerk, or how not to twerk, than they could explain the basic ideas of trigonometry? Aren’t you the least bit concerned that we would rather quantify our short-term fame on Instagram and Facebook by how many “likes” or “friends” we have when we should be quantifying the long-term value of high grade point averages, not just for our children but for our country? Why aren’t we showing unwavering support toward the legion of highly-qualified educators that choose to return to the classroom day after day, year after year, as competent dedicated adults that were trained to shape today’s thinkers, who, by the way, are tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s visionaries, and even tomorrow’s teachers? In addition, why aren’t we rallying around our administrators who are stretched beyond limits and who, despite the eroding salary and benefits, still show up as passionate as ever and committed to education, safety, and well-being of every single student within their walls? What if administrators were trusted implicitly to lead, and teachers were holistically trusted to teach, with far less interference from those legislators that think they understand education, but have truly done nothing more than toured a classroom once upon a time for the purposes a pre-election press release? Could you imagine if our collective school culture was radically reprioritized so that the nerds were the ones walking the halls with the palpable swagger? What couldn’t we accomplish if the single most important priority of every kid in America under eighteen, with unconditional support of those closest to them, was not to get the next high score in today’s latest video game or the first kid with the newest techy-gadget, but to get the education that best fit them (e.g., public, private, magnet, charter, vocational, performing arts, etc.)? Is all of this really so utopian and far-fetched? No, I don’t think so.

Sooner or later every student in Shanghai faces the gaokao which is the ultimate test – the one that decides their future as it is the single benchmark for college acceptance. According to Burningham, it’s the SAT X 100. Metaphorically, we all face the gaokao sooner or later. Right now, American public education is undeniably toe-to-toe with the gaokao. But we have to remember that success is not an accident, and in order to be successful, we must plan every critical step and work toward excellence in each of those steps. And sometimes, this requires a redefinition of culture, of priority, and of necessity. It’s not easy, but preparing to win against the gaokao requires everything we have, plus more of the stuff we didn’t know we had. But if you are old enough, or wise enough, you know that any success worth achieving is not the one that comes easiest. Personally, I don’t want what I can have tomorrow; I want what is just enough out of reach to be amazing, but still close enough to be attainable. As the students in Shanghai will tell you, the only way to overcome the gaokao is to prepare, to train, to put in the time required in order to prove one’s competency over the competition because in order to truly overcome the gaokao, one’s success cannot be left to chance.

America, we are facing our gaokao. What are we going to do about it?

About Dana Lamb

Dana C. Lamb is not your typical musician. By day, she is a devoted music educator in an Atlanta suburb and is passionate about preserving and maintaining music education in the public schools. She has won Teacher of the Year, is a Grammy nominated music educator, and directs the Educational Advisory Committee for the Muzart World Foundation, most recently giving a speech to over 21,000 in Salt Lake City about the importance of public school music education. In addition to her teaching career, she is a successful professional songwriter. Her song “You Should Dream” hit #5 on iTunes country chart, #7 on Billboard County Crossover album with The Texas Tenors (the most successful vocal group to come from America’s Got Talent), and is the name of the nationwide PBS special that is in a three-year rotation in over 200 markets in the United States. If you wish to contact Dana, she can be reached at dlambsongwriter@gmail.com.
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