Part 2: Comparing 2 Chinese public schools

In 2006, an LSU doctoral student named Shujie Liu wrote: School Effectiveness Research in China. Yesterday I shared her “good school” observation.

Guangming Elementary School: the Less Effective School

School Context. Guangming Elementary was located in a residential area. In front of the school, a road ran from north to south. Many cars passed by the campus, which made the campus noisy, and it was dangerous for the students to go across the road.

As visitors entered the main entrance, they could see the school’s motto of “Enterprising and factualistic!”

This is not a motto I am familiar with.

I added a street map photo.

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 8.31.22 AM.png

Principals. There was one principal and two vice principals. The principal was assigned to this school to be principal four years ago. During his four-year principalship in the school, the principal seldom communicated with teachers, because he did not believe that he could have much effect on the teachers’ ability to deliver effective classroom instruction. As a result, he rarely visited classrooms, except when a teacher did a district-level demonstration lesson.

The vice principal in charge of teaching, however, frequently visited classrooms since each semester the district educational department came to the school to see if the principal(s) observed a fixed number of classes as required that semester. After the classroom observations, he gave comments and suggestions for improvement.

I would love to know more about the actual quality of the comments and suggestions.

The principal spent most of his time making policies as well as handling some big events. For example, although the principal had no power to recruit formal teachers, he did have the power to hire substitute teachers. In this school, most of the young teachers graduated from a community college, and most of the senior teachers had previously been Minban21 teachers.

There was a story about these substitute teachers. In 2002, the county educational department sorted out quite a few unqualified formal teachers in the county urban schools and assigned them to rural schools. Since these teachers did not like to go to a rural school, a compromise policy was made: they paid the school they were assigned to 200.00 yuan each month, and the school used 130.00 yuan to hire a substitute teacher at the local level. These temporary teachers were less-educated: some of them had been housewives and had not even graduated from middle school.

When the county educational department assigned the teachers to Xiangyang Elementary (the good school), the principal refused to accept them. In contrast, the Guangming principal accepted the assigned teachers, probably because he did not want to oppose the department or because he considered that the school could gain RMB70.00 for each teacher.

I can’t tell if this example is meant to show that the bad school principal cares less or simply has less status and therefore more reason to fear the department.

Principals in American public schools have varying degrees of choice around teacher hiring. It depends on the local union contract.

One day the researchers heard a teacher crying and making a loud noise in a teachers’ office. Later they learned that it was the Banzhuren from grade two, class one whose class did not get the Excellent Class Award last year. She thought she was dedicated to managing her class for the past year, but she was not recognized by the school administration and her peers. The next day, she went to the principal and argued with him. A teacher told the researchers why she was not awarded: her teaching skills were not very good because she had formerly been a Minban teacher. When she took the examination for transferring to a formal teaching position, she failed it many times. Finally, she received a special transferal since she had worked at this school for so many years (i.e., the equivalent of a “grandfather” clause in the USA).

Often in other countries I’ve seen this issue: where even a top teacher (with actual students) faces professional challenges because of status based on training/university from years ago.

While that stuff affects hiring in American elementary schools, after hiring, it’s hard to imagine a teacher being denied awards based on which college she’d attended years ago.

Another big issue that the principal had to handle was student safety. A teacher told the researchers that one student bumped into the wall and fell while he walked in the hallway. As a result, he hurt himself such that his nose was bleeding. His parents came to school and wanted to hit the principal. They also planned to sue the school and the principal. In order to appease the situation, it was rumored that the principal paid the parents and thus solved the matter.

I wonder –

Did the student get bumped by another kid, or just randomly fell?

Where did the money come from to pay the parents?

The school academic teaching plans, as well as staff development plans, were generally decided by the principal. For example, “He decided who had the rare opportunity to visit other schools or attend workshops. We don’t have the power,” a teacher told the researchers. It seemed that the faculty played a small role in the school’s decision making. Most often, the school administration (principal and vice principals) made decisions, and teachers then voted on them (e.g., the excellent teaching award). The teachers never knew how many votes each teacher received in the “election”. Therefore, teachers were not really interested in such participating in such events. “It does not matter whether to participate or not. We do not like to express our opinions even if we disagree. Teachers are used to obedience. It seems we can tolerate everything although sometimes we talk with peers about some problems,” a senior teacher said.

The “vibe” of faculty meetings in American schools if often quite different and less “obedient,” in my observation.

Teachers. An ideal teacher at this school was described as someone who was a moral model for students, had a good relationship with others, had strong professional skills, and liked continuing in-service learning. In reality, a teacher whose students’ test scores were high was regarded as excellent. Some teachers told the researchers that students’ test scores were very important in teacher evaluation, constituting 80% or so. In addition, the school organized competitions of teaching skills, and those results were also important. Above all, the principal’s impression of a teacher and the teacher’s network of relationships were crucial in that teacher’s evaluation.

For a Banzhuren, how well he/she managed the class was another evaluation indicator. The new curriculum reform had not changed the approach to teacher evaluation very much in this school. Therefore, “teaching to the test” was still popular. As one teacher said, “I believe that as students’ abilities improve, their test scores will naturally increase. So, in my daily English teaching, I pay attention to cultivate students’ abilities. However, I still “teach to the test” because my students’ test scores are important for me.”

A senior teacher told the researchers that several years ago teachers in this school did not care much about their students’ test scores. If the students’ scores were good, the teacher gave the school administration a good impression. Now, the county teaching research center randomly sampled students to take the uniform examination each semester, and the results were used to compare schools. “Since no one knows whose class will be sampled, all the teachers are nervous, because if your class is selected, and the results are not good, the principal will criticize you,” the teacher said with a sigh.

Pursuit of good test scores made knowledge mastery the teaching focus in the school. Using a uniform teaching plan for each grade (which was based on the school plan that the vice principal in charge of teaching made according to a general plan from the county teaching research center), teachers paid more attention to the key points of knowledge to prepare students for tests. “I know hands-on activities are good for students, and I should focus on both knowledge delivery and cultivation of abilities. However, knowledge mastery is the first in an exam-driven environment,” one teacher argued.

The programs of staff development at the school also included:

(1) sending teachers, especially young teachers, to visit the key schools in the county to learn excellent teaching skills. But no one had been to Changchun for a visit since travel was so expensive that the school could not afford it;

(2) competing with other teachers by demonstration lessons; and

(3) reading some journals such as Jilin Education and Continuing Education to enrich their knowledge.

Regarding their opinions of the staff development program, most teachers wanted more opportunities to learn something new. A senior teacher said, “I hope the school could buy some excellent teaching videos for us to watch since senior teachers like me do not have opportunities to go out to visit good schools.”

I wonder how much this has changed since 2006. The teachers all have smart phones and presumably now have unlimited access to teaching videos. I am skeptical that they watch very many videos, even with access. Which is one reason I generally wonder about the vein of research based on teacher interviews; I prefer the “direct observation” of what is actually happening with students in their classes. What follows are the observations of classes themselves:

In addition to listening to voices of the teachers, the researchers also observed what happened in the classrooms. First, in several classes, the students sitting at the back of the class did not follow the teachers. They either played with something in their hands like a pen and a rubber, or squatted under the desk playing games with their neighbors, or slept, but the teachers seemed to ignore them. The researchers were told that if a teacher “gave up” on students who did not like studying or who did not study well, the teacher would just put these students in the back of the classroom. If they did not interrupt the class teaching, the teacher was no longer concerned about them. The researchers observed this “student in the back of the classroom” phenomenon several times in Guangming Elementary.

Second, quite a few teachers did not have good teaching skills. In two English classes, the researchers found that the teachers could not pronounce English correctly and fluently; therefore, the students did not pronounce English well either. After talking with a teacher, the researchers learned that these English teachers graduated from a community college without English training. The researchers thought that teachers with such backgrounds should let the class spend more time listening to American English tapes.

In a fifth grade math class, the pace was too fast. For instance, a researcher felt that not all of the students had understood the example, but the teacher moved the class on to next step of doing exercises. The researchers also found that two teachers were lowering their heads and reading the reference when explaining the main idea of a text. Since the teachers did not explain the text in their own language, it sounded abrupt and not fluent. As a result, the researchers doubted that the students could understand it.

I wonder if the teacher feedback, described earlier, includes these sorts of obvious comments: “Include all the students, perhaps seat the strugglers up front.” I suspect not.

Teachers at this school were also very strict with students. In the third grade Chinese language class, the teacher asked a question, then the students were asked to stand up and answer it one by one and to keep standing until the correct answer was forthcoming. In a fourth grade Chinese language class, when a student could not answer a question, the teacher criticized him: “I told you to preview the text before class, why didn’t you do it?”

The researchers found that students did not pay attention to other subjects like Moral Education and Psychology. In these classes, the researchers discerned a kind of lackadaisical atmosphere. Generally, only one third of the students did what the teacher required.

The same is true in Africa with required classes in religion. They are seen by kids and adults as quasi-breaks.

Except for the morning exercise, students were not required to go outside during breaks, including lunch time. Some of them liked to stay in the classroom studying, chatting, or eating in an unsupervised setting. For lunch, students could order food, or they could buy snacks in the school grocery store.

There were clearly stated discipline policies. For example, the school had detailed rules for students putting trash in a designated place. Nevertheless, trash was still littered everywhere around the school grocery store, which was run by a relative of the principal. Teachers told the researchers that there were quite a few students in each class who misbehaved because they were the only child of the family, and thus their parents spoiled them. Some of the students were defiant when they were criticized by teachers due to misbehavior.

Again, the teacher narrative doesn’t seem plausible. Most Chinese kids are obviously the only child in the family. Yet many Chinese schools don’t have trash everywhere.

There were a discipline coordinator and several teachers in charge of student discipline. If a student was caught breaking rules, points were deducted from his/her class. Generally, if students presented discipline problems, they were sent to the Banzhuren, who could solve most problems. If the problems were serious, parents were called. If the problems still could not be solved, the school discipline coordinator or the principal would handle them personally.

Not many students paid attention to their test scores. A teacher told the researcher that for most students test scores did not matter. This teacher thought that students’ attitudes to their studies were related to their parents’ attitudes and expectations. Not many parents at this school were said to pay attention to their children’s schooling. Some of them were so busy working on the field that they could not go to the school even if they were asked to, while some did not have high expectations of their children. “I do not expect my child to go to college. If only she can read a little, that’s fine,” a parent told a teacher. For some other parents, they said they supported their children’s study, but they did nothing. For example, they did not supervise their children’s homework.

Generally true around the world. Poorer parents have lower expectations. Intermingling of cause and effect.

Generally, teachers in this school were happy having a job there, but had few other positive feelings about the school. As one teacher said, “I am glad that I have a job so that I don’t need to work in the field to do the dirty and exhausting work as a farmer. But I have no feelings about the school, and I am used to obedience.”

Students and their parents did not record many comments about the school. The three worst things about the school that students listed were (1) teaching equipment was lacking; (2) in winter, there was no heating system, and the classroom was cold; and (3) some students often cursed and fought each other.

Maselow’s Pyramid.

One thought on “Part 2: Comparing 2 Chinese public schools

  1. Pingback: Housekeeping 2 – New School In China

Comments are closed.